• 1920s: Photography and fashion in the ‘Roaring Twenties’

    In our series of blogs on ‘dating photography from fashion’, we have reached the 1920s.

    The conclusion of World War 1 and the Spanish Flu pandemic meant this was a decade of relative economic prosperity. Social customs and morals were relaxed in a wave of optimism, and women were entering the workforce in record numbers.

    Reflecting the era’s social, artistic and cultural dynamism, the decade is known as the 'Roaring Twenties'. Jazz music sparked the need to dance, and dance sparked the need for appropriate clothing – particularly for women. Men also abandoned highly formal daily attire and even began to wear athletic clothing for the first time. Children’s clothes became more stylish and comfortable, too.

    Great strides were also made in terms of photography and cameras in the 1920s. Single lens reflex (SLR) technology enabled the photographer to view an image as it will appear on film before the shot is taken. Kodak created many widely used pieces of photographic equipment and, in 1927, General Electric invented the modern flash bulb. As a result, many family historians have a comprehensive record of this decade. Of course, this was also the decade of the first motion pictures.

    So, let’s take a closer look at the fashions.


    In this decade, the development of new fabrics such as rayon (a silk substitute) and new means of fastening clothing (metal hooks and eyes) had an impact on women’s fashion. And the use of mannequins became widespread, showing shoppers how to combine and accessorise the new fashions – which were all about ‘letting loose’.

    Day dresses had a dropped waist and a pleated or tiered skirt that hung anywhere from the ankle up to the knee, with sleeves that were long to mid-bicep. Hair was often bobbed, giving a boyish look, and the Cloche hat was a key accessory, sitting snugly over the new hairstyle. Take this image of my great aunt Irene. From the above description, it’s easy to name the decade. (It was actually taken in 1927, and the dog’s name is ‘Chum’, according to my grandmother’s pencilled note on the back!)

    Shorter skirts meant that shoes were finally visible – and women needed different shoes for different events, giving rise to the shoe market as we know it today. The ‘bar’ shoe, which fastened with a strap and a single button, was particularly popular for dancing.

    For evening wear, the term "cocktail dress" was coined, which was typically slightly longer than the day dress, in satin or velvet, and embellished with beads or a fringe. And makeup became popular for women, particularly for evenings and events, where the look was a smokey eye with long lashes, rosy cheeks and a bold lip – no doubt as a result of the first ‘walkie, talkie’ films. Both women and men looked to emulate movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino as their fashion icons.



    The suits men wear today are still based on those worn in the late 1920s. The early part of the decade was characterised by extremely high-waisted jackets, often worn with belts. Lapels on suit jackets were not very wide as they tended to be buttoned up high. Trousers were relatively narrow and straight, worn rather short and sometimes cuffed at the bottom. By 1925, however, wider trousers commonly known as ‘Oxford bags’ came into fashion (as sported by my grandfather in the photograph below), while suit jackets returned to a normal waist and lapels became wider and were often worn peaked.

    For formal occasions in the daytime, a morning suit was usually worn, but the short tuxedo was preferred for evening wear. Sporting clothes included sweaters and short trousers.

    Men's hats were usually worn depending on their class: a top hat or homburg hat for the upper classes; and a fedora, bowler or trilby hat for the middle classes. During the summer months, a straw boater was popular for both. Working-class men wore a standard flat cap, all year round.


    Fashion for children started to become more stylish and comfortable in the 1920s. Clothes were made out of cotton and wool rather than silk, lace, and velvet. Clothes were also made more sturdy to withstand play, and minimal layers became the new standard.

    Dresses and skirts for girls became looser and shorter (knee length), and shoes were made out of canvas, making them lighter and easier to wear. For boys, knee-length trousers were worn all year long, accompanied by ankle socks and canvas shoes, with pullovers and cardigans when the weather turned cold.

    Next time, we’ll look at the 1930s: a decade in which the fashions of the late 1920s lingered, but were then impacted by the Great Depression, leading to more conservative styles.

  • 1910s: Disappearing Corsets, Healthy Fashion and Feminism

    In our series of blogs on ‘dating photography from fashion’, we have reached the 1910s. This decade can be divided into two main periods: before the war and during the war. 

    The war in question was World War I, of course; but let’s focus on the fashion...

    At the start of the decade for women’s fashion, the S-curve of the 1900s softened, although it was still focused on the top half of the body. As the decade progressed, the straight skirts of the earlier years of the 20th century started to taper in at the bottom. Some of these were so tight it made it difficult for the wearer to walk! They were often worn with tunics or jackets over the top.

    Other than this there were some new fashions that came into being – one of which was wide-brimmed, stylish hats. These were embellished with feathers, ribbons, veils or other decorative features.

    Women’s boots with high, curved heels resembling men’s church shoes, but in a feminine style, became popular. They commonly had a rounder shape, or bows, with slimmer heels. In the evening, women often wore shoes with small heels, or slippers, similar to court shoes.

    Rockaway Hunt Meet

    Curveless female fashion.

