War and major disasters have always speeded up change dramatically and created acceptance of cultural changes once
unthinkable. During the Great War of 1914-18, fashion came to a standstill. It
was a time of uniforms and drab functional clothes even though Paris fashion
By the 1920s many young people had been made old by the horrors of war. Young men of 18 had seen
the reality of trench warfare. Women who had acted as nurses had seen horrific
injuries and mental suffering that shocked. Ironically out of the war came
medical progress in the field of cosmetic and plastic surgery. It made for a
general feeling that life was short and should be enjoyed. The war also broke
down longstanding class barriers. The break was subtle, but the erosion had
The era 1921-22 saw a great change in the drinking habits of the affluent and the debut of the
cocktail at the first night clubs in London. Drinking cocktails was considered degenerate
and was confined mainly to the West End of London. Most people still retained
pre-war values, but the behaviour of 'The Bright Young Things' was written about
with distaste by journalists and writers of the era.
Between 1920 and 1940 Britain was faced with industrial problems. 19th century industrial techniques
had already peaked and were no longer appropriate in a competitive world.
British technology had been in decline since well before 1914. Post war Europe
was in chaos and a return to the Empire days of before simply did not happen.
The basic industries of ship building, coal and textiles never recovered from
the slump they were in at the end of 1920.
By 1930 over 2 million
people in Britain were unemployed and remained so until 1936. Even on the eve of
war in 1939 there were still 1.25 million people without work. During the strife
torn period there were 2 police strikes, a national rail strike, 2 national coal
strikes, a 2 month ship builders strike, a 2 month engineering strike and violent
demonstrations by the jobless. In 1926 in support of the Trades Union Congress
there was a general strike.
This was a transitional period between two kinds of society and two economies. There was a
depression yet generally living standards were rising. Steam power was gradually
replaced by electricity. Transport became petrol engine powered. Early plastics
were often used instead of basic metals and man made fibres
such as regenerated
rayon, called artificial silk (known as art silk) were increasingly supplementing
cotton and silk. The resultant expansion of the chemical industry created jobs
which helped the economy change from the domination of heavy industry.
The new economy
provided consumer goods for the masses and began to market entertainment as
leisure increased. Techniques of mass production and mass advertising changed
people's outlooks. The introduction of the Penguin paperback book encouraged
people to read and self improve. Magazines disseminated knowledge to women who
had gained a new independence after the war years.
Mass marketing meant
that the wireless and gramophone soon reached ordinary households. People began
to make their own judgments listening to entertainment, music, news and current
began to thrive as the demand for products like cereals, household goods and
ready made clothing grew. Montague Burton introduced his 50 shilling suit for
men. Women wanted factory made dresses in similar styles to those seen on film
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There was a great building boom and one third of all houses
built in the UK by 1939 had been built in the short period since 1919. New
housing saw an increased demand for electricity, gas, water and the bureaucracy
that served those utilities, so there was an increase in office workers and
The position of women
in Britain was changing. In 1918 after the war ended women over 30 were given
the vote if they were householders. By 1928 all women over 21 were given the
vote. Even so a patronising attitude toward women still existed and women were
in some circles still regarded as the decorative appendages of men with no other
purpose but to bear children.
Slowly women were breaking down old attitudes. The war had
given ordinary working women an alternative to domestic employment. They found
they liked working on the land, in factories and on buses. By 1939 married women
unless exceptionally poverty stricken did not go out to work. British
schoolteachers had to give up their teaching career on marriage. Society
accepted the working spinster, but not the working wife.
In the 1920s ragtime
developed into jazz and young people flocked to dance halls and jazz clubs.
Inventions such as the gramophone and the crystal radio began to be mass marketed and
instant music helped to popularize dance worldwide. Dance mad young people
danced at home, at afternoon tea dances and in evening dance palaces and even
later at night clubs.
Evening dresses of the 1920s perfectly suited fashionable dance such as the Shimmy, the Charleston and
the Black Bottom. Unlike clothes of the Edwardian era the lack of corsetry
helped the dancers move easily and the often sleeveless clothes were
unrestrictive. The Rumba, Samba and Conga were all
popular dances in this period.
Society also began to
accept changes in fashion which took it right away from any Edwardian dictums.
It was in total relaxed contrast to the styles twenty years previously. Fashion of the
1920s is not so very different from
dress styles worn in the later 20th century. One of the great
society events of this era was the
Paris Olympic games.
Greater mobility, independence, economic changes, mass
production of clothing, moving film, new fabrics and a new spirit are the basic
reason for the revolutionary changes in dress and manners.
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