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1900-1910: Anna Muthesius (1870-1961)

The beginning of the 1900s saw an incredible change as the Industrial Age began to influence all aspects of daily life. As society began transitioning to new ways of being, many long-held beliefs about the female body and fashion were resisting inevitable change (Maknojia).

Anna Muthesius encouraged many women to dress according to their own individual preferences during the early 1900s. Her 1903 book, Das Eigenkleid der Frau (Women’s Own Dress) encouraged women to reject Paris fashion in favor of deciding for themselves which clothing to wear (Hennessey 236). Muthesius rejected the notion of the “Gibson Girl,” whose restrictive style was defined by a large monobosom and small waist, which was enhanced by swan-bill corsets [see image]. The limiting style of the “Gibson Girl” forced women to adhere to fashion principles which were against their wellbeing, as corset-wearing caused many health issues by limiting the body’s circulation. Anna Muthesius’s ideas were revolutionary since they formed part of the first steps in freeing women from fashion constraints and societal labels which instantly differentiated women based on their way of dressing.

In a time when women’s fashion was defined by strict fashion norms, including corsets and ornamented clothing, Muthesius presented new possibilities to dressing, even against societal limitations. Although today we might think that dressing according to one’s individual preferences is normal, women were much more restricted from expressing themselves in the early 1900s. Women were not allowed to attend art school and were discourage from creative work; Muthesius went against these misogynistic norms by “promoting the Eigenkleid as a means for women to become their own artist, instead of being exploited by the clothing industry” (Gralke). Dressing in an Eigenkleid represented a departure from outdated fashion ideals; many women were brave to dress differently since they were conscious of the possibility of being ridiculed. Muthesius’s idea of dressing in one’s own style represented an early form of feminist resistance, which would later influence future feminist movements.

Anna Muthesius represented a step towards freedom for women, beginning in the ever-influential realm of fashion. Although she is not well-known today, Muthesius influenced later aesthetic and artistic dress movements (Reddy, “1900-1909”), demonstrating that a departure from the norm can have freeing long-lasting effects for all women.

Anne Muthesius
1900-1940: Text

1910-1920: Denise Poiret

During the time of World War I (1914-1919), the clothing silhouette changed epically as women began working and taking part in the suffrage movement (Maknojia). Denise Poiret was a significant part of this silhouette change in the realm of fashion as she began dressing in new ways.

In many texts, Denise Poiret is often introduced as the wife of French fashion designer, Paul Poiret, although she far surpasses the singular title of “wife” which she is often given. She was her husband’s muse and model, serving as the prototype figure in his Empire line dresses (Lécallier) [see center image]. Her slim figure was a defining silhouette of fashion in the 1910s, and her husband’s chemise dresses [see image on right] were specifically designed for her body type (Reddy, “1910-1919”). The fashion industry has traditionally made clothing as a means to oppress women by forcing their bodies to change into an acceptable and “fashionable” shape. However, Denise Poiret’s clothing was defined to fit her natural body shape, an idea which is revolutionary even today.

Denise Poiret didn’t wear corsets, as was typical of traditional fashion, but instead embodied “la garçonne,” a more androgynous, simplified look. She was the epitomy of avant-garde fashion in the 1910s. In an interview, her husband states that “My wife is the inspiration for all my creations; she is the expression of all my ideals” (Koda and Bolton) signifying the extent of her influence.

Denise Poiret
empire dresses
chemise dress
1900-1940: Text

1920-1930: Zelda Fitzgerald

1920s style was defined by a more androgynous look and flapper style. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 and women were granted the right to vote, influencing many women to eschew the corset in favor of a free, androgynous look. The flapper look was arguably most epitomized by Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948), who is considered by many to be the “first American flapper” (“Zelda Fitzgerald the ‘First American Flapper’”).

Zelda Fitzgerald was born in Montgomery, Alabama and was a novelist, socialite, and the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her husband’s literary success propelled the couple into the public eye, where Zelda influenced the fashion and culture of the 1920s. She embodied the era through “defiance, recklessness and, above all, glamour” (“Zelda Fitzgerald the ‘First American Flapper’”). The flapper era was defined by fashion, as well as attitude.

Visually-speaking, the flapper look featured “a dropped waist and creeping hemlines that could be created in economical fabrics” (Reddy, “1920-1929”). Rare and expensive materials were no longer required to be considered of higher social status, allowing more women to express themselves through the fashion of the time.

Zelda Fitzgerald was a strong and rebellious woman, who challenged society’s standards by wearing new flapper-style clothing, sporting a short haircut, and illegally smoking and drinking during prohibition. As a public figure, she influenced many in her social circles, as well as the greater public through her alluring personality and bold, unconventional choices. According to Vogue Italia, she “believed that the duty of women was to offend, upset, cause disasters” (“Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald”), characteristics which defy society’s standard of how women should be. Fitzgerald’s rebelliousness and bad-girl persona influenced many women to express themselves and defy the status quo.

Despite her powerful persona, she was often overshadowed and exploited by her husband. Zelda’s personal journals were often the source of inspiration and plagiarism for her husband’s novels (“Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald”) and she is still often not credited enough for her influence.

The courage with which Zelda Fitzgerald embodied flapper style lives on today, over 100 years later, and continues to influence women across the globe.

zelda fitzgerald
1900-1940: Text

1930-1940: Joan Crawford

The 1930s began to see the influence of Hollywood and the film industry on fashion due to the rise of the movie star. In 1932, Joan Crawford (1904-1977) proved the influence of film on fashion when she starred in Letty Lynton wearing “a diaphanous white organdie gown [see image] which would spawn thousands of copies across the US” (Reddy, “1930-1939”).

Joan Crawford was an American actress born in San Antonio, Texas. In her early career she was portrayed as a jazz-age flapper, although she solidified her career as the star of several psychological melodramas (Britannica). Her on-screen image came to be defined as a successful career woman who was often fur-draped and wore elaborate gowns (Britannica).

The working girl persona which Crawford often played was enticing to audiences in the Great Depression era since many were inspired by the rags-to-riches stories. Crawford herself could also strongly relate to the characters she played since her own career had a significant upwards trajectory after being born into poverty. Exquisitely over-the-top gowns represented the definition of a successful working woman in the 1930s.

Crawford was often paired with studio costume designer Adrian and her on-screen dresses often set the trend for woman of all social classes (Carter). Her dresses could be reproduced at all prices points since a cheaper material could produce the same dress design. The idea of reproducing on-screen dresses became revolutionary and was an equalizing factor for women.

Crawford actively worked to create her image, always perfecting her look to appear no less than perfect in front of the paparazzi. She connected with her audiences through fashion and impacted the way women dressed in a personal way through her films and paparazzi photos.

joan crawford
1900-1940: Text
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