What I Wore to the Election, November 1920

Day dress, c. 1920/1921. Silk with embroidery, paneled skirt, belt, and cotton underbodice.

In case you hadn’t noticed…..

Today is election day. And for the first time, a woman is a real contender for President of the United States. Whether you support her or not, we can’t deny that this is history in the making, which of course has got quite a lot of us women thinking about our right to vote.

Now, I voted early, a couple weekends ago, and there was no fanfare, not even much of a line. In, Vote, Out. Easy. Today, however, I am seeing many of my historical costuming friends going to the polls with some nod, however small, to the women’s suffrage movement. Some are wearing gold and purple ribbons or jewelry; some are wearing original, antique “Votes for Women” pins; and some are wearing full historic dress with yellow sashes. So, of course, even though I already voted, I wanted to show my support-remembrance-respect-pride not for any particular candidate, but for our nearly-and-only 100-year-old “right” to vote.

The nineteenth amendment, that which prohibited any US citizen from being denied the right to vote based on sex (but let’s be real here, we’re talking only white women still), was ratified on August 18, 1920.

Day Dress, c. 1920/21 – found on eBay, this dress was marked as plus size, but fits 34 bust / 29 waist perfectly. The loose lines of the 1920s can be deceiving.

The dress I am wearing today is an original frock I found on eBay. Made of brown silk with rather heavy turquoise and black embroidery, the dress has an interior strong cotton underbodice, and a bajillion hooks and eyes. It was labeled as “plus size,” but fits my 34-29-38 measurements perfectly, like it was made for me. I’m proud that today, Election Day, is its first wear.

 When I got the dress, I was giddy about the condition and the fit. I wasn’t sure of the date – late teens? early 20s? – so I leapt down the Research Rabbithole with gusto and found, as if by magic, this dress in Everyday Fashions of the Twenties: As Pictured in Sears and Other Catalogs for the year 1921.

Sears catalog, 1921 – The dress pictured in the middle bears an uncanny resemblance to my dress.

The dress in the illustration does differ – just by looking at it, the motifs are different, the belt is broader, the sleeves taper, the neckline shape is different. In the description, the differences increase. It says:

31F5155 – Navy Blue 

31F5156 – Black 

31F5157 – Taupe 

One material that ever figures in fashion’s scheme of things, regardless of the season is all silk satin messaline. Youthful grace has been displayed in the lines of the divided panels, so artistically trimmed with iridescent bead motifs. The generous girdle is adjusted in a novel way – the long fringe trimmed streamer slips through a loop, having the appearance of a knot. The waist lining of good quality batiste, is neatly finished at the top with a lacy looking edging.

The parts I marked in bold are where the two dresses differ rather greatly. Still, the design is almost exactly the same. It does make me wonder…where did my dress come from? Perhaps a competing catalog retailer? Perhaps it was made by a dressmaker? Maybe it even is a Sears dress (the Dover book is a survey, not a complete catalog), but from a different season, or pictured later or earlier in the same catalog.

Putting on the dress starts with the cotton underbodice. This is a sturdy cotton that hooks closed at center front. It is attached at the back and around the armscyes. There are additional bars on the left side (here seen on the right) to then hook the front of the silk bodice to.

The skirt has a hook and bar closure on the left side, along with a horizontal hook to keep the waist of the skirt attached to the underbodice.

The inset panel then hook across the underbodice, and the left side of the dress hooks to the panel. The belt isn’t tied, but snaps together on the left side.

Whatever the origin of this piece, it’s fascinating, rather sturdy, kindof fun to put on (unless you’re in a hurry), and easy to wear. I’ve not got a hat as befits it (yet), but I badly marceled my hair and have worn black stockings and Gibson shoes, along with a gold, purple, and white ribbon.

Worth it in every way, to pay homage to the women who courageously fought for our right to vote, and who wore their best dresses to the polls this day in 1920.

All put together. Notably, there is no staybelt in this dress. The underbodice is quite fitted but not tight (I don’t think it is too large or too small; just right). The rest of the dress is loose, not restricting in any way. Even the belt is loose. It’s quite wonderful to wear.


  • Ryan

    November 8, 2016 at 9:30 PM

    It's great to see how the dress is fastened. It helps show that despite the loose fashion lines, clothes were still fitted and there was structure and engineering to make it hang just so.

    • Lauren Stowell

      November 9, 2016 at 7:38 PM

      Yes, very interesting. There was all kinds of understructure in teens era dresses, so I think this is a last vestige of that and it petered out later into the 1920s we went.

  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    November 8, 2016 at 10:29 PM

    It's gorgeous! I reckon it may be a Sears, you know how they make several really similar styles, and then they had that Matron or whatever it was called, range of larger sizes that were slightly different in cut and colour to the stock range?
    I love the colour too! And congrats! We're all holding our breath over the outcome. I listened to the Nevada rep of the hospitality workers Union (it's not called that but that's what it is) on our radio this week talking about how Trump Hotel pays so much less than others and he refuses to negotiate and has spent almost as much as it would cost him in a year fighting it in court. So the union is working hard to deliver Nevada to Hilary.

    • Lauren Stowell

      November 9, 2016 at 7:39 PM

      On closer inspection after I took the dress off, almost the entire thing is hand sewn. The only machine sewing is on the cotton underbodice, and even parts of it are hand sewn. Would that have been the case on a Sears dress? Gosh, I don't know! Further down the Research Rabbit Hole we go!

  • Ms. Rebecca

    November 8, 2016 at 10:38 PM

    I may or may not have let out a squeal of delight upon viewing this delightful piece. Thank you so much for sharing with us Lauren.

    As of now, I do mainly Civil War era reenacting. It is hard to imagine in that particular war time when your husband would have gone off to fight, that the women who took over any particular occupation had no say in any matter. I am thankful that our fore-mothers were brave enough to fight for what they felt was deserving. I can only hope that we, the women of the present and future, continue to do the women of the past proud

    • Lauren Stowell

      November 9, 2016 at 7:40 PM

      Aw thanks, lol! I'm not very good at marcel waves with the iron, and I didn't have the forethought to pin curl my hair the night before. Still, women in the '20s also sucked at marcel waves, so I figure it looked kindof accurate, haha.

  • Lily

    November 9, 2016 at 12:34 AM

    I love the idea of the fitted cotton underbodice! I either missed any references to that previously or never came across any, but I think it's genius! It makes a loose style still put-together. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    • Lauren Stowell

      November 9, 2016 at 7:42 PM

      Yes, it does kindof look that way. You could theoretically make something that looks very similar in 3 pieces – a skirt, a tunic/blouse and a sleeveless robe over the top. They just combined all of it together. Quite interesting.

  • Unknown

    November 10, 2016 at 2:25 AM

    I hope this finds you and yours doing well. May we display your header on our new site directory? As it is now, the site title (linked back to its home page) is listed, and we think displaying the header will attract more attention. In any event, we hope you will come by and see what is going on at SiteHoundSniffs.com.

  • Cate

    November 10, 2016 at 4:08 PM

    This dress is amazing! It's so wonderful to see just how it's constructed so that the under piece isn't separate from the rest of the dress. Thanks for sharing all it's details. xx

  • Nicole

    November 16, 2016 at 12:57 AM

    Thanks for giving us a peak into what the fastenings of the dress are like. I've often wondered that before, as the vintage catalogues and pictures don't show that! This is a really beautiful dress, and in such lovely condition too.
    The Artyologist

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