Worn to Dance: 1920s Fashion & Beading
Exhibit Commentary


A powerful measure of independence comes from being able to determine one's own means of transportation.

At the turn of the 20th century, women had battled discrimination and prejudice. As women persisted in asserting their rights, appropriate costumes to facilitate them evolved and became more mainstream. By this time, a modern woman had proved herself perfectly capable of driving cars. With the Ford Model-T flooding the market, women were successfully and independently navigating American roadways in record numbers.

In the company of other women especially, taking railroads, steamships and ocean liners together, they could safely explore even farther afield from home than ever before—and they were doing so in grand style, with fabulous aplomb.

Stylish, well-made traveling garments and daywear, consisted of tasteful, carefully coordinated ensembles, featured a cheerfully bright, solid or restricted color scheme throughout, thereby exuding a degree of sober decorum very much in contrast with their exuberant, sexy nighttime counterparts.

"We had individuality. We did as we pleased. We stayed up late. We dressed the way we wanted. I used to whiz down Sunset Boulevard in my open Kissel, with several red chow dogs to match my hair. Today, they're sensible and end up with better health. But we had more fun."

Clara Bow

1. A two piece day ensemble consisting of a long sleeve belted dress and vest. The rich gold panné velvet tunic with large mother of pearl buttons is lined in gold silk and features a finely pleated lower skirt. Self-covered ball buttons close the wrist of the sleeve. The vest is decorated at the shoulder with double pom-poms of cut velvet strips.
      Styled with a straw cloche and a beaded purse with round bottom and multicolor beaded castle motif.
      Label on dress: "Emmet Joyce Original." Emmet Joyce was the owner of a made-to-order salon on Fifth Avenue during the 1920s.

Tunic ensemble donated by Roxanne Nelsen; purse donated by Sara Glasser.

2. This delightful blue georgette day dress has survived almost 100 years with all three pieces intact. The skirt of the underdress consists of pleated blue georgette sewn to a fine cotton bodice. The sleeveless over tunic has tucks that mirror the pleating at both neckline and the hip length hem. The matching jacket with fold down falls to mid-thigh with more pleating at the hem. The pleating of the sleeves creates a lovely fluted effect.
      Styled with a hat of couched embroidery on mesh, as well as a bead-woven bag of black and orange beads with multicolor floral pattern through center and at bottom of piece. Includes a tassel and silver frame with chain.

Dress donated by Roxanne Nelsen; purse donated by Anita Stapen.

1900s vs 1920s

While Victorian clothing was renowned for its ornate beaded embellishment—especially jet beads—the flapper style evening dress was far less restrictive, built, in fact to facilitate the riotous and revolutionary movement of animated dancing. These dresses were designed to make a statement, capitalizing on all the glitter, weight, and movement that beadwork, as a medium, has to lend.

The period from 1900 to 1920 formed a bridge between the extreme hourglass silhouette of the 19th century and the simplified verticality of the Jazz Age. The Edwardian period, from the early 1900s to the end of World War I still cinched and contoured women into shape by corsetry. The silhouette of the time emphasized a full breast and only slightly diminished the hourglass of the hips. The desired silhouette had been whittled down to the refreshingly simplified and plain, columnar shape showcasing boyish athleticism and youth over mature proportions.

"Where's the man could ease a heart like a satin gown?"

Dorothy Parker

3. Champagne silk crepe back satin dress embellished with an extensive Vermicelli pattern on the bodice using crystal beads with silver mirroring. Floral motifs of teal, red, fuchsia and pink gelatin sequins with gold bead centers grace the right hip and left side bow. The skirt portion of the dress features long fringe of crystal, mirrored beads. An ostrich feather corsage with rhinestones decorates the left shoulder.

Donated by Karen Nelsen.

4. This peach silk gown utilizes gold seed beads and golden bugle beads to accentuate the elements that are distinctly Edwardian: The deep "V" neckline, the waist and elbow length sleeves and small train. The bottom hem of the overskirt is embellished with gold bugle beads in a Grecian "key" design. The high standing collar and neck inset are made of lace backed with netting. A corsage of self-made fabric flowers adorns the upper left shoulder.

