Fashion History: How the wheel influenced 20th century fashion

Wheels, Reels & Automobiles – Fashion History

Wheels, Reels & Automobiles – Fashion History

Wheels, Reels, and Automobiles

This lecture, taught by costume historian Abigail Cucolo, will take you on a journey of how the wheel influenced fashion at the turn of the 20th century. You will learn how three innovations- the bicycle, the automobile, and cinema- significantly affected what women wore, providing new outlets for freedom, necessitating the adoption of more practical clothing, and revolutionizing the dissemination of fashion trends.

Automobile and garment photographs are courtesy of the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum.

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The wheel has been an indispensable device since the birth of civilization, making transportation an effortless task, its influence has expanded beyond travel, into the world of fashion. Aside from the use of the wheel in the groundbreaking sewing machine, its employment in three exciting innovations at the turn of the 20th Century significantly contributed to the evolution of a woman’s wardrobe, the bicycle, the automobile, and the moving picture saw women’s fashion move from the elaborate constriction of the Victorian Period to the sophistication of 1930s glamour.



But while Victoria society valued domestic, dainty ladies, the health reform movement also saw an increase in women’s participation in an active lifestyle. Upper middle class women and above, began participating in vogue sports like tennis, croquet, ice skating, or golf. But for these social activities, they originally wore their everyday clothes, or slightly modified versions. Schools also began instituting exercise classes where women’s clothing could diverge from the frivolous, restricting dress code of the day, with uniforms consisting of knee-length divided skirts. Though these situations began to blur the boundaries of acceptable costume, the new styles were never worn on the street or out of the confines of the gym and private society.

In the 1890s the first women who wore ankle skirts in the cities faced aggressive crowds. In comes the bicycle. Invented in the early 19th Century, its use did not become widespread until the 1880s. And by the 1890s cycling for men, and women, was the rage.


The New Woman

Though many progressive women, known as New Women or Blue Stockings, were already challenging gender boundaries by incorporating menswear into their clothing through tailor-made suits, shirtwaist blouses, and boater hats, this masculine alternative dress was frowned upon by society in general. The bicycle made great headway in removing the stigma associated with more practical clothing for women, and it was liberating in more ways than one.


Cycling, as a new sport, not already designated as exclusively male, was a socially acceptable activity women could claim for themselves. And since they had access to these new wheels, for the first time, women were no longer restricted to a radius of three miles around their homes. Of course, this new activity required a more suitable costume. Less embellishment, simplified undergarments, and more flexible corsets became the foundation for the 1890s woman’s activewear. For cycling, most wore suits with calf-length divided skirts, rationales in England, though bloomers or knickerbockers were worn by some. And gators were employed to protect the stockings on newly exposed calves. Initially, both costumes were met with some controversy.


But bloomers, in particular, faced great hostility. Full pants gathered at the knee, bloomers were originally devised by the dress reformer, Amelia Bloomer, in the 1850s as an alternative to the cumbersome and physically affecting styles of the mid-Victorian Period. More popular in America than in England, where skirts that could be buttoned around each leg were most accepted for cycling, they were still often worn with an outer skirt to defer ridicule. Surprisingly in France, where women were chastised in magazines for dressing in a masculine manner during their athletic activities, the divided skirts and bloomers were rapidly accepted and a trouser ban on women was lifted for cyclists. By 1896 there was an estimated number of 10 million Americans cycling. The sport only increased in popularity, and during the Edwardian Period bloomers caused less controversy as society became accustomed to seeing women’s ankles. While the more traditional woman wore a divided skirt, bloomers were the choice garment of the emancipated lady and marked the first occasion of modestly successful trousers for women. Because of the bicycle, society was familiarizing itself with the idea that women could, well, move, and society wouldn’t fall into moral decay if women wore pants.


Soon, bloomers were deemed acceptable for activities other than cycling, like hiking. Multiple versions for all occasions became available, cotton for summer, wool and flannel for winter. The wealthy took them to a luxurious level, more for show than practicality, and had them made out of light-colored silks, hand-laced and embroidered. Though trousers as we recognize them would not be seen in women’s everyday costume until the late 1920s and would not actually become a part of the average woman’s wardrobe until the 1930s, the bicycle helped make a leap towards independence, if only for our legs.



