Women's Fashion in early Johannesburg (1800's - 1900's) 1 2 3 4 5 Home
In the year that saw the swearing in of General Louis Botha as the Union's first prime minister, woman's shape
changed from the S to the T. This line was achieved with the aid of a longer corset which narrowed the hips. Thie
enormous picture hat completed the T as did the masses of hair parted in the centre and rolled up in enormous
curls on the cheek sides. Skirts, instead of sweeping the floor, actually left it. The waistline climed to a position
slightly below the bust and the narrow skirt tapered tightly down to the hem. Opposition leader Hertzog condemned
the tight-fitting hobble skirt as immoral. These skirts often had to be slashed at the side to give the wearer more
freedom of movement.
Cartwheel hats, which had been a repository for every typ of adornment, suddenly shrank in size on the eve of World
War War I. The demise of the cartwheel spelled ruin for the country's ostrich farmers.
The year 1914 marked a turning point in the history of fashion. Until that year the fashionable female had worn whatever
convention had dictated. From that year on woman was increasingly to decide for herself what to wear or what not to
wear. Though skirts had left the floor in 1910, female ankles were only exposed after the start of World War I and only
then commenced an upward climb. In the first few months of the war women discarded the heavily starched collar,
which had for so long frayed and chafed their necks, in favour of the V-shaped neckline which clergymen denounced
as immoral, while doctors warned the wearers of pneumonia.
As women's attitude to themselves changed during the war they were encouraged by government to economize. Many
replaced morning tea-gown, houshold smock, and evening dress with an all-purpose overall with a hem some 10 centi-
meters from the ground. The ever-upward creeping hem meant that women had to pay more attention to shoes and
stockings, the colours of which were usually chosen to match the practical colours of which were usually chosen
to match the practical colours of khaki or brown.
When in mid-1915 some 7 000 women gathered in Church Square, Pretoria, to commence a dusty march to the prime
ministers's office in the Union Buildings several kilometers away, to protest at the continued imprisonment of their
husbands, fathers, or brothers since the spring rebellion of the previous year, they were almost all without exception
clad in the new wartime-lenght short skirts with hems which ranged from 10 to 20 centimeters from the ground.
Only elderly marchers were seen donning the pre-war ground-lenght styles. If any victory was won that day it was by
the new-fangled fashion!
When peace returned in 1918 skirts lenghtened and narrowed again. The post-war woman had acquired a freedom
of movement undreamed onf only a decade earlier.
Though worn in its natural place, the waist was undefined. Post-war blouses were rectangular in shape and all
clothes were colourless. The hemline rose briefly in 1920 and 1921, only to drop again the following year. Having
experienced the feel of material touching there calves during the war women took to the new long skirts of 1922 to
1924 with great reluctance.
Left: Long-skirted styles made a brief return from 1922 to 1924. Thereafter hems commenced their fast upward climb,
reaching the greatest distance from the floor in 1927. Middle: A smart fur coat, worked from dyed black Karakul kid
skins in a becoming shape - an exact copy of a French model - with collar, cuffs and flounce of dyed skunk, lined
with black and white chiffon velvet. Right: These two models indicate clearly that fashions for late 1929 give a hint of a
drooping hemline, a returning waistline, and cloche hats which do not obscure the wearer's vision.
The pre-war T or I shape had given way to the wartime A shape with a shorter and wider skirt. As skirts lengthened
in the early twenties woman's shape had become decidely square. Marocain, a favourite dress material, was cut on
the straight and was almost always beige in colour. From 1922 onwards the bust was completely flattened, while
women bobbed or shingled their hair.
The silent cinema around the corner introduced women to the latest American styles, and as the hemline commenced
its swift upward climb again in 1925 women once again snipped off centimeters from their hems and cut their hair
shorter then ever. Hair, instead of being bobbed, was shingled or Eton-cropped. The unbiquitous cloche hat, which
originated during Worl War I was now designed to frame the face rather than to cove all the wearer's hair, though it
did both at same time. During the last five years of the decade women had acquired a uniformity of appearance
unparalleled in history. The 20th century had cought up with fashion. Twenty-four years in gestation, the new century
had arrived - as far as fashion was concerned. By 1927 flesh-coloured stocking had replaced black and white
varieties, and the hemline had climbed up to the knees and could be worn even higher. The flattened bodice ended
with a belt at the hips which at the end of the decade left very little material between the waistline and the hemline
only a few centimeters lower.
The slump of 1929 was accompanied by a backward plunge in the hemline. So, too, did the short hairstyles lengthen
with a bun at the nape of the neck, and the tightfitting cloche which had for so long characterized the decade
developed a broader brim.
Then followed the very long skirts which many women trailed through the streets in daytime. Silk stocking hastily
replaced those made of lisle, while artificial silk became the favourite fabric material. By 1932 the novelty of the
long skirt had worn off and it resumed its proper place for evening wear. Women who vacationed along the Natal
coast included in their travel trunks several evening gowns into which they changed at twilight, to wear at dinner
or at the cinema or while listening to the still new-fangled wireless, which held pride of place in every hotel lounge.
The female holidaymaker also took with her several pillboxes for the wide variety of hats that she was expected
The young flapper had become submerged by the post-flapper with reedy physique and narrow hips. It was the
era of slimming salon, and those women who took their PT seriously set their alarms for the early morning exercise
programme when they could do physical jerks to the strains of 'Keep young and beautiful'. Different types
of sports gear were available for the numerous varieties of sport which women could for the first time participate.
There were even spectator sports styles. Woollen bathing suits, though backless, came in either one of two
pieces and covered substantially more of the wearer's bodies than is the case today. Sun-tanning for health's sake
had by 1930 become an acceptable actibity.
Coats were fitted at the waist, and strips of fur known as gimbal could be temporarily pinned around the neck or
along the cuffs. Winter coats were incomplete without fox stoles. Never before had women been confronted by the
wide variety of hats as she was in the thirties. Hats were made to march every outfit and these varied in shape and
size with every year of the decade. The influence of the twenties took some two to three years to eradicate itself,
and by 1933 the cloche had vanished completely.
During this era hats were nifty, hats were pert, hats were cheeky, and more often than not were tilted over the
wearer's left eye. Women remained slim and straight. Evening gowns, though the neckline stood high in front,
left the back completely bare. Gradually a more masculine note crept in. Mannish suits were worn for daytime.
When in September 1936 visitors from all over the world visited the Empire Exhibition at Milner Park they were
able to view a wide variety of items of clothing which were being manufactured in South Africa.