Playful Promises Blog

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Filtering by Tag: 1920s

Censoring Swimwear

Swimming was originally thought of as dangerous (and indeed, with long skirts, it probably was), which lead to bizarre contraptions such as the "bathing car". I wish I could find a photograph or at least a drawing of one of these things, because it sounds ridiculous. A "bathing car" was a large wire cage attached to floats and a pulley system. One entered the cage and used the pulley to submerge themselves to the preferred depth - wild times. And just in case this got a bit too exciting, the Victorians were also greatly concerned with modesty. Women were either separated from men, or shielded from their eyes. They used wheeled "bathing machines" to immerse themselves, which also included "modesty hoods". 

At the turn of the century this paranoia for safety and the segregation of genders eventually passed, however women were still expected to wear neck to toe dresses in the water. It was only due to the participation of women in serious swimming (as a sport) that their swimwear shrank gradually, starting with the reveal of arms in the early 1910s until the 1920s with the showing of legs (gasp!). It also seemed to be the tightness of the garment that caused outrage.

Bathing suit arrests in Chicago, 1922

Vaudeville (and later, motion pictures) star and swimmer Annette Kellerman caused uproar with her risque swimwear. The Aussie "underwater ballerina" (a type of synchronized swimming which involves diving into glass tanks) first arrived in the United States in 1907, and brought with her a fashion revolution: the one piece swimsuit. Kellerman was even arrested for indecent exposure at Boston's Revere Beach in 1908, with the first outing of her "body stocking", and she soon altered the suit to cover arms and neck. The bathing suit allowed much more freedom than the layers of fabric previously worn, however it caused controversy by revealing the contours of the female figure. In some shocking cases, women even ROLLED THEIR STOCKINGS DOWN below the knees. Such a public nuisance were these women that the "Annette Kellerman" swimsuit was banned, and "beach censors" patrolled the sands handing out tickets and even collecting fines. 

Luckily, women just kept on pushing for fashion-freedom and from then on, swimwear just kept getting smaller until we get into 80's thong territory. The first bikinis appeared just after WW2, named after Bikini Atoll, the site of several nuclear weapons tests - for their supposed explosive effect on the viewer.... get it?....

 Shop Playful Promises swimwear!

A shift in fashion: The Shift Dress

The Shift Dress is an iconic, timeless item of clothing that is still as much of a must-have today as it was in the 1920’s! And Playful Promises is here to help keep you all bang on trend this season with their clothing line.

Yes, Playful Promises also offers clothes as well as underwear for all of you who did not know!

The Shift Dress is still a really prevalent trend in today’s fashions and never fails to appear every year. Not only are Playful Promises offerings delectable and help release your inner flapper, but they make you so ready to hit up a jazz club that you will be doing the Charleston down the street!

After researching the history of the Shift Dress I have come to realise how this fashion has managed to stay popular for decades, and I think you’ll agree that many of my findings are still relevant today.

It all began in the 1920’s, so a massive thank you must be said to all the fashion forward women of that decade as I think the ‘what to wear’ dilemma would be that much worse without the Shift Dress!

There were many factors that can be attributed to the development and success of the Shift Dress in the 1920’s:

  • Economic prosperity led to the Roaring Twenties, allowing women more spending power and women began to buy their clothes instead of making them themselves, meaning that fashion trends spread quicker and changed faster.

  • Social norms began to change throughout the 1920’s, becoming less rigid and enforced. Although alcohol was banned, people were allowed to drink a little within the home and soon women began to socialize and drink in public at illegal Speakeasies. Fashions begun to change becoming more revealing and freeing – a scandal at the time!

  • The textiles and garment industry became more advanced due to industrialization and women’s fashions became accessible to all consumers at different levels of the social spectrum.

  • As clothing was becoming easier to manufacture and produce in mass volumes, stores began selling ready-to-wear fashions in a variety of sizes and colours.

With these factors all playing a role in women’s fashions throughout the 1920’s, it’s no wonder that’s styles changed so drastically from the restrictive fashions of previous generations. Enter the Shift Dress.

The Shift Dress is not only an iconic piece of clothing it also represents a change in the way women were perceived in society. As well as this, it embodies and symbolizes the 1920’s; with its loose style and androgynous appearance it quickly became a favorite style of the infamous Flapper Girls of the 1920’s.