At the turn of the 20th Century another invention that utilized the wheel arrived that revolutionized transportation and redefined what it meant to be independent, the automobile. During this time there was a trend to develop specialized garments for certain activities, engaging every part of one’s person in the experience. Originally seen not so much as transportation, as a leisure activity for the upper class, driving was considered a new sport, with the first cars being high riding, open carriages that smoked, kicked up dust, oil, and rocks, and left no protection from the elements. This new sport, just like cycling, required a new uniform. Or, at least a cover. While menswear was a bit more practical for the dirty work, or play, that was driving, feminine dress exhibited less utility. The fashionable silhouette was a lavish S curve with blousey bodices, delicate fabrics, feminine trim, and long, flowing skirts. And women did not want to sacrifice their everyday style for the automobile. So, atop their fine silks protecting their delicate complexions, new garments entered into women’s fashion.


Head Covering, Driving Gloves & Dusters

The driving uniform consisted of three basic features of protection, head, body, and hands. To stop bugs, dirt, oil, and any other unpleasant hazards from striking their delicate faces, women would wrap veils of netting around the extravagant hats of the period, adjusting to cover the entire head, preserving her hat, her hair, and her happiness. Another option was available in the form of a hood that could be fastened under the chin, or for the lady who is particularly concerned with her facage, a large face-covering bonnet that resembled a beekeeper hat with a glass window to peer through was on hand.


If a woman was particularly adventurous or keen to declare her independence, like the New Women or Blue Stockings, she would wear a peaked cap, or tam o’shanters and goggles like a man, though the face veils were much preferred. Now, of course, a woman’s hands needed to remain soft and fair, a status symbol that expressed the luxury of a laborless life. So, driving gloves bedecked her dainty fingers. The most iconic new feature was the duster, or the motoring coat, worn by both men and women to protect their clothes from the soiling that accompanied rides onto dirty, poorly formed roads. Dusters were originally large, to encompass the full silhouettes of fashionable skirts and bodices, heavy, and can be made from leather, fur, or waterproof rubber. Most dusters also had large pockets for maps, gloves, bandanas, and other travel necessities. Of course, women did not want to sacrifice their style and self-presentation for utility. Many of the fashionable elites scoffed at this new uniform. The protagonist of the story entitled Frivolous Girl Goes Motoring declares, “I can’t bear to see anyone all muffled and bundled in an auto. If I had a dozen autos, I shouldn’t ever want to rig out the way motoring women do. They look hideous.”


Addressing the problem of self-presentation and function, by the end of 1904, more stylish, form-fitting options in silk, cotton, and linen became available. Manufacturers of auto services, products, and goods recognize this new market with women and began to cater to their wants and not just their needs. Fashion and the automobile had developed a symbiotic relationship, one influencing the design of the other.


While women would take the wheel and have their turn at maneuvering the mechanical beast, cars began to add refinements that catered to the woman and her fashion. An electric car was particularly marketed to the female driver, with plush seats facing each other for easy socializing, some even having the driver in the backseat, so she could face and chat with her friends, the car was made with a woman’s wardrobe in mind. Side opening doors wide enough to accommodate voluminous, long skirts, wide interiors to accommodate large hats, makeup compartments and perfume bottles, and most importantly, these cars had a closed carriage, which meant a woman and her wardrobe were protected from the weather. Now a woman could wear what she wanted, traveling in style both in car and clothing.

As the decade progressed the automobile’s popularity increased, and it began moving from a novelty to a necessity. In 1900, 8,000 passenger autos were registered in the U.S. By 1905 there were 77,000. After Henry Ford introduced his affordable Model-T in 1908, affordable because of the moving assembly line, more and more families across America were getting on the road. Cars were becoming less of a sport or entertainment and were being utilized for their transportation efficiency. They offered the opportunity to commute to work, so people could live in the quiet suburbs but still enjoy the booming employment in the city. They also allowed for shopping trips to department stores or boutiques and sightseeing without the fatigue of dealing with the timetables, crowding, and questionable persons of public transportation. The convenience of the car provided freedom of travel and women were utilizing this new freedom. Just like the bicycle, the automobile gave a woman a new source of independence, expanding her world far beyond the domestic sphere, much farther than even the bicycle made possible.


