A Closer Look at Influencers From the Roaring 1920s — Coco Chanel, Irene Glass and Edna St. Vincent Millay

In an age when the number of influencers seems immeasurable, the idea that there once was a period of time that a select number of people lived up to that title might sound like a reach.

But the exhibition “Influencers: 1920s Fashion and the New Woman” at Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, N.Y., focuses on three multitalented influencers from the 1920s — Coco Chanel, Irene Castle and Edna St. Vincent Millay — who helped liberate women’s fashion and lifestyle. More than a century after the 1920s rocked global society there has been a renewed interest in the period due partially to what some economists, academics and trend forecasters consider to be similarities in consumer preferences and, in some cases, their tendencies to splurge in a post-pandemic world just as consumers did in the aftermath of the first World War.

On view through Sept. 23, the show examines how women gained certain freedoms in the way that they dressed and lived after the Great War. That turning point gave way not just to cultural shifts in fashion and social behavior. In that decade, American women earned the right to vote, became more involved in the workforce and attained greater independence.

“Influencers: 1920s Fashion and the New Woman” highlights some of the touchstones made by the designer Chanel; Castle (the American actress and creator of ready-to-wear outfits), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Jazz Age bohemian St. Vincent Millay. Their innovations helped to cross racial, cultural and global boundaries that contributed to societal shifts that allowed women to live, dress and present themselves more freely. The show also illustrates how dress codes loosened up, allowing for less restrictive undergarment options and roomier evening options instead of elaborate gowns. The growing acceptance of athletic outfits, makeup, perfume options and deodorant are also highlighted.

A lace afternoon dress from Chanel 1928-29.

A lace afternoon dress from Chanel 1928-29.

Bruce M. White/Courtesy Mark Walsh and Leslie Chin collection

Among the styles on view is a lace afternoon dress designed by Chanel, which is said to be one of the only versions dating back to the 1920s and ’30s that is still in existence. Although many associate the Roaring 1920s with beaded evening gowns, the exhibition notes how daytime dresses like the lace one gave couturiers “a significant canvas” to create “new and innovative designs.” Chanel had worked with Dongnin & Co., a lace manufacturer, to pioneer the development of dresses made from woven multicolored lace. Exhibition goers will learn how the garment’s longer length signaled the shift from short hemlines to “the more sinuous silhouettes” of the 1930s. That technique was later copied by others.

As known as Castle was for such roles as “Patria,” she also was a pioneering entrepreneur who designed many of her costumes and used her image to become a household name. In 1917, Castle teamed with Corticelli Silk Mills to develop “Patria”-inspired fabrics, and she later launched a signature label, called Irene Castle Corticelli Fashions. Castle also played a part in sparking a seismic hairstyle trend that prompted many women to cut off their long tresses. Several years after she had gotten a bobbed hairstyle — for practicality purposes before a surgery — the “Castle bob” caught on. She also sparked a trend with the “Castle band” — a band of jewelry worn around her forehead to keep her ear-length hair in place. Both styles were so embraced by flappers that they became emblems of the 1920s.

A daytime ensemble that Castle had developed with the Corticelli Silk company is on view. Notably, the jacket’s lining is the same fabric as the dress, which was the type of detail that would have been used at that time by French couturiers. While such celebrity fashion licensing deals are in abundance today, they were started years ago by Castle, who is said to be credited as the first celebrity to have an eponymous fashion line.

As for the omnipresent “influencer” term as a noun, that is even more aged, having first been used by the philosopher, poet and theologian Henry More in 1664. But it wasn’t until 1968 that “influencer” was used in relation to marketing through a study of how children influenced their mothers’ buying decisions. Last year, there were 64 million Instagram influencers, according to the site TrendHero.

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