The Boudoir

A young woman in the 1920s had freedoms her mother and grandmother couldn't have imagined. Take, for example, her night on the town: as she prepares for an evening out, our young lady dons a brassier and perhaps a short corset to smooth her form into one sleek, uninterrupted length. These separate pieces allow her the liberty to move naturally, quite unlike the earlier long-line corset.

Her loose slip or combination underwear is obtained at the department store, where she enjoys choosing between a wide range of feminine colors. There they also offer her a selection of variously patterned stockings, as well as shoes aimed to suit a variety of individual tastes, occasions and budgets. Improvements in the technology of mass manufacturing such goods made her clothes and accessories less expensive, leading her to shop based on her own private tastes and the personal image she desires to cultivate—rather than on practicality or strict social convention.

"Brevity is the soul of lingerie."

Dorothy Parker

5. The silk velvet apricot robe falls gracefully to a calf length. It features flared sleeves with alternating lace and velvet. The complementary nightgown of silk georgette hat a swirling hem of matching velvet as well as a lace inset above the velvet. The lace applied to the nightgown is the final icing of the cake on this delectable boudoir outfit.

6. Ballet pink party dress of silk chiffon crepe. This dress is tambour beaded in leaf-like motifs in two colors, white iridescent milk glass seed beads and dark mirrored seed beads. Placed low at the center front is a three ringed decoration with set crystal rhinestones. This dress has a very stylish Art Deco feel incorporating both natural and geometric shapes.

Donated by Cathy Strahl.

7. The gorgeous orange and black silk robe, made in England, would be appropriate for boudoir lounging. The striking motifs of the reverse applique resemble stylized waves or clouds, much like the fabric of a kimono. Gold metal thread is couched by machine to give an effect of sunrays coming through the clouds. The collar is finished with a jaunty bow that hangs down the back.

8. This delicate gown of yellow chiffon is heavily beaded with silver beads and both round and crescent shaped rhinestones. It consists of three separate chiffon layers: an underskirt, overskirt and tunic. Each skirt beaded with an abstract frond pattern as well as densely beaded hem. The bottom of the tunic is beaded with a motif that mimics a bow.

Donated by Karen Nelsen.

A Tale of Three Black Dresses

It was in the 1920s that Coco Chanel became world-famous for her little black dress. Though her design was released in 1926, many fashionistas had been turned onto the evolution of simple elegance long before then. As hemlines were being raised and elongated on a whim, black was once again the color chosen to represent artistry and elegance.

Here we present to you our Tale of Three Black Dresses. All three of these dresses feature a black canvas of silk chiffon or netting as a backdrop for intricate beading. In addition, a study of these three dresses offers a glimpse into the changing fashion silhouettes of the decade.

The first dress (9, circa 1920-1921) is an example of the earlier part of the decade. Please note the ankle length of the hem. The fullness of the skirt is concentrated in gathers at the side seams and accented with a bow at the sides. The beading seems very regimented, almost a nod to the embellishments of a previous decade.

The second dress (10, circa 1923-1925) offers a more streamlined shape with the still longer ankle-length hem at this time. The fullness of the skirt, which has been reduced in comparison to the first dress, is still controlled by gathers at the side. The crystal beading has a more organic arrangement than the previous dress.

The hem of our third dress (11, circa 1927) leaps up to the hem length that is most associated with the 1920s, above the roughed knee of the flapper. The beading is artfully placed with curving swoops over the shoulders mirrored by the motifs on the lower hem, all to draw in the eye of the viewer.

"The flapper has charm, good looks, good clothes, intellect and a healthy point of view."

Colleen Moore

9. This black silk chiffon dress features rows and swirls of black faceted beads and faceted roundels. At the center front of the dress, a black silk net panel is adorned with black crystal and colored beads in a geometric pattern(a Canterbury cross). The left hip is festooned with a black silk chiffon bow once ending in a beaded tassel.

10. Black silk chiffon dress tambour beaded with round crystal glass beads in fancy scalloped motifs. The motifs resemble Art Nouveau architectural patterns rather than the more modern Art Deco influences. But the slim, columnar lines of the dress reflect the silhouette of the period.