As the 1910s began more and more women were becoming active in sports, in education, in politics, in occupation, and driving was becoming an essential part of her lifestyle. This greater activity saw a manifestation in fashion. The silhouette moved towards practicality, narrowing and simplifying to accommodate a more independent woman. While not the only contributing factor, the popularity of cars had a hand in this new look, as a slimmer silhouette was more in line with travel by automobile. It was becoming too tedious to maneuver the relatively small space with cumbersome petticoats, excessively trimmed gowns, and wide-brimmed hats. So, day skirts shortened to the ankle, lost fullness, and embellishment became less elaborate. Collars and necklines lowered, and waistlines rose to empire level, meaning a corset was not exactly necessary, though it was still worn.


The practical, tailor-made suit, originally only intended for traveling, became a favorite ensemble, as travel had become a typical part of the average woman’s day. By the end of the 1910s the extravagant dressing seen during the previous decades would be gone forever, as fashion would streamline alongside the cars. The economic boom of the 1920s saw affordable luxury. More people than ever before had money to spend, and the quickly improving automobile was the most enticing of items. Gone were the cluster of bells and whistles displayed on the car. Now a new sleek design built for speed and stylized for flash entered the market.


A Sleeker Silhouette

The chic trends of short hair, a flat figure, no waist, and narrow, thin shift-style dresses drenched in sparkling trim, were fashions answer to streamlining for speed and flash. Of course, as the automobile developed more refined and elegant coachwork, clothing manufacturers began making more refined and elegant driving wear to keep in step with fashion. The cumbersome picture hats and veils of the early motoring period gave way to snug-fitting cloches and tailored motoring coats replaced heavy dusters.


This new slim boyish silhouette with hemlines that were rising and feet that were dancing was easy, fun, and one could zip from place to place in and out of the car without the hindrance of onerous petticoats or corsets, which was essential as the energetic flapper didn’t want anything to put a damper on her fun, including the weather. The preference of protecting one’s self and one’s excessively luxurious clothes from the elements dominated, so in the 1920s the most common carriage model became the closed car. With designs built for speed and show and gowns made for envy and shine, the glamour and luxury displayed through the glitzy surface embellishment of both car and clothes represented the decadence of the era.

By 1924 the Ford Motor Company had around 10,000 dealerships across the U.S., and anyone who could afford a car had one. Cars had become a staple to the American way of life, and people would enjoy the pleasure romp that was the roaring 20s by hopping into their car to explore the country or the night life and speakeasies in the city.



With the economic boom after World War I people had money to spend and amusement to be sought, and the autos weren’t the only wheels providing entertainment. The rolling movie reel was driving its way into America’s hearts. Theater going was quickly becoming a favorite pastime, and the actors and actresses gracing the screen were promptly launched into super stardom. Films began to influence fashion, dispersing the glamorous style of the stars to the masses much more rapidly than any magazine, newspaper, or fashion plate. The female characters in film were sensational. They were independent, and they could hold their own against the male stars.


The growing autonomy of women was represented in the pleasure-filled lifestyles exhibited by the characters in these movies. Their boyish figures drenched in glittering embellishment were representations of the fast-paced excessive times but were also statements of equality. Women were participating in the freedom and frivolity of men. The ideal of excessive luxury, glamour, and diversion began to characterize the 20s for both sexes. When girls saw actress Colleen Moore, the definitive flapper, wear a different lavish dress, usually heavily beaded or trimmed in fur, covered in an ultramodern art deco print, in every scene of her movie, Flaming Youth, wardrobes everywhere started to expand. Many women found this gratuitous opulence particularly alluring, and it was as though film were giving them the green light to indulge. So, they began to emulate their favorite star. Pola Negri, an actress of the 20s, bought white satin shoes dyed to match her outfits, and women by the thousands followed her lead. Clara Bow and Louise Brooks helped popularize the masculine bobbed hair, sailor pants, and pleated skirts that were the rage. Barbara La Marr and Clara Bow’s bow-shaped lips, lined eyes, and hair curled to their cheeks also saw makeup start to be worn unabashedly, simply because it was worn on the screen. Theater and film stars were used to promote powder and coal and Max Factor, movie makeup designer, developed a line of powder, rouge, eyeshadow, and lipstick for the average woman.


