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Attire for 1920s-1930s Events

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Cathy Stephens
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We encourage period attire at our 1920s and 1930s Balls because it adds so much to the atmosphere. This is a fun and easy period to dress for. However, no one should miss the ball because they don't have an extensive vintage wardrobe.

If you prefer not to come in costume, ladies may wear a dress or dress slacks, and men may wear a suit or sport coat and dress slacks. Whatever you wear, don't forget your smooth-soled shoes for dancing. (See our suggestions for dance shoes.)

Here are our suggestions for what to wear, for both ladies (1920s and 1930s) and gentlemen. In addition to comments on the period dress, we provide hints for how you can approximate the period look with modern clothes.

Ladies - 1920s
Ladies' costume 1923Ladies' costume 1922The silhouette of the 1920s was straight and angular and the boyish figure, with flat bosom and no hips, was the ideal. Waistlines dropped to the hip.

At the beginning of the decade, skirts were still long, almost ankle-length. It was not until 1924 that skirts really became shorter, reaching mid-calf even for evening wear. The shortest skirts of the decade, stopping just below the knee, appeared in 1926-1927. In the last few years of the decade, skirts often used panels, drapes, and pointed segments to achieve uneven hemlines. This led to a lengthening of the hemline by decade's end.

Ladies' costume 1925Ladies' costume 1924Evening dresses were generally sleeveless, with deep V or U-shaped necklines. Decorations included beading, which sometimes covered an entire dress, as well as fringe and even feathers.

As skirts became shorter, necklaces, particularly strings of pearls, became longer. Tan or flesh colored stockings were popular.

Short hair was universally popular throughout the decade. Those who chose to retain their long hair wore it pulled back into deep waves over the ears. It was then coiled into a chignon or knot at the nape of the neck. Makeup was obvious, with red lips, powdered skin, and dark eyes.

Ladies' costume 1925Ladies' costume 1927To approximate the style of the period, look for a low-waisted or straight dress such as a "tank" style or "slip" dress. Add a long rope necklace--preferably pearls. Modern character dance shoes with a small heel are appropriate for this period.

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Ladies - 1930sLadies' costume 1930s
In the 1930s, the boyish look of the previous decade gave way to a more feminine silhouette, which emphasized the natural form of the woman's body. Bosom, waistline, and hips were clearly defined by the shape of the clothing. The waistline returned to its natural position.

Ladies' costume 1932Ladies' costume 1930Evening dresses were long or ankle-length, molded onto the body by means of bias-cutting. The bias cut enabled fabric to fall into a smooth vertical drape and to cling subtly to the body. Such dresses followed the body to the hips, where they flared out to the hem. Other common characteristics of evening dresses included bare-backed gowns and halter-type bodices. Gowns were sleeveless or had full, cape-like, or puffed sleeves.

In the early to mid-1930s, hair was still relatively short, usually waved softly, and with short, turned-up curls around the nape of the neck.

Many modern evening gowns with flaring hems will be appropriate for this period. Add beige stockings and character dance shoes or other low-heeled dress shoes.

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Men's costume 1938Men's costume 1936From the 1920s through the end of World War II, tailcoats were the preferred dress for the most formal occasions, and were worn with white waistcoat and tie. (Think of Fred Astaire.)

Generally, evening wear consisted of the tuxedo in black or midnight blue. Tuxedos had either rolled collars faced in silk or notched collars. Single-breasted styles were preferred in the 1920s, double-breasted styles in the 1930s. From the late '20s on, some men substituted a cummerbund for the waistcoat.

In the '30s and after, white dinner jackets were worn, especially in summer. Black ties were worn with tuxedos or dinner jackets.

Almost any style tailcoat or tuxedo will do, but stay away from the very modern styles (such as those with stand-up collars) or colored tuxedos from the '70s. You can also wear a white dinner jacket with black tie and black formal pants. Or come as a gangster in double-breasted pinstripe suit.

Some costume shops will rent appropriate costumes for the evening at a rate somewhat lower than formal clothing rental shops. You often can obtain your own formal wear inexpensively, by watching for formal rental shop warehouse sales and checking resale shops.

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What to Wear to Other Period Events
Follow these links for our suggestions for dressing for other period events:
Early 1800s
Mid to late 1800s (Victorian)
Ragtime (1910s)

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