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Flapper Prom Dress

Evening gown worn by Edith Evelyn Nelson
to the University of Wisconsin's Junior Prom,
c. 1923.

(Museum object #1969.147.2)

Edith Evelyn Nelson may have been a "flapper" or "bright young thing" when she attended the University of Wisconsin in the early 1920s, but her yearbook photo depicts a reserved and thoughtful young coed, not one who flaunted her unconventional conduct and dress. Still, when she attended the University of Wisconsin's Junior Prom she wore the latest style in evening wear, what today we may look upon as a "flapper dress." Her sleeveless evening gown of silver lame and gray satin had the tubular silhouette with dropped waist and above-the-ankle length popular with those who called themselves flappers.

Flappers, named for their unbuckled galoshes that flapped as they walked, had their heyday in the 1920s. Usually college girls, these young women broke away from the conventions in clothing and manners held so dear by their mothers and grandmothers. They took up habits and mannerisms previously associated with men or "loose" women, such as smoking, drinking, and carousing. Despite all this wild new behavior in typically middle class women, these young ladies still had an innocence about them. For most, this was a phase they passed through in college, becoming much more sedate and conventional after they graduated.

Dresses worn by flappers were in stark contrast to those of earlier generations. Instead of gowns that accentuated a woman's curves, frocks of the 1920s created a boyish, curveless look. Dropped waists, the defining characteristic of dresses worn from 1922 through 1929, helped create this tubular style by de-emphasizing the waistline and bust. Most historians believe the dramatic new fashion trend emerged because of young women's confidence in themselves and belief in gender equality, as well as America's new emphasis on youth and interest in youthful fashions.

Another trend associated with 1920s fashion, the rising hem, first appeared in the mid-1910s when women began exposing their ankles. By 1920, dresses had risen to mid-calf length. For a brief period in 1923 and 1924 dresses fell back to the ankles as fabric manufacturers, reeling from the drastic decline in the amount of fabric used to make a dress, encouraged designers to create longer dresses, thus using more material. Edith's dress appears to come from this brief period. In 1925, dress hems shot up to the knees, where they remained until 1930.

Edith came of age as the flapper phenomenon took off. Originally from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, she attended the Oshkosh Normal School before spending the next two years at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, graduating from there in 1923 with a bachelor's degree in physical education.

Although the UW held lesser dances throughout the year, the only one of any note was the annual Junior Prom. In fact the 1914 UW yearbook declared, "The Junior Prom…has become the greatest social event of the year." First held at the Armory (or Red Gym) in 1895 for the Class of 1896, it moved to the State Capitol in 1916, where it remained through 1927. Edith probably wore this dress to a Junior Prom, but it is somewhat unclear in what year.

At the time she donated this dress to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1968, Edith did so as a "1921 Prom U of W" formal dress, but she more likely wore it to the Junior Prom held in 1923. First of all, Edith was not a UW student in 1921, plus research of photographs from proms between 1920 and 1922 show coeds wearing dresses with natural waistlines. On the other hand, images of women attending the Class of 1924 Prom held on February 2, 1923, document outfits with waistlines at the lower hips and hems that allowed just a peak of ankle, stunningly similar to Edith's gown.

Covered with sequins and beads or made of lame or satin, flapper dresses like Edith's were meant to be danced in. As their wearers moved to the lively steps of the Charleston, the Shimmy, the Foxtrot, and perhaps even dared to try the Tango, these dresses would have sparkled and glittered as they caught the soft evening light.

[Sources: Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion (Lanham, MD: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992 edition); Tosa, Marco (translated by Carolyn Cotchett). Evening Dresses, 1900-1940 (Modena, Italy: Zanfi Editori, 1988).]

LAB


Posted on September 25, 2008

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