Episode 6 - Fashion and swing dance

The Lindy Hop does not necessarily involve dressing up, retro or otherwise – indeed, when a group of Swedish pioneers set about reviving swing dancing in the 1980s, they did it in true 1980s style. Even so, more and more swing dancers begin to fashion up their look. We explore why.

Contributors to this episode

Voon Chew, New York-based ambi-dancer/DJ, vintage dress enthusiast and collector

Dr. Elisabeth Frottier, head of the costume and fashion collection of Vienna’s University of Applied Arts

Yana Sanamyants, Moscow-based dancer with a background in textile design

Laura Windley, frontwoman of the North Carolina-based Mint Julep Jazz Band, main contributor to Lindy Shopper, the popular blog about swing dance clothing

Rani-Patricia Dirnhofer, founder and owner of shoemaking company Saint Savoy

Additional Materials

Women's fashion in the Swing Era Alexei Korolyov and Nina Jukic

Fashion is highly responsive to social, political and economic change, and never was it more evident than in the first few decades of the last century. Following the tragedy of WWI, the “Roaring Twenties” were a time of glamour, decadence and sexual liberation. Fed up with stuffy corsets and long, heavy dresses, women embraced androgynous styling that hid their natural curves, with the short bobbed hairdo, cloche hat and playful flapper dress coming to epitomise the decade.

The 1929 stock market crash ushered in a more austere decade that saw dresses get longer again: lower hemlines reflected harsher economic times. However, the 1930s were also about embracing the feminine shape - the waistline became accentuated again, and for the first time separates became popular. The flower-patterned dress became a symbol of the era.

The early 1940s were overshadowed by WWII which caused many changes in fashion. The image of a strong woman helping the war effort led to various practical garments such as high-waisted trousers becoming part of women’s everyday wardrobe. Jackets and blouses acquired wide lapels and broad shoulder lines. Interestingly, both these elements are also characteristic of a later decade, the 1980s, which likewise cultivated the image of an ambitious and career-oriented woman. 

With the boys back from the war, however, things began to change. After a period of relative modesty aimed at cutting non-military spending, designers once again dared to imagine a world in which there was room for volume and grandeur and accentuated femininity. Christian Dior’s revolutionary new collection presented in 1947 launched what is now known as the “New Look.” Characterised by small waists and full skirts, it was seen initially as wasteful but became a staple of everyday fashion in the following decade.

This 1959 British Pathé film gives a great overview of the history of women's fashion, from decadent post-WWI outfits to a late 1950s catwalk show. That said, the narrator is somewhat too casual and dismissive at times (and, ahem, politically incorrect). Here's the opening line: "It was only after the First World War that the fine woman went into eclipse and was replaced by a long-legged, flat-chested, no-hips figure like that of a rather weedy boy." 

Vintage or retro? Alexei Korolyov and Nina Jukic

Julia Roberts at the 2001 Oscars, where she won Best Actress for  Erin Brockovich    @ Oscars website

Julia Roberts at the 2001 Oscars, where she won Best Actress for Erin Brockovich
@ Oscars website

Even though it is hardly big news that fashion is indeed cyclical, in recent years we have seen a genuine boom in vintage and vintage-style fashion. The word “vintage” actually comes from wine culture, designating a good year. In fashion, the term refers to clothing made between the 1920s, which saw the emergence of the first fashion labels, and the 1980s (earlier fashions are simply referred to as “antique”). When actress Julia Roberts wore a vintage back velvet Valentino dress at the Oscars in 2001, she started off a mass trend that led to a rise in “retro” or vintage-style fashion, modern-made but reproducing earlier styles. This could be seen as a reaction to the casual, mass-produced unisex clothing that prevails in modern society.

The fact that fashion can react, including to its own inner reactionary trends, means that it is a highly social phenomenon. Like language, it is also an incredibly complex system of signs. Like language too, it has its own rhetoric, grammar and vocabulary. Indeed, it is these very things that make fashion statements at all possible. Clothing is essentially a method of communication - as well as a means of expression. French semiotician Roland Barthes went so far as to suggest that fashion (at least 'written' fashion, i.e. as described in fashion magazines) only existed through discourse on fashion. For more on that, look up his pioneering works Mythologies and Système de la mode as well as The Language of Clothes by Pulitzer prize-winning U.S. writer and academic Alison Lurie.

Fashion tips from Vintage Dancer

A couple on the beach in Biarritz, France (1930)  @  Nationaal Archief, The Netherlands

A couple on the beach in Biarritz, France (1930)
Nationaal Archief, The Netherlands

For women: 

For a 1920s style look for a loose knee-length drop waist or slip dress. Dresses with fringe, tiered layers, or an uneven hem (hanky hem) are extra fun to dance in. Keep your hair back with a sparkling headband. Look for T-strap or Mary Jane style dance shoes.

For the 1930s and 1940s try an A-line knee-length skirt and button-up blouse. A classic shirtwaist dress is also very ‘40s and easy to dance in. If you prefer pants, a pair of high-waist wide-leg vintage reproduction pants with blouse or fitted knit shirt is a comfortable combination. A hair flower clip, snood or silk scarf is a nice accessories for hair. Wear Mary Jane or Oxford style dance shoes. 

For men: 

A very vintage look for the 20s to 40s is to wear wide-leg and high-waist pants (hard to find) so the next best option is to wear classic fit pants in one size up and hold them up with a snazzy pair of suspenders. You can add a vest too for extra vintage style. A long sleeve button-up shirt is timeless paired with a bow tie or necktie. Wide brim fedora hats are optional (and not worn while actually dancing). Dance shoes are a must. There are quite a few brands of Swing-era dance shoes available in solid and two tone combinations.



Suggested Reading

Blum, Stella. Everyday Fashions of the Twenties as Pictured in Sears and Other Catalogs. Dover Publications, 1981. 

Blum, Stella. Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs. Dover Publications, 1986. 

Bridge, Clare and Waterhouse, Jo. Wearable Vintage Fashion. Vivays Publishing, 2012.

McClendon, Alphonso. Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015. 

Olian, JoAnne. Everyday Fashions of the Forties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs. Dover Publications, 1992. 

Reilly, Maureen E. Swing Style: Fashions of the 1930s-1950s. Schiffer Publishing, 1999. 

Rebecca Brightly - Top 10 must-have clothing items for Lindy Hopping women