The slim silhouette and lighter style of dresses in the twenties also had a dramatic effect on women’s 1920s lingerie. In the 1900s a woman would wear drawers/bloomers, chemise, corset, corset cover, and several petticoats underneath her dress. Up 11 layers of lingerie was put on a well to do lady. By the end of the 1920s, a thin woman could only wear a brassier with a teddy and be sufficiently dressed in lingerie.
Lingerie fabric choices included cottons and silks in the form of satin, pongee, shantung, crepe de chine and silk glove. Artificial silk, called Rayon, was a good middle class choice of fabric. Rayon is easy to dye so new colors of peach, pink, pastel green, and flesh were available instead of just white. Rayon breathed well and was considered very sanitary (a new concern for all in the twenties.) In the second half of the decade printed fabrics were becoming trendy. Dainty decorations like lace, applique, embroidery and ribbon flowers were added to lingerie. The underwear had to be as pretty as the outerwear.
The year, season, styles of outer garments and a woman’s body type determined which lingerie items a woman wore. Thin women could get away with less while curvy woman had to create the illusion of thinness with a few layers.
It is important to understand right off the bat that corsets were still worn into the 1920s and beyond. Older women still preferred the traditional lace-up boned corset. However, sales of the corset declined as younger women chose the brassiere/corset combination of the corselet. The corselet had side fasteners, shoulder straps, and long elastic panels, all of which combined to obliterate any curves that might disrupt the silhouette of a flat, straight, 1920s-era dress. Pretty camisoles of linen or silk were worn to cover the corset or corselet hiding any bumps and lines made by the corselet. Camisoles were loose sleeveless tops, drawn into the waist with a ribbon or elastic.
Between 1920 and 1928, corset sales declined by two thirds, but corsets makers adapted to changing needs. Long corsets produced the boyish figure, but instead of thick boned corsets many women preferred thin elastic “Lastix” girdles that flattened the abdomen. They squished flesh into a tubular shape, all the way from under the bust down over the hip. A heavy duty corset had a girdle on the inside and a longer corset on the outside. Long corsets made walking a slow stiff gliding motion.
Fast flappers refused to wear corsets. “The men won’t dance with you if you wear a corset” cried the young flappers. Many dance establishments included “corset check rooms,” where girls who had to leave home wearing a corset could remove it during the dance. Only unconfined flappers could run, dance, and drive cars in comfort.
The function of the brassiere throughout most of the decade was to flatten, not enhance, the breasts. Bust flattening garments were usually made from cotton, did not have cups, and were worn tight against the body. A linen or silk bandeau/bust bodice/bust confiner that had elastic in the back and fastened on the sides could also function as a 1920s brassiere. A buxom woman’s bandeau was made of heavier twill cotton or brocade and had longer lengths. Many adopted the Symington Side Lacer, a bra that could be laced at both sides and pulled in to flatten the chest. Strapping the “girls” down had negative effects on them. Many women into the thirties and beyond said their breasts never came back to their previous perky life. As the decade came to an end, more women began to wear bras with cups that were designed to life and separate, courtesy of the Maiden Form Brassiere Company.
Knickers or Bloomers
What we would simply call underwear or panties today were called knickers or bloomers in the 20s. The material became lighter and less bulky with crepe de chine being very popular, along with silk and cotton. Knickers typically had an elastic waist and knee caps. They came in nude, peach, and pink colors. The cami-knickers / cami-bloomers, combining the camisole and knickers, were popular with women who liked all-in-one undergarments. Notice how loose they fit? The tight fitting men’s style briefs didn’t come into play until much later- one of the few fashions women did NOT borrow from men in the 1920s.
Step Ins Drawers
Woven cotton or silk bloomers, drawers, and french panties were baggier and longer than knickers, falling to the knee or perhaps just above. Drawers and bloomers are basically the same with the primary difference being that drawers have a wide leg opening and bloomers have an elastic leg opening. Of course, neither of these options were good for the iconic 20s beaded dress so in that case, a silk step-in chemise was the best option. Step-ins had pointed waist yokes that were cut on the straight of fabric while the side pieces were cut on the bias allowing fabric to fall in graceful fluted folds. They were about as far away from a corset as you can get complete with a button or snap crotch and were intended to be worn next to the skin.
For winter these light chemise or step-ins were too light. Cotton or wool union suits (long johns) were still worn, however, the legs and arms were cut shorter to accommodate shorter hem and sleeve lengths. They still had back flaps buttoned or snapped into place.