Granted, a painted lady was still seen as scandalous by many. The 20s were the cusp of change and struggles to retain tradition were still present. Along with the auto, motion pictures embodied an attractive and dangerous modern freedom in manners and morals for those previously socially constrained. Women were searching for a comfortable identity, trying to balance this newfound freedom with moral sensibilities that weren’t yet extinct, so they looked to the movies.



The Virgin & the Vamp

Unfortunately, the cinema had stripped this struggle of its complexity and split the female character into two archetypal personas, one representing tradition, and one representing modernity, the virgin and the vamp. All other stereotypes fell under those two canopies. The vamp laid claim to the flapper and the ‘It’ girl while the virgin included ingenues and the girls next door. The silent screen stars that embodied the archetypes became the foundation for women to sartorially mimic.


The vamp was edgy. And while she had the ultra-glamorous wardrobe, her costume was scandalously exposing. Bandeau tops made out of sparkling beads, low-cut silk dresses, elaborate headpieces, but her persona was too sexually overt, making her a little too extreme for even the progressive 1920s girl. The influence of her costume was seen in the exotic elements it incorporated, however. Asian motifs were increasing in popularity since the early 1900s. Oriental prints, the Eastern inspired turbans and head wraps, and finally, when King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922 the Egyptian revival sprung to life and all things exotic became the rage. See MGM’s Egyptian Movie Palace or films like The Son of the Sheik and The Thief of Baghdad, or fashions like the coat pictured, which features iridescent beetle wings that resembled beautiful stones. Possibly the most iconic and influential figure from film during the 20s and since was the flapper.



Not as sexually overt or sinister as the vamp, the flapper style still featured bobbed hair, knee-length hems, plunging necklines, and androgynous shifts glistening in sequins, Diamante fringe, and paste. The flapper also wore suits inspired by menswear, and with her short hair, disregard for gender boundaries, and carefree attitude, she challenged masculinity without overturning it. The flapper took risks but never went so far as the vamp. Vamp fashion was exotic, suggestive, and escapist. The flapper was fun, adventurous, and free spirited, but both were luxurious and lavish, representing the excess of the 1920s.


The flapper also wore suits inspired by menswear, and with her short hair, disregard for gender boundaries, and carefree attitude, she challenged masculinity without overturning it. The flapper took risks but never went so far as the vamp. Vamp fashion was exotic, suggestive, and escapist. The flapper was fun, adventurous, and free spirited. But both were luxurious and lavish, representing the excess of the 1920s.


The Ingénue

On the other end of the spectrum there was the all-American ingénue, the girl next door, epitomized in the virgin queens of cinema, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. Childlike, porcelain-skinned, and dressed in Grecian inspired late teens and 20s adapted nostalgic gowns, the ingenue represented romanticism over modernity, virtue over vice. She was art nouveau while the flapper was art deco. Her fashion evoked images of a feminine shepherdess, a damsel of charm. Though not as flashy as the flapper, her style, in keeping of the luxury of the 20s silent screen, was just as fine. She wore designers like Fortuny, pioneer of the natural figure and master of luxurious, minuscule pleats, and she was bedecked in soft gowns of silk, chiffon, and lace, with slightly longer hemlines. Fresh, innocent, and feminine, the ingenue made popular ringlets and pin curls, ruffles and florals, and the robe de style. Influenced by the sumptuous style of the 18th Century, the robe de style was primarily an evening silhouette whose most distinctive feature was a full bouffant skirt that jutted out at the hips like panniers. It was even referred to as the picture dress because of its popularity in movies. These trends provided an alternative to the boyish bob and straight silhouette and an alternative for women who were not yet ready to accept the bold new flapper reveling in the excess that was the 20s.


After the economic disaster of 1929 Hollywood fought to keep audiences paying to see films and maintain a theater going culture. By 1932 the average income of an American family decreased by 40%, and that disposable income available in the booming 20s was gone. But production companies worried needlessly. But the Great Depression weighing on everyone’s hearts, escaping into the glamour of the movies was a relief and a fantasy in which people indulged to forget the hardships of the times. The novelty of the silver screen had taken the Western world by storm, and when the talkies arrived, and the Golden Age of Hollywood began the influence of film on fashion was solidified forever. Actors, actresses, and costume designers began to dictate American style. Just like Clara Bow with her lips or Louise Brooks with her bob or even Greta Garbo with her cape and deep cloche, individual performers started to be known for their much-mimicked trademarks. Women bleached their coif to resemble Jean Harlow and her platinum blonde hair, little girls were transformed into Shirley Temple clones, and boys were bedecked in western styled shirts inspired by the rugged appeal of the cowboy. The women onscreen, of course, continued to lead enchanting, fast-paced, action-packed lives with a wardrobe to match.