11. Delicate black silk net evening dress, tambour embroidered with black gelatin sequins. Sequins enjoyed a resurgence in the 1920s due to the discovery of garments with metal sequins in King Tut's tomb. The gelatin sequins on this dress are light and easy to wear, but can melt when exposed to heat or liquid.

Dress Panels

Just like today, a wide range of 1920s clothing was available at different price points. The elite could wear one-of-a-kind haute couture beaded and sequined dresses, designed expressly for them by the exclusive names of high fashion ateliers, tailored to their specific size and hand-embroidered and embellished by skilled artisans. The middle-class consumer was more likely to buy a machine-beaded dress "semi-made" at a department store, and have it finished to their size.

Alternatively, the budget-conscious or needlework-inclined fashion enthusiast could bead her own dress, employing the patterns published in women's magazines. Prolific needlework author and educator Mary Brooks Picken developed the classic 1920s "One Hour Dress" method for just such a home seamstress. As well as being a founder of the Met's Costume Institute, Picken taught Economics of Fashion at Columbia University. By following her instructions, which remain in print and popular to this day, women could readily make—and customize—their own fashionable, flapper-style dresses.

12. Champagne silk satin silk with plunging neckline, edged in set crystal rhinestones. A beaded fringe is set into the dress at three places: neckline, above and below the heavily beaded lower hip. The beading includes several types of beads: white cut bugle beads, silvered crystal seed beads and round silver blown glass beads. The hip area is decorated with tiny silver sequins and shisha mirrors. The bodice of the panel has scattered floral motifs in silver glass blown beads and set crystal rhinestones. The bottom edge of the dress is finished with beaded fringe that would have shimmied around the wearer's leg as she danced the night away.

13. A rich brown silk "burnout" velvet was used to great advantage in this simply styled dress. Coppery brown metallic faceted seed beads outline each velvet motif. The cut of this dress is very similar to the "One Hour Dress," popularized by Mary Brooks-Pickens of the Women's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences. The school had a popular correspondence course. This dress may have been made at home using instructions from the school.

Donated by Deborah Doyle.


Tambour work has its origins in ancient Chinese Textile arts. The word Tambour however, comes from the French for "drum" (which likens the tambour-work cloth, held taut within a supporting structure, to the percussive musical instrument). It is an embroidering and embellishing technique especially useful for beading.

Tambour work is performed with an eyeless needle, fixed to a handle. The needle has a piercing point, but it also features a miniscule hook. The fabric is tightly and securely stretched within the supporting structure of the frame, leaving space above and below to work the stitches and apply the beads (or sequins, as the case might be). The procedure relies on the chain stitch and that is how it can be identified as tambour work.

In the 1920s a wide variety of materials were used in creating beautiful beaded gowns. Textiles ranging from silk organza, satin to silk velvet were divided into two panels. These panels would then be stretched onto frames and adorned in designs shaped to suit the cut of a dress. Though some dresses were beaded with a simple needle and thread, it is the tambour technique that was most commonly used. After the designs were fully beaded they would then cut the dress shape from the panel to be assembled into stunning gowns.

18. Long columns of silver and white cut bugle beads on this crème chiffon dress create a stage for the center focal point of small metal sequins, silvered beads and rhinestones. Two columns of white motifs in blown glass beads and silk embroidery add to the glory of this once exquisite dress. The hem is dagged in a beautiful "V" pattern adding to the drama.

On the Panel

1. Black celluloid frame w/ beaded handle strap. Black w/ silver Grecian and floral motif

2. Celluloid frame w/ beaded handle strap, blue/lavender/green geometric floral motifs

3. Rounded bottom, multicolor beads, celluloid frame, chain not attached

What is a Bead?

A bead, simply put, is a small ornamental object with a hole pierced through it, allowing it to be strung and sewn onto textiles, such as garments, handbags, and shoes. Its effect is cumulative. One needs numerous beads in order to attract the eye, but once assembled on an object, beads have the ability to render the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Once beaded and adorned, plain things become ornate, glittering, momentous. In a fringe setting, they also make a sound, delicately but unmistakably announcing the arrival of their wearer. The fragile nature of beaded objects consigns them to the domain of conspicuous consumption, rather than pragmatic utility. They have a tendency to snag on passing objects. Glamourous rather than practical, the bead is a decorative thing. It is, functionally, useless. Beads throughout time and across cultures have been essential to trade and have even been used as currency. Their compelling, mesmerizing qualities have proved universal and undeniable. It is a statement of wealth and beauty.

