American black women during the 1920s participated in history’s Great Migration from the South to northern states in search of work and the freedom to live in dignity. As with all women in every time period, clothing options differed according to class and social standing. Black women in the South dressed more conservatively, as most were confined to the positions they held. Those who ventured north diversified their wardrobes according to hobbies and as their incomes would allow.
Publications about the Great Migration confirm that whether black women remained in the South or ended up in bustling northern cities, racial and workplace segregation often relegated them to domestic positions. Steven Spielberg’s movie “The Color Purple” visually depicted outfits worn by black housekeepers and nannies of the time. Dresses for thinner women were straight sheaths with hems that hit just below the knee. Larger women wore ankle-length dresses with flared broomstick skirts. Most frocks featured portrait collars, square collars and front button-down accessibility. Waistlines were trimmed with thin belts. Fabrics were often the cheapest, thinnest cotton or flannel, either solid in color or patterned with flowers or stripes.
The City Professional
Although they comprised less than 30 percent of the non-domestic workforce sector, black women in northern cities also earned money outside of homes, allowing them to be more public. According to the “Encyclopedia of Chicago,” author Margaret Walker wrote about urban ghetto life. Detroit’s Krolik factory, Buhl Malleable Iron Company, a movie theater and many cigar manufacturers hired black women. These working women’s outfits mimicked those of their Caucasian counterparts. Silk, crepe de Chine, taffeta and satin fabrics were coveted. Soft, bright colors were worn with matching hosiery. Dresses were predominantly calf-length, billowy and banded at the waist, counteracting plain sheaths. Necklines were rounded or v-necked and adorned with ribbons and broad collars. Kitten-heeled Mary Janes and granny boots were common footwear.
The social standing of the black female churchgoer was characterized by her hat. Very few black women over 30 attended church in the 1920s without one. The average hat would be wide-brimmed and simply adorned with one ribbon. Wealthier women’s hats were heavily adorned with beads, flowers and feathers. Some wore cloches of the day. Church dresses were always conservative, hemmed below the knee and resembled elegant styles with godets (flares) or kick pleats. Black women of the church also wore white gloves and nude-colored stockings and carried clutch purses. Pearls, whether real or imitation, were reserved for Sunday service. Shoes were closed, pointed and low-heeled with T-straps or high vamps.
Vocalists including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Edythe Turnham and Josephine Baker personified freedom during the Roaring ’20s. They wore outlandish outfits and performed for wide audiences. Young black women wanted to look like them. They adorned their short, bob hairstyles with finger waves, feathers and broad, glittered headbands. Sleeveless dresses were cut low in the back and the front. Also, dresses ranged from bead- and rhinestone-adorned long gowns to short, fringed flapper dresses.
References and ResourcesUniversity of Michigan: Bentley Historical Library: Elizabeth Anne Martin: Detroit and the Great Migration, 1916 - 1929
Google: Images: Movie The Color Purple
Encyclopedia of Chicago: African Americans
1920's Fashion: 1920's Fashions in Womens Clothing including Dresses and Materials
eFootage: 1920's Church - 1
Calliope Film Resources, Inc.: The Classic Blues and the Women Who Sang Them (continued)