The Gatsby Woman
During the 1920s, '30s and '40s there were clothes for specific times of the day, and specific rules for seasons. Dress rules were observed by nearly everyone; exceptions (artists, anarchists, intellectuals, or shocking debutantes) were remarked upon.
Etiquette books described appropriate dress for business, travel, church, shopping, tea, garden party, dinner, theater, opera or balls. The Gatsby falls into the "garden party" category, much like an elegant garden wedding nowadays.
Women's Summer Day Dresses
In 1920 American women got the vote and somehow lost their corsets in the process. Hair became short and the female form flat. While the skirts had many shapes the torso remained flat chested throughout the decade. In the 30s the form changed to a more natural shape as Erte shows us in this image.
The silhouette obviously did not change overnight. The transition started in the late twenties and was complete by 1931.
Let's take a look at these shapes as fashion plates:
In the 20s the belt, the "waist" and most of the design emphasis is dropped to the hip, the skirt is shorter (but below the knee), and the bust is flat.
Even though this image shows two different illustration styles, it's a good representation of construction differences. The 20s tend to be straight-forward in construction and have just what is necessary to keep the dress on the body and execute the design.
30s clothing was pieced fabric together in extraordinary ways and often used seams and stitching as embellishment. The 30s also brought soft curves from the bust to a natural waist that was often belted. The look is tailored and close to the body. In 1929 when the Great Depression began, morals tightened and hemlines dropped.
There is a persistent myth that dresses in the 20s were very short. By the standards of the day they were; by our 21st century standards they are positively prim and AT LEAST an inch below the knee. In the mid-20s there was a very brief period when young women shocked society with hems just above the knee for evening wear.
Did they really care that much about hem lines? Absolutely. Women were barely out of corsets and their grandmothers were raised with Victorian ideals. Women had dresses for morning, afternoon, and evening. For the Gatsby Summer Afternoon we are wearing "casual" picnic dresses to formal garden party frocks. The difference? Fabric and fussiness.
The following images illustrate what would qualify as casual, standard and dressy for a summer outing. Casual in the 20s and 30s meant fabrics appropriate for play, simple embellishments, even the very occasional skirt and top (coordinated by a scarf of course). In other words, close to what many Americans wear to a casual office today, just in period styles. Ladies rarely wear pants unless engaged in a particular sport (tennis, riding, shooting).
Below we have standard day dresses for warm weather. The ladies on the left are from the early 20s. You can tell by the pointy shoes and the simple lines of the dresses. In both the 20s and 30s a lady would never go out without a hat.
Finally, below, we have the tea gown, tea frock, or garden party dress. All which is another way to say daytime formal, equivalent to a daytime wedding today. If you have been invited to picnic with Jay Gatsby and you wanted to make a good impression, you might just don the chiffon and frills.
The classic summer dress or tea gown is a overdress of translucent fabric like silk chiffon or organdy with a plain slip-like underdress.
In the 20s and 30s the most commonly used fabrics were cotton, wool, silk and the newly created rayon (also called artificial silk). For summer dresses lightweight cotton, silk and rayon with matte (non-shiny) finishes are the way to go. When thinking of fabrics you can't go wrong with the classics: solids, stripes, polka dots, simple geometrics, and florals.
There was a great deal of experimentation with prints; most notably artist Raoul Dufy lent his skills to French designer Poiret and others. We have some samples below, but be sure you really know your fabrics before you try to hit this mark.
Fabric Samples from the 1920s
The same admonition goes with ethnic prints as well. In the 20s designers played with many ethnic designs using saris or burnooses as fabric sources to a near obsession with anything "oriental." It's tricky and not recommended for the beginner.
This era pre-dates florescent dyes, lycra and anything polyester. That said, they are doing some marvelous things in polyester now, so if it looks right go for it, but understand that polyester does not breathe like silk, cotton or rayon and it can get hot on a September afternoon.
Fabrics for Gatsby
- Stripes, polka dots, and simple geometrics
- Pastels and light tones
- Patterns à la Raoul Dufy
- Tie dye
- Hawaiian or batik - unless you've traveled there in the 20s/30s which was unusual.
- Dark, heavy tones
- Any pattern with text
- Denim or chambray
* About shiny fabrics like satin and charmuese: they were used for daywear but it takes an expert to get the look right so proceed with great caution
Gatsby Dress for Women
- Dropped Waist
- Light, soft natural fabrics (silk, georgette, chiffon)
- Hem just below knee (longer for early '20s)
- Soft colors, pastels, muted prints
- Cloche or cloche brim hat
- Seamed hose, tights
- Hose rolled at knee
- Neat grooming
- Accessories: shawls, clutch bag, parasols, wrapped head scarves
- Shoes: Lower heeled pumps, louis heels, small strap
- Try a "character shoe" from a dance shop
- TIP: Don't ruin your vintage shoes on the lawn; bring modern backups for walking
- Long hair: pulled back into knot at neck, marcelled into waves around face
- Shorter hair: curled like Clara Bow, or straight bob with bangs
- Evening wear, beaded gowns
- The "Untouchables" look -- fringed poly shift & feather boa
- Sequined headband
- Fishnets, jet black hose
- Bra straps showing
- Cell phones, water bottles
- Sandals, bare legs
- Spike heels, pointed toes
- Fat rubber wide soles
- Long flowing hair was for little girls only
- Perky Meg Ryan flips
1930s Women and Beyond
The "Gatsby Look" favored by many women is the wide, often asymmetric brimmed hat and soft, long, drapey, bias-cut gowns of 1929 through the mid-'30s.
If you are a '40s gal, stick to the early '40s. Think Ingrid Bergman--subtle, natural, softly curled hair--not Joan Crawford with padded shoulders, dramatic makeup.
Advanced Looks: Not for First-Timers
If you've been to Gatsby before, have the look down, can do a finger wave, then you might be ready for something daring... the '20s boyish look, or a wonderful deco dandy, or all-out Chinoiserie. Gents might consider "plus fours" with smashing knee socks and cap.