"A well-dressed woman, even though her purse is painfully empty, can conquer the world."

Louise Brooks

17. This dark blue silk tunic is heavily tambour beaded with a geometric layout of floral bands of gray and cerulean blue beads. The bottom hem band also includes serpentine beading as well as stylized crests. Within the grid of the beaded bands and on the dress top, charming flowers of gray and blue have also been beaded. Size 38 size label only.

To Dance

With Hot Jazz as the soundtrack, Dancing became America's favorite pastime. As society during the day adapted itself to the miracle of electricity, with telephones, radios, and gramophones, so, too, did society at night. Dim, gloomy dancehalls, formerly lit by weak candlelight, were now bright and gleaming as artificial days, allowing for nightlife to energetically thrive until dawn.

The most popular dances of the period were the foxtrot, waltz, and American tango. Newer dances like the Charleston, Black Bottom and Lindy Hop, developed by African Americans, soon gained popularity with a nation eager to try new forms of expression that matched the Jazz sound.

19. This dress has two pieces: a tunic style bodice that sits over a slip with four tiers of beaded ruffles. It is made of multi-colored chiffon in an abstract floral pattern. The outlines of the motifs are tambour beaded with solid black faceted beads and crystal, fuchsia, gold and teal beads. Label reads "Alida The Richly Clad, Size 32."

20. This adorable party dress is beautiful shade of Coral Silk crepe adorned with clear mirrored bugle beads, applied by tambour techniques. Crystal rhinestones and gelatin sequins accent the hips and neckline. Ribbon embroidery flower motifs in coral and red give the dress special interest. The back of the dress featured sequined geometric cutouts. It came with matching china silk slip.

The Charleston     Originating in Charleston, South Carolina in 1913, it involved a fast kicking, twisting movement of the legs and feet. The original beat may have come from the songs sung by Charleston's dockworkers. It achieved wider popularity when the song "Charleston" was featured in the 1923 Broadway musical, Runnin' Wild. The craze for this new dance prompted Charleston contests for both solo dancers and couples across America. At its peak in 1927, hemlines had risen to just below the knee thereby featuring the fast-moving feet of young flappers. The dance continued to evolve through the '30s and '40s, adapting itself to swing jazz music, and was integrated into the Lindy Hop canon.

The Black Bottom     A short-lived dance craze that swept the dance halls from 1926-1927, replacing the Charleston as the social dance favorite. Originating among African Americans in the rural South, it was featured in the Harlem show Dinah in 1924 and then was famously performed by Ziegfeld Follies star, Ann Pennington in 1926. It consisted of a series of exuberant dance steps that included hops, slides, hobbles, and shuffles punctuated by high kicks and wildly flying arms.

The Shimmy     This unusual dance is unmistakably suggestive, and was, in fact, outlawed in some places for being too lewd. It involved shaking the shoulders back and forth while leaning forward and backward to the music. A fast-paced jazz dance song written by Clarence Williams and Armand Piron called "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" was a big hit in 1922.

The Texas Tommy     In spite of what its name would suggest, this dance was actually born in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was first performed at a disreputable yet popular cabaret but was soon seen at the upper-class Fairmont Hotel. It involved a series of kicks, hops, and slides within an 8-count rhythm (one of the hallmarks of swing dancing), and offered the perfect opportunity for showcasing one's acrobatic skills. Dance historians call it the first of the many iterations of swing dance to come.

The Lindy Hop     Influenced by several different dance styles that came before it, it's considered to be the "granddaddy of swing." It uses the same dance rhythm as the Charleston but adopted the "Breakaway" of the Texas Tommy. Possibly coined by Harlem dancer "Shorty" George Snowden during a dance marathon contest when a reporter saw his wild moves and asked him what they were doing. Shorty replied, "The Lindy Hop... We flying just like Lindy did!" which acknowledged the recent solo transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh in 1927. It continued to grow in popularity with the rise of the Big Bands well into the late 1940s and continues to be danced today all over the world.

