Early 20th Century Ethnic Inspirations Part II, the 1920s

Several weeks ago I posted about how in the early decades of the 20th century, designers were very much influenced by the Orient.   When the decade of the 1920s started, the world had just been through some very rough times.  Europe had been left devastated by WWI, and soon after, the world was in the grip of a horrible flu epidemic.  Fashion was understandably somber through this period. But when the world started to return to a more normal existence, exotic fashion blossomed.

Although Egyptian themes had already been popular due to an Egyptian exhibit at the Louvre in 1911, the biggest craze for Egyptian-inspired fashion began in 1922.  That was when Howard Carter unearthed the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt’s Valley of the kings. The photographs of artifacts found in the tomb had a vast impact on fashion and popular culture as hieroglyphics and designs such as scarabs and lotus flowers became common motifs for clothing, accessories and jewelry.

These motifs were a great fit with the Art Deco style, which placed an emphasis on geometric shapes and stylized shapes from nature.

There were lots of other ethnic influences in the 1920s, perhaps brought about by a world becoming “smaller” due to improvements in transportation and mass communication.   Middle and upper class people were traveling to Europe and Asia, and bringing home folk costumes as souvenirs.

These became so popular that they were imported for sale into the United States, and needlecraft companies published how-to books so women could make their own “authentic” European needlework.  There was also a continuing fascination with the Ballet Russes and other performing groups that dressed in European folk fashion.

It’s also likely that world events played a role, with the ending of the Russian Revolution and the death of Lenin drawing attention to Russia, the rise of Ghandi and the Indian independence movement drawing attention to India, and the Turkish War of Independence drawing attention to Turkey and Eastern Europe.  China was often in the news, with the death of Sun Yat-sen and the rise to power of Chiang Kai-shek.

Orientalism could be seen throughout the decade in both fabric design and in the shape of garments. A craze for kimonos led not only to the shape being used in women’s coats and loungewear, but also determined the motifs used in fabric design, especially that of chrysanthemum flowers.   Lightweight kimono-shaped dressing robes became the robe of the 1920s, as seen in magazine photos and silent movies as well as in mass marketing catalogues.

Firms such as Liberty of London and Babani of Paris led the way with Oriental-styled textiles. There were also companies such as the Pohoomull Brothers of India who exported Oriental textiles to the West, and even set up shops in areas where tourists would be shopping. The coat above was bought in Egypt by a tourist from Pennsylvania.  But it isn’t Egyptian in origin; it’s Indian Shisha mirror work. The world had indeed become a multiculturally fashionable place!


Filed under Vintage Clothing

8 responses to “Early 20th Century Ethnic Inspirations Part II, the 1920s

  1. vintagejenta

    Love the Russian and Eastern European ethnic fashion inspirations. Bohemian, Scandinavian, and Baltic fit into this as well. So lovely! Wish it would come back.


  2. Ooooh thank you for this wonderful post!!! I devoured every word and picture with gusto – it was such an incredibly exciting time of discovery and change around the world and how wonderful that it made it’s mark on fashion!!


  3. Tracy H

    Hi Lizzie! I have exact same silk kimono robe above, with the beigey print and bright blue border at the hem. I love it! Did you know, one of the main characters(Julia Flyte) in the 2008 movie version of Brideshead Revisited wears this robe in a scene later in the movie … I was astounded to see it on her, and have the same wrapper in my closet! So it must have been a popular item, wonder what store it originally came from!? Do you know anything about it? I assume it is 1930’s. y/n ?? thanks so much for your blog!!


    • Hi Tracy, I’ve not seen the 2008 Brideshead.. but I really should, no? This robe was *very* popular in the late 1920s. I have been it in everything from a 1927 Sears catalog to movie magazines showing the latest new actress wearing it. My favorite is a magazine illustration I have with a young woman wearing a very similar robe, holding up and scolding the new puppy who has just ruined her slippers!


  4. My sources:

    Buxbaum, Gerda, ed, Icons of Fashion: The 20th Century. Munich: Prestel, 1999.

    Ewing, Elizabeth, History of 20th Century Fashion. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974.

    Kennett, Frances, The Collector’s Book of Fashion. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1983.

    Laver, James, Costume & Fashion. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982, 1995.

    Robinson, Julian, The Golden Age of Style. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.


  5. Pingback: Philipsborn’s Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1925 | The Vintage Traveler

  6. Pingback: 1920s Embroidered and Smocked Frock | The Vintage Traveler

  7. Pingback: Early 20th Century Ethnic Inspirations Part II, the 1920s – fcprimeau.net

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