Fashion history in gaming: the implications of flappers


Sue Savage

Over on the Good Friends of Jackson Elias discord server, a discussion about the Call of Cthulhu first edition cover art lead to some jokes about bras. Nothing inappropriate, I'm glad to say, but it did make me realise that a people playing RPGs in historical settings don't necessarily know much about the fashions of the times. Fashion history might initially seem like a frivolous subject compared to things like war and civil rights, but once you start to dig in, it goes deeper than you'd think.

I'm not a fashion historian, just an interested amateur who loves dressing up, but the 1920s is one period I have looked into for costuming purposes, so here's my introduction to women's fashion in the 1920s.

But first, let's take a look at this bastard.

The corset, that is, not the woman inside it.

For decades, corsets had been squeezing women into whatever the fashionable shape of the moment was, and towards the end of the Victorian era, some people were starting to think that maybe compressing all your internal organs into the smallest space possible might not be completely healthy. This was a proposed solution - the S-bend corset. The straight front was intended to put less pressure on the organs and allow for easier breathing. However, given that this woman's back is bent like a comic book superheroine, you won't be surprised to hear it turned out to have problems all of its own.

In normal wear, rather than this posed underwear shot, it wasn't quite that extreme. However, looking at photos of women in the early 20th century, the shape is quite distinctive - bosoms were large, hips were broad, and waists were tiny. The Gibson Girl was the personification of feminine attractiveness, and she combined this torso shape with hair piled up in soft curls.

But the world changed a bit between 1910 and 1920. Between WW1, the Spanish Flu and women finally getting the vote, women did not want to be Gibson Girls any more. They rebelled. Hard.

Let's start at the top. No fluffy curls here. The hair is cut short and severe, and the wide brimmed hat is ditched in favour of the close fitting cloche.

Moving down, there's no large bosom. In fact, their chests are almost flat. Never mind femininity and maternal ideals - the boyish figure is in, and the bras they wear wear reflect that. There are no underwires, and barely any elastication. They could be wearing a simple camisole, provising basically no support, or a bandeau intended to compress and flatten the breasts, more like a modern sports bra, or even a binder.

Move down a little further to the waist - or rather, past the waist, as the corset is in the bin and there's no emphasis on the natural waistline. These dresses have dropped waistlines, which combine with the flattened chest to give an overall rectangular shape. Again, the aim is for boyish rather than feminine. The long unstructured jackets they wear serve to further emphasis the straight vertical shape.

And finally the hemline, sitting just below the knee rather than the ankle. No more hiding legs behind long skirts - they were out on display for all to see.

With their rejection of conventional femininity, adoption of male habits like drinking and smoking, and all round outrageous behaviour, flappers were the punks of their time.

Not all women were flappers, of course, and by the 1930s things had softened somewhat, with waistlines back at the waist and bras no longer flattening the chest. But there were lasting changes, corsets being one of the biggest. They have made a recent reappearance as occasion wear, but as routine underwear they've never come back.

If you're playing a game set in the 1920s, it's useful to know how the clothing people wore tied into politics and society, and that the choice to wear a drop waist can mean a lot more than it might appear

And on a purely practical note, that you're going to have to look elsewhere for an improvised lock pick.

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