The Enduring Legacy of the Jazz Age in 1950s Fashion

The evolution of jazz and women’s fashion have more in common than you may think. When jazz music catapulted to popularity during the 1920s, women’s fashion was also making daring strides. In the decades that followed, jazz grew with the emergence of new styles like bebop, cool jazz, funk and more. Women’s fashion evolved through the mid-20th century, but like jazz, the influence of the 1920s style remained. The Bettye Miller Abel Collection, here at AJM, features popular 1950s fashions that harken back to Jazz Age design.

Freedom defined women’s fashion during the 1920s. Women exchanged corsets for loose-fitting garments that disguised their shapes and allowed for freer movement. Hemlines rose to the knee and, for the first time, women’s ankles were on display! As hemlines got shorter, so did women’s hair. The bob cut associated with the 1920s flapper defined a new generation of women. To flatter this cropped hairstyle, women began wearing a popular hat known as a cloche.

From the French word for “bell,” the cloche was a deep-crowned hat. Fit against the head, cloches concealed most of a woman’s hair. Women of the 1920s were rarely seen without a hat, and even as styles came and went, women’s hats remained a wardrobe staple in the decades that followed. During 1940s wartime, hats allowed the wearer to remain fashionable, even with the rationing of elegant dress. In the 1950s and 1960s, the cloche style rose again to popularity. Bettye Miller Abel’s feathered cloche is a stunning example of the re-adoption of this beloved ’20s style.

While Bettye’s sheath style gown contrasts with the loose-fitting dresses of the Jazz Age, they share a significant design element: sequins. Like this red dress, 1920s evening dresses shined with beads and sequins. Jazz Age flapper dresses featured sequins made of metal, making garments heavy. To make sequins lighter, 1930s sequins were made with electroplated gelatin. This material was soon abandoned because it melted when wet or heated. Soon, manufacturers produced sequins from the same materials developed for film (acetate) and eventually the same vinyl plastic used for records. These more durable sequins have stood the test of time, keeping this high-impact dress stunning even decades later.

During the Roaring Twenties, women’s shoe design began trending toward the booming industry that it is today. Previously hidden by long hemlines, it wasn’t until the 1920s that women’s shoes were regularly seen. With the new, shorter dress styles, shoes now needed to be both functional and fashionable. Most styles in this decade featured heels and black patent leather.

Bettye’s shoes are both reminiscent of 1920s footwear, as well as indicative of a later era. Stockings in the 1920s and 1930s had unattractive reinforced toes and heels but nylon stockings of the 1940s became refined, and fashion embraced the look of exposed feet. Shoes featured open toes, heels, or cutaways on the top of the foot, and slingback fashion became popular in the 1940s.

The curious lack of heel, called a cantilever heel, was invented in the 1950s. Its namesake, a cantilever, is a horizontal beam weighed down on one end by an anchor or support, while the other end floats freely. The lady is able to rest on the free floating heel of the shoe because stabilization lies in the toe, which bears the support.

Throughout the evolution of jazz since the Roaring Twenties, the music will always be in debt to its original form. The same can be said for women’s fashion. From the moment hemlines rose and the corsets came off, modern styles flourished. Tracing the path from the 1920s to the 1950s in jazz and fashion reveals that the spirit of the Jazz Age never truly went out of style!

–Claire McDonald, photos courtesy of The American Jazz Museum

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