When most people think of 1920s fashion they think of short, fringe, sequin or beaded slip dresses with feather boas and headbands, long cigarette holders and long white pearl necklaces. While there is some truth in the accessories, flapper dresses are far from it. Unfortunately, the majority of 1920s dresses and costumes takes cues from this 60s does 20s flapper look instead of turning to the real non-flapper fashions of the roaring twenties.
So for those of us that want to dress in a non-flapper 1920s outfit or costume, what can we wear? Plenty! But sourcing clothing can be tricky. Using some creativity you can adapt clothing in your closet or find new clothes online to create a 20s inspired non-flapper costume.
Non-flapper costumes ideas we will explore:
Daywear dresses that are more accurate to the 1920s
Separates- mix and match for semi-casual outfits
Sports clothes with pants or knickers
Cabaret cross-dressing in a tuxedo
Gangster girls and bootleggers
Pantsuits and beach pajamas- fancy dress that is not a flapper dress
Evening dresses that are not covered in fringe and sequins
Non-flapper 20s fashion history articles to inspire you:
The first step to dressing like a non-flapper is to avoid evening dresses altogether. Most women wore simple drop-waist dresses or slip dresses all day, every day. Real flapper girls wore these too. Day dresses usually had short or long sleeves and hemlines which drifted between the ankle to just below the knee. Fabric for 20s house dresses was usually cotton in gingham checks or small prints. Solid colors were preferred for afternoon outings. The beauty of 20s daywear was in the simple designs that accentuate vertical lines, an undefined waist, and modest coverage.
1922 day dresses with natural waist
1925 long slip day dresses, suit, party dresses
1928 day dresses with pleated skirts
When looking for daytime 1920s dresses online I hunt for the drop wait or side draped dress with sleeves. Most modern clothes are fitted snug on the models so I strongly recommend ordering a size up for a more accurate 20s loose fit. If you really need a waistline go for an early 20s look with a wide sash or thin tie belt at the natural waist.
A quick and easy non-flapper costume involves pairing skirt and tops together. You can go fancy or daytime casual with your choice of top. I look for 20s tunic blouses with beading or sequins for evening attire and pintucks, embroidery, and big collars for daytime outfits. Most blouses did not button down the front, only in the back, so I keep an eye out for pullover tunic tops and sweaters in a long-ish length. It was popular to wear a thin belt over tops and skirts in the mid to late 20s. You can also add a sash belt or gold chain to jazz up an evening look.
Consider adding a button-down vest, pullover knit vest, long sweater or chunky cardigan sweater for a sporty outfit. A 20s tennis outfit, pictured at the top of this page, is one example. A white cardigan or pullover tennis/cricket sweater or vest with a white skirt and white classic Keds sneakers is an easy one for summer. A golfing look includes a skirt with an argyle or fair isle pattern sweater vest and brown saddle shoes.
Tops and skirts pair well for a 20s look
White tennis outfit
I paired a skirt, varsity cardigan sweater, blouse, cloche hat and oxford shoes for this costume
Skirts of the 20s were knee length or longer pleated, hanky hem, tiered, or asymmetrical shapes. They hung straight down, not wide except for the very early 20s. They were sold with matching tops but women did mix and match tops and bottoms as a practical and casual way of dressing. Complete the outfit with low heel oxfords, cloche, straw or beret hat, and minimal jewelry.
A few outfits I created with skirt, tops, and vests
Mix and match 20s style tops and skirts
1920s Outfits with Pants
Besides skirts some free-spirited “new women” of the 20s wore pants. Gasp! It wasn’t common but it makes for a great non-flapper costume.
Women’s first attempt at pants were actually sporty knickers, togs, jodphurs or breeks. They capped just below the knee and ballooned out at the thigh. A few women wore men’s style wide-leg pants too. Low heel shoes and tall socks covered the bottom half while a collared blouse and necktie made the top half look like menswear. Women could wear also add a knit vest, matching sportcoat or a heavy cardigan sweater. Topped with an 8-panel cap it’s the perfect casual outfit.
One famous woman who wore knickers and pants in the 20s was Amelia Earheart, an aviatrix. Shoe wore mostly men’s clothing or women’s masculine sporty clothes such as wide leg pants, flight suits, leather flight jacket, neck scarf, aviator hat and goggles, sweaters and occasionally dresses. She inspired a wave of fashion for women who had an adventurous spirit.
1920s casual menswear for women sporty costume ideas
Gangster Girls Costumes
While there were women “gangsters” and “gangster mols” (wives) in the 1920s they did not dress any different than other women. However, it is a popular 20s costume to take the men’s striped suit or wide leg pant outfit and make a female gangster costume with it. Again, its not accurate but it is fun to wear.
Another cross-dressing option was worn by cabaret performers. Her show costume was usually a men’s tuxedo tailored down to fit a woman’s body with a black derby/bowler/top hat, cane, oxford shoes and a monocle. Anita Berber pictured below was an iconic naughty showgirl of the era.
1920s Vaudeville Showgirl- Tuxedo with accessories
Pantsuits / Beach Pajamas
A final pantsuit option was the beach pajamas. It was an at home casual look consisting of wide-leg pants in satin, chiffon or an Asian print. It was worn with a matching kimono style jacket and blouse. It became wildly popular in the 1930s with even wider palazzo pants and sleeveless tops.
Miss Fisher wearing beach pajamas, red cloche hat and coat. Stunning!
I often encourage women who need a dressy costume but don’t want to wear a dress or skirt to choose a wide leg pantsuit with some embellishment on the jacket or to pair chiffon palazzo pants with a blouse and a fringe kimono jacket. If you want Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries you will see her wearing a lot of flowing pantsuits. Here are some ideas:
For an evening event, finding a sophisticated dress that isn’t covered in beads, sequins, fringe or feathers can be a challenge. Longer lengths and dresses with sleeves are the best options as well as fabrics like velvet, taffeta, organdy and low-shine satin. Ideally, you still want a dress with the iconic drop waist but a slip dress, long sheath dress, tiered dress or draped gown all have potential. Here are some examples:
Tip: You can jazz up any plain dress into a unique 20s dress with the addition of a sparkling belt or sash placed low around the hips. You can also add a fabric flower, brooch pin or dangling scarf to one side of the hip or shoulder. These were all techniques used in the 20s. See more ideas like this.