As well as being obviously stylish and big supporters of the Shift Dress, Flappers furthered the popularity of the style itself. Flappers were the iconic female representation of the 1920’s as a decade and were symbolized by their reputation for smoking from long cigarette holders, applying make-up in public and dancing wildly in short, shapeless Shift Dresses that exposed their limbs and created a flat-chested, androgynous look. This is the first example in history of women actively defying social conventions and instead of accentuating their figures through the use of corsetry; comfort was at the forefront of women’s clothing choices for once.

All this is pretty impressive for one style of garment don’t you think?! Not only was the Shift Dress stylish and comfortable but it stuck two fingers up at society encompassing clothing and revolutionary mind-set for women! Power to the people and all that!

As well as being an important fashion throughout the 1920’s the Shift Dress made a huge resurgence in the 1960’s. Audrey Hepburn often wore sleeveless shift dresses both onscreen and off, which had a major impact on 60s fashion.

The style was updated by designers such as Mary Quant, altering the length to create the Mini Dress. The Shift Dress became popular with women all over the world due to its simple style, adaptability to any situation and the way it suited all women. It even became a firm favorite with Jackie Kennedy!

Bound to be the most useful dress in your wardrobe, it’s a perfect choice for so many occasions because you can dress it up or down with your choice of accessories.

Why not experience the wonder of the Shift Dress for yourself and pick one (or more!) of Playful Promises offerings! The Digital Sunset Print Dress and the Swinging 60’s Lace Shift Dress are perfect for all you classy ladies out there. 


Based on all my research, I can’t help feeling that I was born in the wrong era! I would have fitted in perfectly in the 1920’s or 1960’s – not only do I love Shift Dresses, but I’m also flat-chested! Oh well, looks like I’m going to have to go on another Playful Promises shopping spree to cure my need for a Shift Dress!

Burlesque Past and Present: Josephine Baker

The art of the tease is on everyone's lips; with a rising interest in burlesque, cabaret clubs are in full swing and new acts are cropping up every week. At Playful Promises we just adore a bit of cheek, and would love to introduce you to our favourite burly girls, past and present! Keep your eyes firmly peeled, as each week we feature inspiring performers guaranteed to set pulses racing!

In our rip-roaring burlesque series we just couldn’t miss out one of the true icons of the 20s and 30s. With nicknames such as the “Bronze Venus” and “Black Pearl”, Josephine Baker was the first African American female to star in a major motion picture and become a world-famous entertainer. And if that wasn’t awesome enough, she used her status to kick political ass both during the Civil Rights Movement in the US and World War 2, becoming the first American-born woman to receive the French military honour, the Croix de Guerre.

Freda Josephine McDonald was born on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, she soon became fluent in both English and French. When she was 8 she was sent to work for a white woman who abused her, burning her hands because she put too much soap in the laundry.

Times were evidently tough, as Josephine dropped out of school at 12, turning to life on the streets. She made her living dancing on street corners, and at 15 was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville show. Her budding career sent her to New York, where she began to perform in the chorus of popular Broadway revues.

Josephine took last place in the chorus line, a traditionally comic role, which required the dancer to act as if they had forgotten the routine. Then, in the encore, they would not only perform correctly but with added complexity, outshining the other members. She became so well known for this that she was described as the “highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville”.

She gained popularity, opening a show at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on the 2nd October 1925 in Paris. Her skimpy costume and erotic style of dancing was an instant success, catapulting her into fame. Josephine went on to star at the Folies Bergères, performing the Danse Sauvage in her iconic banana costume.

Her success was perhaps complimented by the explosion of Art Deco and a renewed interest in ethnic art; her African descent of particular interest. Of course, she played up to this, often allowing her pet cheetah, Chiquita, on stage with her. The animal would often escape into the orchestra pit, terrorizing the musicians and adding an element of excitement to the show.

Ernest Hemingway even called her “...the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”.

Josephine married four times, her first to Willie Wells in 1918 when she was just 13. Needless to say, the marriage was very unhappy, and they divorced a short time later. Three years down the line, she suffered another short marriage to Willie Baker. The surname stuck, and she became known as Josephine Baker by audiences worldwide.

