The Jazz Age, as this decade is often called, was characterized by an intense modernity and a turning away from pre-World War I formality and constriction in dress. By the early '20s a new model of femininity appeared, the "sophisticated schoolgirl" or garçonne. She wore casual but impeccable clothing with short skirts and even shorter hair, had an easy athletic stride, sported a suntan, and showed off her legs in light-colored silk stockings.
New, too, were the short dinner dress, the efficient coat-dress, and the cloche-a head-hugging hat worn low on the forehead, perfect with bobbed or shingled hair. The French designers Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel and Jean Patou were the most prominent exponents of wholesome simplicity and sporty comfort in fashion.
In contrast, couturiers Paul Poiret, Jeanne Lanvin, and Callot Soeurs were romantics in their approach to fashion. Lanvin, for example, introduced the robe de style, a low-waisted, full-skirted dress with wire hoops at the hips in the manner of eighteenth-century panniers. Poiret created the first dresses with low, bare backs (with which corsets could not be worn). Callot Soeurs and Jacques Doeuillet were noted for short beaded and sequined evening dresses worn by "bright young things" in jazz clubs where they danced the Charleston. In these clubs, respectable women could drink and smoke in public for the first time.
Many designers were enchanted by romanticized notions of Asia and Africa. This interest was stimulated in part by the Orientalist performances of the Ballets Russes, popular exihibitions of African sculpture, and the extraordinary talents of the African-American entertainer Josephine Baker - the toast of Paris in the '20s.
In the middle years of the decade, hemlines rose to the knee and waistlines fell to the hips or were eliminated entirely. Then, in 1927, Jean Patou showed dropped-waist dresses with hemlines at mid-calf. For the next few years hems were uneven, either just below the knees in front and ankle-length in back or dipping in points all around. By the end of the decade, the flat-chested and narrow-hipped boyish ideal was beginning to give way to a softer, more curvaceous femininity.