Slips served the same purpose then as they do now. They were a necessity under sheer dresses. Many dresses came with matching slips that prevented light from being visible through the see through fabric of the dress. These shadow proof slips fell straight on the body but had additional pleats at the hips for ease of movement. They had low “opera” necklines meaning square with pretty ribbon, self fabric or lace straps. The slippery material was good for keeping the dress form clinging to the body but bad for the straps staying in place. Clips or pins on the inside fasted the slip to the dress.
Petticoats that fell to the calf were worn in the earlier part of the decade, but as hemlines rose, women stopped wearing the petticoat. The petticoat made a comeback near the end of the decade, as it was fashionable to wear more than one under a chiffon dress.
Slips and petticoats were never supposed to show below the dress hemline. If you saw your friend with an exposed undergarment you might say “Hey, it’s snowing down south” and she would quickly run off to fix it. This phrase lasted well into the 1960s when dresses stopped being worn as often.
Lingerie Tips for Today
The proper undergarments will do wonders in creating the right 20’s silhouette. You can wear vintage lingerie or make do with some modern options:
Bra- A sports bra or strapless non-padded bra will give you a flattening effect. I hear some women have used elastic first aid bandages to tape the girls down- just don’t tape them too tight.
Slip- Nearly any modern slip will work for you as long as the cut of it doesn’t show under your dress. Most modern slips are V neck which show more than the 20’s square neck. You can make one too very easily. ALWAYS wear a slip under your dress, skirt or blouse. If your dress clings to your every curve it is too small- get a bigger size dress.
Corset/ girdle- This is the toughest part to recreate. Costume corsets or mid century girdles wont create that long line corset that worked magic in the 20’s. You next best option is to wear a full body shaper (one that combines a tank top and shorts/skirt into one.) Spanx nylons help too or at the very least a “slimming effect” tank top and slimming high wait panties. One of these combined with a flattening bra and a slip will give you a pretty good 20s silhouette.
Nightgowns and Pajamas
Sleep clothes aren’t too different than most of the vintage 20th century styles. Women either wore a nightgown or the newer two piece pajamas.
Nightgowns were long ankle length pull over gowns with pretty embroidery and square lace necklines. Winter versions could be made of flannel in a multitude of colorful plaids and patterns.
Pajamas Suits were a favorite in summer with a sleeveless V neck tunic over wide leg loose pants. Silk, rayon, cotton fabric in pastels colors were common. Red and black were an Asian inspired trend. They had lots of embroidery with floral butterflies and dragon patterns.
One style that was popular since the 1910 was the Billie Burke. It looked like a one piece jumpsuit. It had elastic a few inches above the ankles creating a ruffle cuff.
Robes- oh where to begin. There was a robe for every kind of activity at home, every season, every wealth class.
The lounging robe came in similar styles for both men and women. They had large shawl collars, big patch pockets, wide cuffs, and self fabric sashes. Lighter satin material for summer with a cord tie or heavy blanket cloth in winter with self fabric tie. Corduroy, velvet, and cotton were other winter fabrics. Silk robes looked like a men’s smoking jacket and in fact women preferred just to wear a mans jacket rather than a woman’s version. Outside of the home a lounging robe was very comfortable and modest attire for a long train ride.
While house lounging robes were practical, the negligee was for showing off in company. Also called hostess coats they were long silk robes in pink, powder blue or peach trimmed with fluffy ruffles, ruching, silk fringe, lace, fur, ostrich feathers, and ribbon flowers. They were very popular items for movie stars to wear on and off set.
While entertaining friends at home, Kimonos and Coolie coats were worn while playing Chinese mahjong. They also were also popular as beach robes. Richly decorated Asian motifs, floral, bamboo and birds decorated the back, shawls and kimono sleeves. Red was the trendiest color followed by black. They were a carry over style from the teens- getting shorter for the 20’s.
Dressing Gowns and Bed Caps
A robe was worn over night clothes or a dress if entertaining guests. In the bedroom half length dressing sack’s called combing sacques were a luxury item women wore while sitting at their vanity. Something had to be worn to protect clothing from all the loose face powder and rouge makeup!
When hair setting was complete, the silk or lace Boudoir cap protected hair from unraveling and frizzing over night. In the morning they acted as a cover up to unkempt hair until a woman had time to redress her finger waves. Bandeaus did the same job but were a single wrap of fabric around the head. A hairstyle was meant to last a few days and the bed caps were essential to making that happen.
Tip: If you ever have to sleep in pin curls or finger waves to get your hair to set always wrap your head in a silk scarf- not artificial silk- real silk. It is amazing how neat your hair will still be in the morning.