    The fashion designer Paul Poiret introduced a playful side to fashion in the USA, and he also credits himself with getting rid of the corset (however, other designers were moving in that direction, too). This meant that clothes started to fit the contours of the female body more naturally.

    In the UK, corsets were still worn but they became longer and less restrictive. Part of this was due to women becoming more aware of the effect of their clothes on their health. Feminism also started to influence fashion with men supporting women in developing less restrictive clothing. Women started entering professions and adapted men’s work-clothes as part of this process.


    Men’s Fashion

    Men’s fashion was similar to that of the previous decade. Trousers were becoming narrower and shorter, with creases down the front and turn-ups starting to appear. This was possible due to the invention of the trouser-press in the mid-1890s.

    From 1914 until the end of the decade, men were most often photographed in military uniform but during this time the trench coat also became popular (fashionable is probably not the right word). As the name suggests, the coat was named after the trenches of the First World War. A water-resistant, khaki coloured coat that was lighter than the official coat issued by the British Army, it kept the wearer warm and dry. It was worn by women, as well as men, during the war. After the war, the trench coat became popular as everyday wear, particularly in the USA.

    Trench coats (Wikipedia)

    Children’s Clothing

    In this decade the constraints of the war led to material rationing. This meant the smock dresses, which had been popular for young girls since the 1890s, became shorter and less embellished. Many girls wore light-coloured, dropped-waist dresses. One effect of this was that girls looked less like small women. This trend was similar for boys too with school uniforms appearing and shorts rather than trousers becoming popular for younger boys (being a more practical type of dress). Teenagers started dressing like adults.

    For younger children knitted fabrics were popular. They were comfortable, stretchy, easy-to-make and gave greater freedom of movement than other types of fabric.

    Children's Fashion from 1910

    Make sure to look out for our next article, where we take a look at the post-war fashions of the roaring twenties.

  • How to date your family photographs from fashion in the 1900s

    It’s the dawn of a new century in our blog series on dating old photographs from fashion: the 1900s, also known as the Edwardian era.  

    This decade saw the arrival of the first mass-marketed camera, known as ‘the Brownie’, which enabled the taking of less formal, more relaxed family photographs. This one from my family’s collection, which was taken at Christmas 1901, is a good example.

    Christmas at Balham, 1901

    You might also have come across some picture postcards of family members from this era – thanks to Kodak introducing, in 1903, a camera designed for postcard-size film. This meant anyone could take photographs and have them printed on postcards.

    But colour photographs will still be rare, despite the first practical colour photography process (‘autochrome’) being developed in this decade. It produced colour transparencies, but these could only be viewed by reflected light, so were not very useful. Research into other processes continued.

    As for fashion, clothing began to be consumed at a higher pace, and this is the decade in which the transition from purchasing tailored clothes to buying them ready-made in shops began.

    Women’s fashion

    As seen in the photograph above, separates were popular with women in the 1900s, with skirts fitted over the hip and fluted towards the hem. The S-bend corset was fashionable: it thrust the hips backwards and forced the chest forward, emphasised with puffed, frilly blouses that were often embellished with decorations such as lace collars, buttons and broad ribbon ties.

    The colours were either pastels or the traditional set of a white blouse and a black skirt. (It was around this time, in line with the fight for women’s rights, that some women also began to wear more masculine clothes, such as shirts and ties and darker colours more associated with men and serious work.)

    Fashionable women wore their hair in a centre parting, often looped around pads and false hair to create a wide 'brim' of hair around the hairline. This hairstyle was worn under vast, broad-brim hats with low crowns, and adorned all over with flowers, lace, ribbons and feathers.

    Women wore tea gowns for social events at home, but also for dinner parties, as it was now considered socially acceptable to wear them outside the house. They had a high collar, though lower neckline for the evening, with ruffles and lace on the sleeves and bust, and often a mini-trail.

    1900s female fashion



    Men wore three-piece lounge suits with bowler hats or cloth caps, depending on their social standing. Jackets were narrow with small, high lapels. Most collars were starched and upstanding, with the corners pointing downwards. Some men wore their collars turned down, with rounded edges and modern knotted ties.

    Beards were now reserved for mainly older men, and most young men sported neat moustaches and short hair.

    Girls and boys

    Girls wore knee-length dresses with trimmings at the hem such as lace and embroidery. In the spring and summer, they wore white cotton dresses in soft pastel colours in basic stripes or tiny florals.

    They usually wore black shoes or button-up boots, and woollen stockings, and kidskin or crochet gloves. Hair was generally worn long and curly, with decorations of ribbon. For play, bloomers and woollen jerseys were acceptable.

    Fashionable clothing for boys included sailor suits, consisting of a shirt with a sailor collar, and trousers or knickerbockers. They also wore tunics or “Russian blouses” which allowed them to move freely. Like young girls, boys often wore long stockings to cover up the rest of their legs.

    Next decade

    Look out for our next blog on dating fashion from photographs in the 1910s – a decade of two halves: the first, characterised by a rich and exotic opulence; contrasting with the second, which was marked by the sombre practicality of garments worn during WW1.

