Learn about Life in the 1920s

This material on 1920's Color, Line, and Fabric is largely taken from Mary Brooks Picken's Book - "The Secrets of Distinctive Dress".

1920's Fashions including Dresses and Materials



To become familiar with the colors used in dress, look into their characteristics.

Blue may be regarded as a standard color for woman's dress. It not only gives the impression of coolness, but is restful and unobtrusive. The lighter tints are very closely related to white, and when it is the purpose to make white give the impression of purity a bluish tint is always given to it. On the other hand, when mixed with black, blue produces a black that gives the impression of greater blackness. Blue frequently is preferred to black, because it is not inclined to look grayish in combination with some of the other colors.

Every season brings its new range of colors. Many new colors—some queer, some positively ugly—are presented as being the very latest and, of course, the most fashionable colors. The various exploiters of fashion proclaim each color as desirable, but invariably, after all is said, the assertion is made that blue is good and will be worn, thus emphasizing the power of popular demand.

Blue is always fashionable, because women instinctively understand its value as a garment color, and it predominates because it best enhances the good points of the wearer, in both the figure and the complexion. It does not by its intensity or depth obliterate the real charm of the face or form; neither does it accentuate any unpleasing features.


White in its different varieties, the same as blue, may be called a standard, because it, too, is universally becoming, but the same thing cannot be said of black. Black is not becoming to nor desirable for all women, as it emphasizes age and adds as many years to a face as white will subtract from it. A prominent writer credits the French women with saying that black should not be worn after a woman is thirty, unless for mourning, nor again until after she is sixty, and then only if she feels that she has to wear it.

Violet is more pliable in its combinations than some of the other colors. It associates well with green-yellow, yellow-green, orange, orange-yellow, yellow, gold, gray, and green, but rarely is it satisfactory with red or blue, unless some intermediate tone or a neutral color is used with it.

The darkest shades of orange form pleasing combinations with subdued yellows, especially when a stripe or a small figure of black is worked into the material. Light orange is too bright to be used freely, but yellow-orange or gold can be used to good advantage for embellishments.


Green is very restful to the eye and forms an agreeable harmony with white. Its effect is to lend brilliancy. Light greens upon dark grounds produce pleasing effects, while the reverse is less satisfactory. Light and grayish greens are desirable in plain materials or as stripes, figures, or borders of darker tone. Blue-green, however, is difficult to combine with other colors, combining best with gold and with red in small quantities.

When you combine colors, you must be careful not to injure the purity of one by an excess of another. For instance, light blue and light pink go well together, because neither is sufficiently intense to overpower the other. But an equal quantity of light blue and normal red will not harmonize, because the greater intensity of the red will overpower the blue and make it look sickly or faded.

Thus, it will be seen that when the intensity of colors differs greatly, the quantity of each that is used must also differ in order to produce a combination that is harmonious; that is, the intense color must be used in much smaller quantity as a trimming or outline to the lighter one in a given color scheme.

As I have stated before, colors that contrast harshly may be blended into harmony by placing intermediate hues, tones, or the neutrals between them. Thus, black, white, or gray between strong, bright colors neutralize them and prevent confliction. Very bright colors in quantity are detrimental to somber ones when placed side by side.



Some women instinctively feel "line" and are graceful in consequence.

The artist feels and knows lines. The woman who designs, makes, and wears garments must know line and balance to be able to make garments that express graceful or artistic individuality. Women who are interested in dress in its highest sense realize that clothes to be effective must express the personality of the wearer.

Elsie Ferguson, one of America's most attractive women, delightfully expresses her individuality in her clothes. The long, graceful lines that she effects give grace and dignity to every movement of her body. To see Elsie Ferguson on the stage, to forget the theme of the play, and to study the lines of her costumes will give sufficient evidence of the value of lines. Indeed such a study will convince any woman that she can make herself more attractive if she learns to know the lines that are best suited to her type.

The woman who makes a career for herself on the stage studies herself—her expression and her movements—learns her good and bad points, and as a result invariably gives more consideration to the lines of her costume, to the gracefulness of her body, than she does to her face and coiffure.

Every woman should realize her possibilities and make the most of them. Study and observation, with determination, will make it possible to achieve much in the way of improvement. Dinner parties, receptions, all manner of things are given on the stage, and every person there represents a certain type of character and has his or her part in making the scene beautiful. When planning to go to a dinner, a party, or a reception, plan to make yourself a decorative part of the surroundings, to dress yourself in such a way that you will add to the attractiveness of the assemblage, so that you will make a pleasing picture, rather than be a jarring note.