Sophistication & Glamour

While 1920s cinema emphasized flash and excess, the 30s depicted ultimate glamour and sophistication. Art deco continued to be an influential motif and a streamlined long, lean figure was still ideal. But the boyish silhouette disappeared. The waistline moved back to natural, breasts were no longer suppressed, hairline extended with soft curls and more feminine, less ornate surface design graced the screen. The natural curves of a woman were emphasized, particularly in evening gowns. Screen sirens like Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and Carol Lombard were sensuously draped in chiffons, silks, and satins. Long romantic gowns with plunging necklines and open backs gracefully hugged every curve in a clean, elegant line, achieved through the advantages of the bias cut. By cutting the fabric diagonally to the selvage the technique allowed the fabric to fall in a smooth vertical drape that clung to the body and left little to the imagination. Often actresses would go without underwear to ensure that smooth figure. In fact, Jean Harlow is known for claiming to never wear underwear at all. The utilization of the bias cut by Hollywood costume designers played a crucial role in popularizing the trend, as well as multiple others that became essential parts of the 1930s silhouette.


One of the most influential was Gilbert Adrian, Head of the costume department at MGM between 1928 and 1941, creating the signature style of the studio’s top actresses, Adrian launched various fashion crazes. A lover of gingham and its all-American feel, Adrian used the fabric for the costumes of Judy Garland in the Wizard of Ozand Katharine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story, afterwards making it a common choice for summer. While Joan Crawford wanted to hide her broad shoulders, Adrian chose to accentuate that strapping feature. Seen in the costumes of Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and the imposing Miss Crawford, broad shoulders and narrow hips became the rage, and women’s fashion of the second half of the 30s was dominated by shoulder pads, ruffles and puff sleeves, all thanks to Adrian.


Though the feminine look of the 30s was a clear departure from the masculine 20s, it was not the only sartorial option suggested by film. Pre-code cinema saw actress’ roles expand beyond virgin and vamp as more independent women were being represented on the screen. Actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Ruth Chatterton, and Greta Garbo were given meaty roles that went against the stereotypical ideas of femininity. Influenced as well by the aviation obsession, their costumes often incorporated suits, leather jackets, and jodhpur-style pants. Along with Garbo, strong woman icons like Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, preferred wearing trousers on screen. And it didn’t pigeonhole them into a stereotype. Films’ good and bad girls, like Jean Harlow and Norma Shearer, for example, wore pants. Cinema, continuing the work of the bicycle, was telling women that it was now socially acceptable to wear trousers and you weren’t less of a woman for doing so.

Now, in films, even when adorned in a suit, actresses were basically wearing what would be considered haute couture while going out to lunch, running errands, or just going about their daily business. They were impeccably and impossibly styled from head to toe with outfits straight from the fashion plates of Paris, taking advantage of people’s yearning to escape the hard times and live vicariously through film, rags to riches stories where the actresses began the film dressed as an ordinary woman and ended the film in satin dressing gowns and fur coats, were also popular. It was escapist glamour. The depressed masses watching the films, attempting to channel Hollywood style, and therefore, break away from the hardship of the decade, endeavored to recreate themselves into the impeccable stylings of the stars with more frugal do-it-yourself methods.


Magazines published clothing patterns based on film costumes, so women could sew their own. Outfits worn by the actors were quickly copied by retailers, and a woman could purchase a low-price copy in a department store or from a Sears catalog. It was a trickle-down effect. From long, sensuous evening gowns to smart tailored suits, the glamour of Hollywood would disperse to the masses, helping them escape the hard times of the depression through the fantastical fashion inspired by the silver screen.


Cinema, the automobile, and the bicycle, all utilized the wheel in a remarkable way, providing new outlets of independence and expression for the women taking advantage of their functions. Each invention revolutionized the world and a woman’s wardrobe. By reinventing the wheel these extraordinary innovations reinvented fashion.