"She sighs, breathing smoke through her lips. 'Might as well dance.'"

Genevieve Valentine, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

21. Peached colored silk crepe dress, tambour embroidered with pink and green floral motifs. The dress is accented with chenille embroidered flowers. The slightly dropped waist and the hem are outlined with Chenille flowers framed by green silk and metallic ribbon. Each chenille flowers has a center of peachy iridescent gelatin sequins. A ribbon carnation accents the hip.

22. Lovely raspberry silk crepe evening dress tambour embroidered with red cut bead and crystal sees beads with pink interiors. The stylized beaded flower motifs were a popular design element of the era. Silk velvet flowers in orange, magenta and burgundy accent the hips and one shoulder.
     The dress is labeled "The Young Quinlan Co. Minneapolis." Young Quinlan was an upscale department store that was well known for bringing Paris fashions to women in the Midwest.

Jazz Bride

Bridal styles of the 1920s were a marked departure from the conventional and the conservative. They wore wedding gowns as current and comfortable as those worn to dance away the evening. A bridal gown was likely to have a tea-length hem, sometimes longer at the front, allowing for free movement of the legs on the dance floor. Restrictive fashions had now been abandoned and loose, straight tailoring was in vogue. Bridal headdresses often fell just below the brow, imitating the look of a cloche hat, with a trailing embroidered veil in the rear.

Along with expressing the wearer's aesthetic taste, the bridal gown was also an expression of a family's social status. Elaborate embellishments made with beads, waxed orange blossoms and pearls adorned the slim silhouette of modern brides. Luxurious layers of velvet and silk were seen in colors of eggshell, ecru, ivory and white. A sash or bow positioned at a dropped waist would provide a rich pop of color. Wealthy families spared no expense when outfitting themselves for this special day, especially as they were going to be photographed for posterity.

A woman of limited means now had the ability to replicate the latest trends at home. With advancements in communication and a faster postal service, innovations a la mode spread more rapidly than ever. Industrialization and improved transportation of goods made fabrics readily available and more affordable for the working class.

"When a girl feels that she's perfectly groomed and dressed she can forget that part of her. That's charm."

F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Short Stories"

23. This ivory silk satin wedding dress looks deceptively simple. Five slightly shirred tiers are applied to the lower portion of the skirt of this dress. Each tier ends in a long tail that forms a geometrically designed train in the rear of the dress. Around the hips is a shirred self-fabric belt. In the middle of the belt is a girdle of waxed orange blossoms with a trailing cascade of flowers.
     Extremely fine silk tulle veil edged with fine tatting and topped by a crown of waxed orange blossoms. The Orange blossom is a traditional flower for weddings since Victorian times and is thought to bring good fortune to the married couple.

24. This confection of a wedding dress consists of a crème duchesse silk satin underdress with a silver and crème lace over tunic. A long train of matching satin and lace hangs from the back with a surprising addition of a chartreuse silk chiffon godet added to the center back of the train. A matching twisted sash of the silk satin and lace complete this stunning ensemble.

Donated by Karen Nelsen.

This beaded wedding cap features metal embroidery with crystal and antiqued silver iridescent seed beads. Pearl accent beads are scattered over the cap. Several leaves are stitched in silk embroidery floss. The outer edge features a face framing set of two fringes. One fringe is made with crystal seed beads and pearls. A longer fringe of crystal seed beads and longer crystal bugle beads finish this piece.

25. This early 1920s wedding dress features ivory duchess satin with beaded straps and empire waist beaded belt. Silk tulle and very fine silk chiffon are used to great advantage on the Cathedral length train. The train is decorated with pearls and milk glass iridescent beads.
      The dress is labeled "Rohn and Rienzo, New York." Rohn and Rienzo was a prestigious New York City Ladies Boutique, circa 1910- 20s.

26. It was common practice for dressmakers in the 1920's to acquire pre-tambour beaded panels to fit to clients. This formal dress of tobacco brown panné velvet is likely one of this type. Orange, dark copper and satin brown seed beads sewn in early 1920's motifs made a striking statement on this simply styled dress.