Emily Burbank, in her book on "Woman as Decoration," writes at great length upon the value of woman as decoration. She gives chapters about how a woman should decorate her garden, her drawing room, her boudoir, by dressing appropriately and being beautiful in it, by dressing herself to be the most beautiful thing in her living room or at her dinner table.

The wonderful art galleries of the world and the histories of all times tell us that women have been and are the most decorative of all created things. They have supplied the inspiration for the most wonderful paintings, for the most beautiful pieces of statuary, for decorations on vases, and even for the designs on our moneys, all because they are to the artist the source of his loftiest inspiration.

What has the artist portrayed in the beautiful picture on canvas or vase? Not the face alone, but the lines of the figure, the lines of the gown, the drapery of the gown, most often, and the great artists find woman most graceful in gowns that hang from the shoulder; but even such gowns may be so modernized as to fit in the social life or the office of today and be entirely appropriate and far more beautiful than a gown that is cut up in small pieces and put together in patchwork fashion.

Harmonious lines in dress require correct carriage of the body to express them. A knowledge of the lines of face and figure is essential to the successful adaptation of lines in dress. A knowledge of stature and correct posture is necessary if any degree of personality or individuality is to be emphasized. To stand correctly is the first requisite of a graceful figure. In the beauty of correct posture lies much of the charm of many of the celebrated pieces of sculpture, such as the martial "Winged Victory" and the beautiful "Venus of Milo."

Dr. Walter L. Pyle, in his book on "Personal Hygiene" tells in a few words how to stand correctly. His rule is exactly what every woman should daily apply to herself:

The erect standing posture is maintained by holding the body as tall as possible without actually rising on to the toes. In this way the trunk (your body) is given its greatest length; there is the largest space available for the organs; the muscles of the front, back, and sides are in perfect balance, none are strained; the head is erect and so poised that none of the muscles are overworked.



Having told you about color and line, I must next direct your attention to the importance of fabric in distinctive dress. It is on three things—color, line, and fabric—that dress harmony depends.

A prominent textile manufacturer said to me one time, repeating his statement twice, with emphasis, "Women must learn to appreciate textiles in order to use them properly."

In further conversation, I found that he held considerable sentiment regarding the using of fabrics for certain purposes. He seemed to know just how, where, and by whom velvet, charmeuse, voile, organdie, gingham, and all other fabrics should be worn.

We frequently err—miserably err—in our use of fabrics, and this is a pity. If we realized the important part that fabrics play in supplying our needs, in helping us to express individuality in dress, we would study them and respect them.


The textile industry is of great importance, being the third largest industry in the world. Hundreds and hundreds of people of artistic ability lend their energies toward making beautiful fabrics, and the woman who knows how much skill and effort are put into the creating of one yard of silk, of one yard of wool, or of a bit of lace cannot handle a piece of material without experiencing a certain amount of reverence and respect. When she has this feeling or attitude toward materials, she will almost intuitively know how to use them properly.

Fabric and its color may be said to control the lines and the purpose of a garment, for, as you will readily see, the design of a garment depends considerably on the weight of the fabric and its colors.

To illustrate my point, let us take a fluffy, airy fabric. Such fabric at once suggests a design of frills and puffs. Such a design, in turn, controls the garment lines, because frills and puffs in nowise conform to the silhouette of the figure. Also, if such fabric is of a light shade or a brilliant hue, it will bring to mind a garment for evening wear, as such colors appear best in artificial light If it is white, or of a dark or subdued shade, it may suggest a dress for morning or afternoon wear.

Again, lines that conform to the silhouette of one's figure are suggested by tailoring fabrics or materials, because the weight of such fabrics will not bear development in either full or pretentious styles, it being necessary to press them firm and flat to bring out their real beauty.


In connection with fabrics, bear in mind that the material for a garment should always be suitable for the design that is to be used. Very frequently the mistake is made of trying to combine lace, frills, ruffles, and ribbon with materials suitable for only plain tailored designs or of trying to combine these materials into a fluffy style.

Just as garments of taffeta and other similar fabrics, lace, and so on should be as fluffy and feminine as it is possible to make them, so should tailoring materials be made into tailored gowns or suits that are as plain in line as prevailing styles will permit.


Do not attempt to use material with a hard surface in a design that has a tendency to stand out from the body. The very fact that its surface is hard, wiry, and uncontrollable should be sufficient warning to employ it in only such a way as will give the most pleasing effect.

In using such contrary fabrics, pay attention to the color, too. Brilliant, hard colors should be avoided to get the best results. In such fabric, the softer the tone the softer will appear the garment when worn. On the other hand, brighter colors may be used in crepe de Chine and soft satins and taffetas, as these materials have a tendency to cling to the figure and thus give a softness of line that modifies the color.

