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The “Roaring” Twenties

Alison Sofield, Collections Volunteer


The world changed dramatically after the horrors of the First World War and the influenza pandemic. As the1920s began a new optimism emerged with advances in the field of science, education, technology and personal freedom especially for women, and it followed that fashion would take a leap of faith. The old Victorian ways of dress and behaviour were cast aside and a more relaxed style became very popular.


Society changed fundamentally with new advances in motor cars, telephones, aviation music and dance. Jazz became all the rage and dances such as the “Charleston” and “Black Bottom” spread like wildfire even to the then quiet backwaters of Whangarei.  A less restrictive fashion style was needed to fully enjoy the new dance crazes, gone were the corsetry that attempted to force women’s bodies into shapes that nature never intended. A much looser silhouette was the desired look, however corset makers were quick to change direction and come out with underwear that flattened the bust, lost the waistline to the hips to achieve an almost boyish outline. The most exciting development in fashion was the raising of hemlines, oh the freedom!


These new styles went hand in hand with new activities where one needed more functional clothes for sports, driving cars and for work. Day clothes tended to be plain but for evening wear, the sky was the limit. These outfits with plenty of sequins, feathers, fringes, embroidery, and of course the extravagant beading are what this period of history is most remembered for. The more adventurous fasionistas became known as “Flappers” and were generally regarded as “loose “women when they raised the skirt levels even higher.


Day wear consisted mainly of skirts, dresses, coats and blouses, the changes here were reflected in the details. The skirts were knee length and the hips were often marked with a simple belt. The geometrical patterns of the ‘Art Deco” appeared in the fabric and styles. V shaped necklines  were the most popular in keeping with the geometry of Art Deco. Colours in the daytime were muted, mostly grey, brown, blush or pale blue. Small hats that hugged the head, the “cloche”, were teamed with matching gloves and coats. Trousers were becoming more common but not yet for daywear. Evening wear was much more flamboyant, colour was rife and adornment ruled.


Mademoiselle Chanel launched herself into the fashion world in 1926, her pants for women, perfume, “Chanel No. 5”, and practical fashion for every day use. She favoured the use of black and white, simple lines inspired by menswear. Her styles were to reappear in the 1960s such was her influence.


All this changed as the world headed into the 30s, unemployment put women back in the kitchen, the depression loomed large and the optimism of the 20s faded.


The matching dress and jacket pictured here was donated to the Whangarei Museum from the Whangarei Amateur Operatic Society who in turn had received it from Lynn MacDiarmid. Her mother, Heather MacDiarmid of Kerikeri had made this garment in the 20s. It is a black chiffon sleeveless dress, with a full gored skirt over an overskirt forming four floating panels each embroidered with flowers. Similar embroidery is on the shoulders and across the bodice. The jacket has the flower embroidery appliqued as well.

A mini exhibition of Whangarei in the 1920s will be launched in late September in the main gallery of the Museum and this beautiful garment will also be on display. Make sure you catch it.