The years leading up to the 1920s saw massive social and economic change, particularly for women, brought on by the United States entering the First World War. With men fighting on the front lines in Europe, women were called upon to contribute to the home front war effort. Many women’s roles shifted from domestic-related responsibilities and occupations to working in the munitions and agriculture industries.

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Women working in the Gray & Davis Co. ordnance plant in World War I, Cambridge, Mass. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. 

After the war and the passing of the 19th Amendment, the average woman’s “place” was no longer limited to the home or textile factory. A portion of the female population now found themselves with increased independence, both financially and socially, and women’s fashion directly reflected this—the days of restrictive corsets, hobble skirts, and layers upon layers of petticoats were on their way out. Instead, women, particularly of the younger generation, began to embrace practicality and freedom of movement in their clothing choices.  

This shift could be seen throughout the country, with larger cities and wealthier individuals influencing the latest trends. Although small, Aiken, South Carolina was unique in that it served as a playground for the affluent, who embraced the post-war era fashions. Beginning in the 1870s, Aiken served as a winter resort for wealthy northern individuals seeking a respite from the cold. Lasting through the 1940s, these winter-specific residents of Aiken formed into what is referred to today as the Winter Colony.

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At its peak in the early 1900s, the Winter Colony hosted wealthy residents with last names such as Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Whitney. One of the families amongst this group was the Andrews family. They built a home along Dibble Road near downtown Aiken and participated in many social functions in the area. A number of the dresses featured in this exhibit once belonged to the fashionable women of the Andrews family. The women of the Winter Colony embraced the new styles, as well as the new trends, such as Art Deco, sportswear, and “folk” or “peasant” styles. While the flapper may be the most recognizable style of the era, the dresses featured in this exhibit showcase the varied silhouettes, styles, and rapidly changing fashions of the early 20th century, all of which are symbolic of the broader change of a woman’s place in society.