In draped designs, as in a skirt of several tiers, for instance, you can readily see how soft taffeta may be worked in artistically, each tier holding itself in its place and giving a very desirable effect.

So also may lace and other materials of soft, firm weave be used; but if you attempt to use in the same design a firm, hard material, such as brilliantine, alpaca, or mohair, all of which are of a seemingly contrary weave, the result will be disappointing, and especially will this be so if you employ such materials for ruffles, unlined boleros, berthas, shirring, and so on.

Avoid using too many kinds of material in one dress; as, for instance, velvet, taffeta, and charmeuse. Do not use silk and cotton or cotton and linen together, unless you are positive that the combination is agreeable.

Velvet, because it is silk and because of its sheen, is better to use with satin, with its sheen, or with Georgette crepe, which has absolutely no sheen and is soft and limp enough to give way entirely to the prominence of the velvet.

When heavy deep-colored material is used for the body of a dress, and sheerer sleeves are to be used, do not make the mistake of having the sleeve material too thin, as, for instance, to use chiffon instead of a fairly heavy quality of Georgette crepe.

Avoid using silk voile with Georgette; satin with taffeta; serge with cheviot. These materials "war" when in combination.

Do not use ribbon for a sash or a collar trimming on a dress that has satin or silk as a trimming, unless you use it cleverly and for a definite purpose. Select material for collars with care. A safe plan is to decide whether the purpose of the collar is to give a "light reflection" to the face, to soften the neck line, or to serve as a trimming feature. Find your reason; then you will invariably use the correct material.



For the sake of harmony, always give careful consideration to the design of a fabric. Large-figured materials, especially brocades, striped and plaid materials with prominent patterns, demand the greatest attention, because they are possibly the hardest of all materials to develop successfully.

A little girl can wear prominent plaids Very well, because the lines of her garments are usually straight and simple and not cut up or broken; but she cannot wear large-figured brocades, because the body pieces of her garment are so small that the result would be patchy.

The large woman, better than any other, can wear large-figured brocades, provided the lines of her garment are straight and plain and conform almost exactly to the outline of her figure; but the small woman, the same as the child, should avoid such materials, for she will not appear to the best advantage in them.

The statement I have just made may appear contrary to the general rule, for it would seem that large-figured materials have a tendency to make small women appear larger; however, as such materials are most beautiful when developed in plain style, the brocade figures on a small woman might appear so prominent that the effect would not be pleasing.

In pompadour silks, however, the opposite is true. Taffetas with large bouquets of flowers are more attractive for the small woman, provided they are made in a fluffy fashion or they are puffed in such a way, as in a pannier skirt, as not to appear broken or crushed; yet you should always remember that the heavy brocades, unless of taffeta, should be made up in straight lines, with the design as unbroken as possible.

One finds in the shops such a delightful variety of materials that there is no excuse for using any of them incorrectly.

A young girl of sixteen or eighteen is charming in ruffled and frilled organdie, provided her body is small enough to permit her to wear fluffy attire; but the woman of thirty-five or forty usually appears better in softer materials, such as voile and soft crepes, because she should express dignity, because the lines in her face—and there are usually a few indistinct ones at that time—should be secluded and protected behind a background of friendly material.

Hard-surface materials, such as cheviots and tweeds, are rarely becoming for a mature woman, the softer smooth-surface materials, such as broadcloth and duvetyn, lending themselves so much better to her requirements.

The women of England exercise discrimination in wearing materials. In the morning, while shopping or on an outing expedition, they will be in tweeds or in plain, severely tailored materials. In the afternoon, they will be in soft velvets and broadcloth; in the evening, in velvets, silks, or soft crepes, chiffons, and voiles, the material entirely in accord with the season and the fashion. These women have an inborn taste for the use of fabrics that many of us may well strive to acquire.


The One Hour Dress
Instructions for making a flapper dress based on a genuine 1920's dress pattern.

Fingerwave Hairstyles
Lessons on how to create fingerwave hairstyles based on 1920's movie star hairstyles.

Cutting and Styling Hair
A 1920's hairdresser teaches cutting and styling techniques for Bobbed hair.

1920's Haircare and Hairstyles
Pictures of 1927 Ladies Hairstyles and haircare information from Actress Ann Harding.

Home Millinery Lessons
Simple instructions on the basics of making a hat of the period.

1920 Fall-Winter Fashions
1920 Dress information as published by the Woman's Institute Fashion Service magazine, Fall and Winter edition 1920-1921 to help women plan and develop their own clothes for the approaching Winter.

Female Motoring Fashion Advice - 1917
Fashion tips for Women driving in Automobiles

1920s Fashion