It was possible that her marriages didn’t last long because of the numerous lesbian affairs she had. She was known to be bisexual, and it has even been reported that she was involved with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Despite Josephine’s popularity in France she didn’t receive the same response in the country of her birth; upon a visit to the United States in 1935, her performances received poor opening reviews.

In 1937 she married once again, to a Frenchman, Jean Lion, renouncing her American citizenship without difficulty.

In fact, she loved her adopted country of France so much that when WW2 broke out she volunteered as a spy. She began to work for the French government as an “honourable correspondent”, using her celebrity status to report any gossip she heard at the numerous parties she attended, including those at the Italian embassy.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, she used her cover of a jet-setting entertainer to smuggle secrets around Europe. How? Using invisible ink on her sheet music and pinning notes on the inside of her underwear!

In 1941 she went to the French colonies in North Africa, claiming it was for her health, but she in fact set up based to help with the resistance. She also took the time to entertain troops with her performances.

The War finished, yet the struggle for equality continued with the American Civil Rights Movement. Josephine was no stranger to being treated differently due to the colour of her skin, both positively and negatively.

In 1951 she was refused service by Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club in Manhattan. Although one of Baker’s sons contests the incident was exaggerated, it is said that the actress Grace Kelly was also in attendance. Seeing the situation, she rushed over to Josephine, taking her by the arm and storming them both out, vowing never to return.

Josephine protested in her own way, adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans, calling them the “Rainbow Tribe” and refusing to perform for segregated audiences.

So impressive was her spirit, that she was offered leadership of the movement by Coretta Scott King in 1968, following Marin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. After much thought she turned the position down, saying her children were “too young to lose their mother”.

Josephine’s actions were honoured worldwide, with different countries inviting her to perform. She took to the stage in Cuba, Yugoslavia and a 1973 stint at the Carnegie Hall, where she received a standing ovation. 

On 8 April, 1975, Josephine starred in a retrospective revue celebrating her 50 years in show business. The audience was jam-packed full of stars desperate to see the glorious icon, and the critics were raving.

It was four days later when Josephine was found lying peacefully in her bed, surrounded by the glowing newspaper reviews of her performance. She had slipped into a coma after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage, and died at the age of 68.

At her funeral she received full French military honours, and will always be remembered for her beautiful smile and good heart.

Tailoring the '20s: Boardwalk Empire

I'm a huge fan of epic American tv shows; you know, the ones EVERYONE is talking about. I've obsessed over LOST, I've shunned Heroes, I drooled over Spartacus: Blood and Sand (don't judge me), and of course I've spent hours and hours of my life watching Mad Men. But you know, I'm sick of hearing about the latter. Although brilliant, and full of Jon Hamm, Mad Men is not the ONLY good retro show full of jaw-dropping costumes.

In fact, when it comes to costumes, Mad Men is surely beaten by Boardwalk Empire. There, I said it.

Set in the boom town of Atlantic City, NJ during the prohibition, Boardwalk Empire is as rich a story-line as it is visual. Just finished up with it's second season, with another in production, this Martin Scorsese produced show is BIG budget. The pilot alone cost $30million dollars, and no expense was spared on the clothing.

Costume is a key aspect of the show - in the 1920's clothing was the most important factor for showing social status, as it had been for centuries beforehand. Like many of the personas in Boardwalk Empire, the lead character, Nucky, (played by Steve Buscemi) is based on a real person who was known for being a snappy dresser.

"The wardrobe is incredible, you just put on the clothes and walk on the set and see everyone else in character - you feel like you are there," says Buscemi

In this interview with Esquire costume designer John Dunn discusses how he brought out the male characters by tailoring alone.

Dunn and his team immersed themselves in the year 1920, contacting vintage clothing dealers, researching tailoring of the period, to ensure complete authenticity. Using real vintage suits just wouldn't cut it; as with most 20's clothing, what has survived is usually too ragged, the cost of restoring the clothing too high. The suits had to be tailored from scratch, using only the fabrics of the era.

Boardwalk Empire is not for the faint-hearted; it delves into the gangster underworld of the prohibition, and in a Scorsese-produced show, you know it isn't going to be all happiness and rainbows. As characters get beaten, murdered and more, multiples of the same suit had to be created, further ruling out authentic pieces.

