Sunday, 27 April 2014

Fashion Forward

by Jennie Marsland

In my final year of my Animal Science degree, I took a course in the social history of clothing. I needed one more credit and I’d had my fill of science courses by then. Frankly, I also expected the clothing course to be a no-brainer.

I was mistaken. The professor, a no-nonsense Englishwoman, assigned a lot of papers and graded them rigorously. I learned more about academic writing from her than I did in any of my science courses.

One other Aggie signed up with me. Two mornings a week, the two of us would come straight from the dairy barn, strip off our coveralls, clean up and head for the Home Economics building in our jeans and sweatshirts. The Home Ec girls wore skirts and cute sweaters, but I don’t recall feeling out of place. Being a history buff by nature, I loved learning how clothing mirrored the morals and attitudes of the times, and it was very good for a young woman to find out that our concept of the “ideal” body changes with the times, too.

Never was this more true than in the 1920s, the setting of my current work in progress, Flight. The changes in women’s clothes between 1915 and 1925 are as sweeping as the changes in society as a whole. 

Here’s a dress from 1910 and one from 1920. Imagine a mother who had worn clothes like the dress on the left – with appropriate corsetry – in her youth, watching her daughter go out the door dressed as a flapper. It must have seemed like she was going out in her underclothes.

During the war, there was no fabric or time to waste on frills, and women needed practical clothes to wear doing all the work they’d taken on while the men were in the trenches. Afterwards, no one could put the genie back in the bottle. The ‘New Woman’ had arrived for good.

Georgie O’Neill, the heroine of Flight, is a new woman with a capital N. She also loves clothes, and I’m having fun finding them for her.

I love Jazz Age fashion. It’s elegant and deceptively simple, with colour and pattern as its art form instead of shape and draping. Fitting for women standing on the brink of a brave new world.

Jennie Marsland


  1. Wow! Those two dresses really do mirror how times changed for women. I think it's wonderful that you're able to incorporate what you learned in that class (sounds fascinating!) into your historical novels. The fashion idea is perfect for Georgie, based on what we learned about her in Shattered. Go, Jennie!

    1. Thanks, Magi! The struggle for women to be able to wear comfortable, non-restrictive clothing was as fierce as the struggle for the vote. The course was fascinating. Clothing is so bound up with status, day to day roles, morals, art and architecture - in a very real sense, we are what we wear.