  • Photography and fashion in the ‘Naughty Nineties’

    We have now reached the 1890s in our blog series which aims to help you date photographs from fashion. Known as the ‘Naughty Nineties’, this was the decade that saw the witty plays and trial of Oscar Wilde; the formation of the French Cancan dancers; and the beginning of the suffragette movement.

    Unsurprisingly, women’s fashion in this decade evolved radically to reflect the new era. More women were working and enjoying new freedoms. Young women, in particular, needed clothes that enabled them to cycle and play sports. This coincided with the introduction of electricity into clothing manufacturing, creating a boom in the ready-to-wear market.

    Women in dresses, on bicycles​​.

    Women in dresses, on bicycles. V&A Museum

    In the same decade, technological advances also led to the advent of consumer photography – thanks to the introduction of the affordable, portable Kodak camera and flexible roll film. That’s why so many family historians possess images of their ancestors from that era.

    Fashion magazines also became more widely available in the 1890s as advances in printing processes allowed photographs to be printed on the same page as text for the first time. This means we have plenty of resources to help us date those photographs!

    1890s Women’s fashion

    In the first years of the 1890s, the silhouette was a continuation of the late 1880s style, with the notable development of a small vertical puff at the shoulder. Skirts were bell-shaped, gored to fit smoothly over the hips, while bodices were marked by the large leg-o-mutton or gigot sleeves. The early shoulder puff grew greatly in size, reaching an apex in 1895. The width at the top and bottom of the silhouette was balanced by a nipped waist, to create an hourglass effect. Around 1897, the silhouette began to slowly shift with the introduction of the straight-front corset. This forced a woman’s chest forward and hips backwards into an “S” shape, and that became the dominant silhouette by 1900.

    The general delineations of morning, afternoon, and evening wear held throughout the decade. Morning wear featured high necklines and long sleeves, while afternoon clothing opened at the neck and featured shortened sleeves, and finally, evening wear bared the chest and arms.


    For working women, in particular, the shirtwaist ensemble was popular. This comprised a simple skirt, and a shirtwaist (blouse), that was tailored similar to a man’s shirt but could feature tucks, frills, and lace trimmings. The look was often completed with a jacket and straw boater hat. Shirtwaists could also be worn as part of a suit, often referred to as tailor-mades.

    Women generally arranged their hair in high, neat chignons with soft curls at the front. Hats were an all-important accessory and were available in a variety of styles. Usually, 1890s hats were wide and heavily trimmed with tall upwardly curling feathers, ribbons, and flowers.

    Outerwear evolved to accommodate the large and puffed sleeve, with jackets and coats also featuring the gigot. However, capes became the most fashionable choice as they fell gracefully over the expansive sleeve. A commenter noted in 1895 that cashmere shawls (previously women’s most prized possessions) were being used to cover pianos!

    Sporting women

    Female participation in sports – including basketball, gymnastics, golf, tennis, croquet and sea-bathing – expanded greatly in the 1890s. They wore either the standard shirtwaist suit or more specialised clothing.

    Women, in particular, adopted the bicycle as a common form of transportation and needed appropriate clothing for this. The “bicycle suit” was created which consisted of a jacket and bifurcated bloomers, but most women opted for a shortened simple skirt worn over their bloomers, or a long skirt with a deep pleat in the back which allowed them to sit on the bicycle while still appearing to be wearing a skirt.

    Men 1890-1900

    1890s Menswear

    Menswear in the 1890s maintained an overall narrow silhouette; however, trousers became slightly more relaxed in cut. The frock coat remained fashionable for formal daywear until the turn of the century, as the morning coat slowly supplanted it. The latter featured a waistline seam and cutting away in the front, and it could be quite formal when paired with contrasting dark trousers and a top hat, or more casual as a three-piece tweed suit perhaps worn by a businessman.

    The lounge or sack suit, featuring a single-breasted jacket without a waist seam, became the most common choice for working men and was increasingly worn by upper-class men as a relaxed alternative day suit. White tie and tailcoats remained the correct dress for evening events, worn with heavily starched, and sometimes pleated, white dress shirts. The dinner jacket or tuxedo introduced in the previous decade became an acceptable choice for evenings at home or in a gentlemen’s club throughout the 1890s.

    Shirts were heavily starched and frequently featured stiff stand collars; although collars with turned-down wingtips were increasingly worn. As jackets were more frequently left open, shirts and waistcoats were sometimes made in vibrant colours. The top hat and bowler remained the most common forms of headwear, the former paired with more formal ensembles. During the 1890s, the bowler hat could be exaggeratedly tall, emphasising the narrow, tailored look. The Prince of Wales also popularised a variant of the fedora (a low, soft hat with a crease from front to back), called a Homburg.

    1890s menswear also featured a great deal of sportswear, comprising light-coloured, often striped flannel, lounge suits paired with a straw boater hat. The reefer jacket, square and double-breasted, could be worn without a waistcoat for sporting and seaside activities. For shooting, a tweed Norfolk jacket, with its forgiving vertical pleats and characteristic belt, loose knee-breeches, and gaiters were most appropriate.

    In our next blog, we look forward to taking you into a new century, as we explore the advances in fashion and photography in the first decade of the 1900s.