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Fashion Forward

When I was in my final semester of university, I needed one more elective to finish my degree. I’d had my fill of science and agriculture courses, so on a whim I chose something completely different- a course from the Home Economics department, on the social history of clothing.

Another Aggie signed up for the course with me. The two of us used to peel off our coveralls and go to class straight from the dairy barn. The other students were all majoring in home economics. They went to class in cute, feminine clothes, but I don’t recall feeling out of place in my jeans and sweatshirts. And I absolutely loved the course.

I admit I expected it to be a cakewalk, but it wasn’t. As with any other history course we had to do a lot of writing, which our professor, a no-nonsense Englishwoman, graded rigorously. And along the way, I had a personal epiphany.

Being just under five feet tall, I’d always felt cheated by fashion. The cool clothes just didn’t seem to be made for my body type. Then, on a trip to a clothing museum, I got the opportunity to try on an original Victorian gown. For the first time, I understood that fashion is all about time and place, not perceived personal shortcomings.

This dress was of rich brown velvet, with lovely puffed sleeves and a train lined with heavy canvas, stained where it had once dragged on the ground. Everyone else in the class was far too tall to wear it, but it fit me perfectly, except for the waist. Without a corset I had no hope of squeezing into it, but here was a beautiful dress made for someone precisely my size. It changed my self-perception.

Unfortunately, the course ended with the beginning of the First World War. What a shame. The changes in women’s clothes between 1910 and 1920 are as sweeping as the changes in society as a whole.

Here’s a dress from 1910 and one from 1920. Imagine a mother who had worn clothes like the dress on the left – with appropriate corsetry – in her youth, watching her daughter go out the door dressed as a flapper. It must have seemed like she was going out in her underclothes.

During the war, there was no fabric or time to waste on frills, and women needed practical clothes to wear doing all the work they’d taken on while the men were in the trenches. Afterwards, no one could put the genie back in the bottle. The ‘New Woman’ had arrived for good.

Georgie O’Neill, the heroine of my new WIP, is a new woman with a capital N. She also loves clothes, and I’m having a lot of fun finding them for her.

I love Jazz Age fashion. It’s elegant and deceptively simple, with colour and pattern as its art form instead of shape and draping. Fitting for women standing on the brink of a brave new world.

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