Accessories and some dresses, on the other hand, are mostly vintage. The team scoured the country looking for original pieces - stockings, coats, gloves, pins.

The rise of character Jimmy is shown through his clothing - previously the drab khaki of a returning soldier, to a full suit meaning business

The most surprising thing about the costumes of Boardwalk Empire is how colourful they are. We are so used to seeing the 20's in black and white, who knew what colours would be in vogue at the time? Using references to colour in magazines along with sketches and swatches of fabric used by tailors, it was obvious that this was an era where manufacturers experimented with dye.

Different characters living in different cities were dressed in different ways. The seaside summer of Atlantic City (the shows key location) has a brighter palette than the elegant, cutting-edge tailoring of the New Yorkers (I'm particularly in love with Arnold Rothstein's wardrobe) or the old-world darker colours of the Chicago-based Italians.

The female characters, too, were instantly recognizable by their costume, which also tells the story of the women's part in the prohibition. The dour old-fashioned button-ups of the Temperance League (whose slogan was "Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Not Touch Ours") contrasts against the decadent beading and elaborate patterns of the early flappers. The main female character, Margaret Schroeder, transforms from struggling immigrant to more exquisite locations and thus, dresses. In one scene she wears a green silk evening dress recreated from a sketch by Coco Chanel.

During this era fashion also reflected the changing status of women in society. Going from a corsetted silhouette to rectangular shapes just skimming the body, perfect for showing off beading and decoration. Light fabrics were used to lay thin layers against the body, and women were just starting to wear bras and knickers rather than bloomers.

For the first time in history, clothing started to look like its modern-day counterpart - a 1920's dress could easily look the part on today's fashionista. But what makes these fashions so beautiful is the hand-crafted detail, something which we rarely see now. Dunn points out, "The 1920's was a transition into modern clothes, but with all the embellishments of the past" - and that's exactly why I love it.

And just how cute is this image of the Boardwalk Empire girls, shot by Ellen Von Unwerth for Vanity Fair! Perfect for Summer inspiration!

How The Artist used costume to bring the 20s alive

It’s no secret that I’m a big silent movie fan. Give me Chaplin over a modern romantic comedy any day!

So, imagine my delight when film of the year, The Artist, won 5 of the biggies at The Oscars! This modern day silent movie took everyone by surprise, even more so when it began to win big time at each award. It seems there is hope for the audience of the 21st century, so used to talkies, big effects and Hollywood drama; the silence has proven that it is not a completely alien concept.

I could go on and on about silent films, but I’ll spare you, and focus on the part that has got all the fashionistas’ attention: Costume.

One of the 5 awards it took away on Oscar night was costume design, and there is no wonder why!

Channelling the golden era, costume designer Mark Bridges obviously did his research. Picking and choosing elements from popular styles and silver screen sirens, there must have been a whole host of inspiring designs from the 1920s. Just look at this amazing backless dress worn by Clara Bow:

When looking through the fabulous costumes worn by silent film stars, there is a definite theme running through the pieces: texture. Before the advent of glorious Technicolour, costume designers had to find another way of springing their actors out from the screen, ensuring they didn’t blend into the background. This, too, was the struggle for Bridges; although The Artist was originally filmed in colour, he had to use patterns, crystals, fur, feathers and more to ensure the characters remained the focus when desaturated.

It wasn’t only texture that the team used to really bring out their characters, but they also had some clever tricks up their sleeves for using costume to add narrative. As the rise of talkies begins to dampen George Valentin’s star-studded career, so we see a change in his looks. The actor that played him, the gorgeous Jean Dujardin, suggested to costume designer Mark Bridges that the costumes should just be “a little bigger to reflect that somehow George is less of a man than he was.” They did just that, tailoring the size and style of his suits; from a well fitted tuxedo portraying wealth, grace and success, to a dishevelled loose-fitting suit.

With this attention to detail, the costume worked alongside the narrative, acting talent and cinematography to make a success of a film which could have so easily missed the mark, had any of these things had been less than perfect.  

We also can’t help loving Uggie the dog’s Oscar outfit.