The Fashionable Twenties

Tamela McCann

Empire Girls cover (1)Flappers. Prohibition. Speakeasies. Just mentioning those words immediately brings to mind the 1920s, the era of increased freedom, illegal alcohol, and a nation celebrating after the devastation of the Great War. If I press a bit further, I am relatively certain many readers immediately flash to scenes from The Great Gatsby in your mind’s eye, and I suspect you might have very specific images of men and women partying and living life to its fullest. Or perhaps it’s the entry of Downton Abbey into the period that popped into your head, with people wearing gorgeous dresses and colorful headpieces dancing the night away with carefree abandon. Is it any wonder, then, that this particular period has become “the” fashionable setting for so many recent and upcoming novels?

In thinking about what makes a time period popular among both writers and readers, I was led first to the idea that perhaps some of it is the ease of ability to evoke time and place. Sometimes we use wars to stir these thoughts, or on other occasions we might use disasters, but the ‘20s has neither until its end. What does make it easier to bring to life, however, is the clothing. Fashion was being turned on its ear during the 1920s; women were daring to show more skin, and both sexes were wearing outrageous attire that reflected the spirit of the time. This is very apparent in the new novel by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan, Empire Girls (Harlequin, 2014). The story of two very different sisters searching for a long-unknown brother is subtly built around the fashion of the time. In fact, the fashion aspect is so important to the story, it almost plays a character in itself.

In speaking with the authors, I asked them what they felt about the role of fashion throughout the novel, which takes place mainly in a tenement apartment in New York City in 1925. Both immediately relayed that fashion was so much more than just an artistic tool used to paint the era. Between the two sisters, Rose is very old-fashioned, and her clothing reflects this: high-necked, long hemlines, conservatively dressed at all times, she is constantly upset as younger sister Ivy embraces the freedom of the newer styles. This even extends into the way each girl carries herself, with Rose practicing hours of perfect posture and Ivy running full force into whatever new adventure without a care to the way she’s fluttering about. This was a deliberate point made by the authors, according to Hayes.Suzanna Hayes

“As the story progresses, both women symbolically grow apart (and together again) through the way they express themselves on the ‘outside’. Clothing has a timeless way of secreting our inner securities as well as our confidence. We used this concept in the novel to create another layer of tension, and ultimately love, that grows up like wild, colorful roses, between the two sisters.”

Indeed, there are many references to fashion throughout the novel, including the fact that Rose dedicates herself as a seamstress to earn money, while Ivy, though working (and hopefully singing) at a speakeasy, showcases the latest fashions (including silk pajamas!) while she works. The authors take great care to make sure we know of the use of fabrics and design in all areas, not just in clothing. Ivy even compares her sister’s new dress creation to be “a butterfly”, thus reinforcing the concept that Rose is transforming herself, perhaps without even her conscious knowledge.

So how hard was it to get the fashions right? We know that many movies take artistic license with the concept, but it’s definitely an area that historical novelists know their readers expect to be accurate. But how much research is involved, and what kinds of research did the two authors find useful? Both Nyhan and Hayes were eager to answer the question when I put it to them.

Loretta NyhanNyhan: “When writing about the past, it is important to be as accurate as possible. We scoured the Internet, antique shops, and university collections for photos from the era. Honestly, the best sources can be found on YouTube! Search ‘1920s Fashion’ and you will get a very clear picture of what was in style – we even found footage from an outrageous ‘20s fashion show!”

Hayes: “There are books and magazine articles that were used, but the Internet was a fabulous source for this! There is a Pinterest board that has several photos of the Greenwich Girls (who lived in the Village in the 1920s and were part of the ‘Follies’). Also, we have both lived in New York City (the Village and other sections) and were, in essence, Empire Girls ourselves.”

Obviously the two put their research to good use, as evidenced in this passage wherein Rose describes Ivy as she watches her sister put her songstress skills to work in the local speakeasy:  “She was wearing a beaded cap over her bobbed hair that shimmered under the spotlight. Her dress, black and too slinky to be called a dress at all, was a little big for her small frame and the straps kept falling off her shoulders. She gracefully used her arms…[to] push the straps back up.” Empire Girls frequently uses such elegant turns of phrase to not only highlight the clothes, but the personalities and settings as well. While we follow the travails of the Adams sisters on their seemingly impossible task of locating their brother (which would enable them to live on their own terms), we are also treated to a world experiencing its own quest for freedom in not just fashion, but in social mores, too.

But Empire Girls is hardly alone in its Roaring Twenties setting. A veritable sea of recent and upcoming novels can be found by even a casual search, proving that the decade is also fashionable as a framework for storytelling. Among some of the notable books using the 1920s as a back drop are:

  • Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck
  • Dollface by Renee Rosen
  • Roaring Midnight by Colleen Gleason
  • Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
  • Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
  • Love or Duty by Rosie Harris

How long will our collective fascinations with the time period last? As with anything in historical fiction, there’s no knowing what truly drives the interest to begin with, and no use speculating when or why the trend will lose its allure. But for now, as long as the majority of the novels with the ‘20s as a setting continue to feature high quality storylines and intriguing characters, the fashion will endure.

Empire Girls is on sale this month from Harlequin MIRA. The authors’ website is found at


About the contributor: Tamela McCann is a U.S. Reviews Editor for the Historical Novel Society and is fascinated with the Roaring Twenties. She welcomes any suggestions for novels set in the fashionable era.

Posted by Claire Morris


  1. Susan Strasinger
    June 18, 2014

    I am fascinated with fashion in books. It is a way for me to try on the era, to dig into the setting. I love the idea that Empire Girls research based which immedistely makes me want to check out the colors of the outfits

  2. marijo Kusiciel
    June 21, 2014

    please add me to your email list. Thanks to Susan Vreeland I am now aware of your site.