Everything old always seems to become new again in the seasonal style cycles, and the time seems right to revisit this era as people are once again looking to have a little fun and are easing the tight grip on their wallets.
"There's a little optimism that comes with the '20s," says Meredith Melling Burke, Vogue's senior market director. "You have the colour, the 3-D embellishment. It all feels upbeat, and it all plays into a more carefree attitude."
The exuberance of the time — and especially in the clothes worn for nightlife and dancing — is appealing, but you also run the risk of an over-the-top look that cannot be sustained for a long time, says Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. That's what happened after the stock market crash in 1929 when anything flashy suddenly looked so wrong, he explains.
The clothes and attitude of 2012 are a smarter version of what was offered in the flapper days; it's all being done in a more approachable, thoughtful way, Koda says.
But Koda says he sees a sociological link between then and now when it comes to people testing boundaries. "There was a generational change happening. It was about losing the Edwardian restrictions then, but there was a sense of social opportunity that's in the air now."
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He also can draw some parallels in fashion trends. Rich, luxurious textiles were so important — as they are now — and the favourite silhouette was long and languid, just like you'll see on the current catwalks.
"It's a drift of cloth over a really elegant body," Koda describes. "It's decorated with embroideries and fringe, or any kind of ornament. The woman is wearing a sensual expression of textile and technique rather than highlighting the fine points of her body. The look suggests animation ... but it's a straight-up and straight-down line in supple fabrics, satin, georgette or chiffon. It's not an ostentatious sexiness, but you could see it might appeal to women who are being attentive to their fitness. It's an elegant way to show off what you've been doing on the Pilates machine."
Designer Tory Burch's new collection is full of the chemise dresses, sleeveless tops and tiered skirts that were groundbreaking in the 1920s. She took her inspiration from the then-popular seaside French resort of Deauville.
Other designers, including Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren, tapped into the menswear-inspired styles and cloche hats too. There were some handkerchief hemlines as well, which is how Coco Chanel, Jean Patou and Jeanne Lanvin first began to adjust the collective eye toward a shorter, less matronly skirt during the youth of today's great-grandmothers.
"I love the effortlessness of the era. It was the dawn of modern sportswear," says Burch. Even then, there was an eye-catching mixing and matching of menswear-inspired jackets and trousers with very feminine dresses in pretty makeup colours and delicate prints — a look that's equally relevant now, she observes.
Burch's advice on how to wear a '20s-inspired style without appearing costume-y is to push those unexpected combinations: Try a silk dress with a leather jacket or a printed dress that's dotted with sequins. That should be just enough to push you out of your comfort zone and into the trend, she says. It has to all come off effortlessly, though, never looking like you are trying too hard, she adds.
If in doubt, start with the long necklace.
"What felt new about the way designers approached the era of the 1920s was how they reinterpreted it," says Vogue's Melling Burke. "It didn't become a head-to-toe statement. The statement was really about a dress — a '20s dress, a chemise, an easy drop-waist, a slip dress — but the accessories and makeup were modern."
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The good news for shoppers is that many of the clothes work for an everyday, daytime wardrobe, but all with a touch of glamour. "I think it's totally sexy," Melling Burke says. "It's not where we've been for a while with this looser shape. It's less body conscious."
She says she'd like to see eveningwear and the red carpet move this way as well. A strong, young woman — a Michelle Williams or Kate Bosworth type, she says — could make a memorable fashion statement by wearing what is not expected, which is typically a skintight, curve-hugging sheath gown.
Fringe would be fun, Melling Burke adds, but that needs to be saved for a special occasion that requires dressing up. It's not too grown-up for prom, though, she says: hint, hint, hint for teen girls.
With a new movie version of "The Great Gatsby" coming later this year with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan as its stars, there will be a lot of exposure of these styles to a very broad audience, so expect the trend to last awhile. Lauren's spring collection specifically cited "Gatsby" as a starting point, and Burch had recently seen the off-Broadway show "Gatz" when she was designing hers.
"People look at that time and they want to be there. There was joy and effortless glamour and that's the excitement," says Burch.