[the ‘Heath’ Cinema in Haywards Heath] (ca.1928)
[the ‘Heath’ Cinema in Haywards Heath] (ca.1928)


The 1920s resides in the popular imagination as a decade where some enjoyed untamed fun and hedonism. This spirit was reflected in the upper class youths dubbed the ‘Bright Young Things’ who, as conjured up by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, danced to imported American jazz music, attended a host of parties and drove cars.

The ‘flapper’ girl became a stereotype of the decade characterised by a boyish look with short hair and a tubular silhouette that flattened the breasts. Flouting Edwardian conventions, she wore cosmetics, smoked cigarettes, drank alcoholic cocktails, attended nightclubs and had casual affairs with men. While few led such a decadent lifestyle, opportunities were slowly beginning to open up for women, and the  ‘flapper’ became a generic term reflecting this changing morality and behaviour.

The 1920s saw greater employment opportunities. Women continued to work in domestic service but also worked as shop girls and secretaries. Consequently working women had more disposable income. For men, it was customary to be in paid employment. Young men, without families to provide for, could spend their income on clothing and leisure pursuits. A popular pastime was going to the cinema. Popular film stars, such as Ivor Novello, were the celebrities of the era and films disseminated fashion styles very quickly to a wide audience.

The decade saw an improvement in the mass production of clothing. In the early 1920s, rayon known as ‘artificial silk’ began to be used in the manufacture of clothing. It was cheap, light and warm and could take dye and print. As the decade progressed, technical innovation advanced and rayon was produced to a higher quality. The amount of material needed to construct a dress fell considerably and only required two to three metres. As a result, clothing was easier and cheaper for mass manufacturers to produce. The 1920s saw the opening of high street retailers such as British Home Stores, Etam and C&A.

The films held at the Screen Archive South East reveal the different types of dress worn by the middle and working classes throughout the 1920s. As such, the films provide an insight into clothing that falls outside the stereotypical portrayal of the period. They reveal that not everyone adopted the new silhouette championed by the fashion magazines as many of the older generation continued to wear conservative Edwardian styles.