Clothes in the Harlem Renaissance

By Rachel Moran

The Harlem Renaissance took place in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem in the 1920s. Prohibition of alcohol was in effect, but speakeasies, or secret bars, served liquor. The social scene continued underground and, unregulated, dancing became more provocative, and so did clothing. While the looks are tame by today's standards and even evoke a certain dangerous elegance, the fashion of the Harlem Renaissance was considered bold.

As socializing moved underground, clothes became bolder during the Harlem Renaissance.

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Diaphanous Fabrics

Fabric became much thinner and feminine during the Harlem Renaissance. Flapper dresses, or loose-cut dresses with low waists, became popular because they were made for dancing. They were often made of fabrics that were considerably more sheer than past looks. Chiffon and silk were common. The feminine silhouette was beginning to get a little more attention.

Revealing Shoulders

Shoulder lines changed dramatically during the Harlem Renaissance. Two big changes became fashionable. The first was the cap sleeve with a slit in the sleeve that revealed the shoulder. The flouncy, short sleeve often had a loose edge to it, so that the movement was as free as the attitudes were becoming. The other change was to shoulder straps. Not only were they becoming acceptable to wear in public, they also were spread far apart to reveal the collarbone and show off the neck.


Beads, once reserved for formal occasions, became part of nightlife wear during the Harlem Renaissance. The trend toward glitz became pervasive with the flapper dress and fitted hats. both of which often featured long circular beads in jet black or red. Beading was sometimes sewn in rows to cover a garment, but fancy beadwork emerged with three-dimensional flowers made of beads adorning hats and shoulders.

Embellished Shoes

Shoes also followed the trends. Ankle straps and low-cut throats or toe caps with high heels looked feminine and fresh with the loose-cut, diaphanous dresses of the day. Shoes could also incorporate beadwork across the throat and around the back of the heel. The D'Orsay look, in which a high heel is open in the center to reveal the arch, came into fashion during this period.