27. Tan Silk chiffon dress with tambour beaded geometric and floral motifs, inspired by the Egyptian Revival. Main beads are dull metallic gold in two styles and sizes. Contrast beads are black iridescent. The hip sash is likewise adorned with the same beads and fastens on the side with buttons beaded to match.

28. Dark blue, steel blue, tan and green printed silk crepe fabric dress festooned with blue frosted beads. The beads were applied using the tambour technique to complement the paisley design of the fabric. A self-fabric sash style belt encrusted with beads, sits at the hips. Donated by Kate Walker.

Stepping Out

In an era of decadence, coats though simple in design did not go unnoticed. Those who were most fashionable would be seen wearing coats adorned with furs and beads aplenty. The early designs of Paul Poiret's cocoon coat were brought to life by one panel of lined fabric. It carried a free-flowing form with batwing sleeves and a narrow hem or hobble skirt. Later this silhouette would be adapted to allow the legs full motion and would continue to evolve. Capes of velvet and satin were also popular at this time, maintaining the trend of a loose fluid garment. Outerwear served as both a canvas and a frame for beautiful intricate beadwork.

"When I went to Hollywood in 1927, the girls were wearing lumpy sweaters and skirts. I was wearing sleek suits and half-naked beaded gowns and piles and piles of furs."

Louis Brooks

30. A lovely printed silk chiffon dress in Autumnal tones. Burnt orange, mustard yellow, teal persimmon and brown foliage with flowers give the tambour beading an interesting background. Short crystal bugle beads with teal painted interiors give the dress sparkle.
      Evening coat of teal silk velvet. The lovely shirred sleeves, back yoke and lower ruffle are details often seen on the jackets of this era. The padded collar surrounds the head to bring attention to the visage of the wearer.

31. This incredible black Duchesse silk satin looks deceptively thin but inside it is interlined with two layers of wool flannel. The lining is luxurious peach-toned panné velvet, all designed to keep its owner warm on a chilly Seattle night. Outside the coat is decorated in high fashion Art Deco motifs. The gold glass bugle beads outline and highlight what were once silver blown glass beads of various shapes. Set crystal rhinestones serve as flower centers. A magnificent white fox fur crowns the collar. Ties at the sleeves help reveal the lovely panné velvet lining and add special interest.
     Label: Helen Igoe, Seattle. Helen Igoe was considered "Seattle's Hattie Carnegie." She owned a high end fashion shop on 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle from 1810-1950. Donated by Karen Nelsen.

32. The collar of this show-stopping cloak is artfully designed to stand up, framing the wearer's face. The cloak is made of silk velvet and accented with gold and red metallic lamé. It is lined in ivory silk satin and red gold metallic trim to finish the interior.
      This gray silk chiffon tabard is tambour beaded with black bugle beads in a stylized floral motif. The tabard is accented with an emblem of copper bugle beads at hip level. Completely open at the sides, this garment is finished with a dagged hem, also beaded.
      Styled with gold metallic gauze cloche.


In our section On Preservation, we explored a very physical aspect of the ephemeral nature of these delicately beaded dresses, fatally coupled to the universal power of time itself. It would be impossible to lock them all up in climate-controlled vacuums, untouched by dust, moisture, and gravity.

But there is another reason for the growing scarcity of such dresses as these, more social in nature. Notable late-twentieth-century films set in the decade of the flapper dress have done a great deal to popularize the style. By celebrating and immortalizing these kinds of dresses reproduced in cinema, we have effectively elevated them to the level of artistic treasures. One cannot discount the influence of popular culture on consumption—in powerful ways, it can make a desirable commodity out of anything, and the beaded 20s dress was already very valuable indeed.

One other reason, therefore, that dresses like these are so rarely seen by the public today, has been the increasing popularization of the flapper-style dress as a collector's item. There were always only a limited number of specimens in existence: now, more and more of them reside either in the private collections of wealthy vintage clothing aficionados or preserved in the massive, unseen permanent collections of prominent museums. The specimens on display here in this exhibit are all the more precious for that.

We would like to thank Karen and Roxanne Nelsen, Kate Walker, Deborah Doyle, Lisa Swelha, Anita Stapen, the Art Deco Society of California, and the Kliot Family.