Beauty Fashion History

What My Ancestors Would’ve Worn: Gertrude Triggs 1920s

When I started this series I wasn’t expecting so many people to enjoy it, so thank you for continuing to read. I enjoy writing them so I’ll continue to do so!

The next of my ancestors I want to talk about is my great great grandmother, Gertrude Triggs. She has been on my mind a lot lately; my mum and I have spent a lot of time trying to find her grave. We only had one photo of her grave, which has no headstone by the way, and a rumour of the town she was buried in. I really couldn’t find any records of her burial so it took a lot of trial and error. Eventually, we managed to find her and my cousin, mum and I have decided to get her a headstone, it’s what she deserves.

My great-great-grandmother, Gertrude Triggs (late20s/early30s)

Gertrude was born in 1984 and sadly passed away in 1937 from breast cancer. She was married to my great great grandfather, William Harvey Triggs, and together they had three children. My great Nan (who I just call Nan/Nanny) was only sixteen when Gertrude died. She left school to look after her two brothers and her dad.

We only have one photo of her which is such a shame. I would love to see more of her. In this photo, she had just won first place at the Royal Cornwall Show. My mum says it was a prize to do with cream, but it’s not confirmed. It would make sense though considering her mother and father, then her husband, were dairy farmers. I think this photo is from the late 1920s/early 1930s, roughly 1928. She is wearing a cute little cloche hat which is typical of the era.

I want to talk about what she would’ve worn in the 20s though because I prefer the era, plus it’s a time when she wasn’t ill.

20s fashion was revolutionary. Women’s legs were shown for the first time as skirts got shorter, and their hair was cut into short little bobs too! Which you can see in the photo of Gertrude, she has the short bobbed hair which was incredibly trendy. You can also see all of the women in the photo below with cheek length hair.

1920s ladies
Some lovely 1920s ladies

The ideal body type of the 1920s was short and boxy, that type seems to run in my family so it would seem that Gertrude was probably at the height of fashion! The 1920s brought a lot of changes for women like the right to vote, so fashion was just as new and exciting. For a working-class woman in Cornwall, England, fashion probably wouldn’t have been as snazzy as it was in the major cities like London. The war was over too so now it was time to party and celebrate carefree.

Gertrude was married to William during the 20s, their first son was born in 1919 so they probably got married not long before then. When they met he was an assistant butcher, but in the 1939 census (two years after Gertrude died) William is listed as a dairy farmer. So I can only assume that when they got married he took over her farm from his father-in-law. Making the Triggs incredibly working class.

Underwear during the 20s was pretty universal. Although the shape of the underwear was different from previous centuries, it had the same purpose. Underwear usually consisted of a slip or camisole with bloomers/drawers, these could be separate or an all-in-one, like a romper (cami-knickers). These could be made from silk, then rayon/artificial silk from 1924. They were trimmed with lace to add decoration.

A lady in some cami-knickers, all-in-one underwear

Stays, or corsets, declined in sales towards the end of the 20s. Although corsets were used by women for many decades to come, there were now alternatives like a bandeau, a bra-like garment used to flatten the breasts creating that flat and boxy look. Corsets were not so much used as support any more, more to flatten the body and create that boxy ideal body shape. I doubt Gertrude wore any form of corset/stay when working. Corsets weren’t particularly uncomfortable, they weren’t meant to be, but they could restrict some movement, so not wearing one was probably easier for the job.

Gertrude definitely would’ve worn stockings. The 1920s saw the rise of stockings being worn as an accessory instead of just for warmth. The rise of the hemline, for the first time, allowed women to experiment with stockings and patterns. Stockings could be made from silk, wool, rayon, or cotton. You could really make a statement with your legs now. The stockings would come to about mid-thigh and would need to be held up by garter clips attached to a corset or girdle. For women who didn’t want to wear corsets, they would roll their stockings down to below the knee, which prevented them from falling down. Homemade garters could be made too to prevent the stocking slipping.

Over her underwear, a shapeless dress with a dropped waist would’ve been worn. I consider Gertrude conservative so I think the length of her dress would have been reasonably ‘modest’, so to her mid-thigh. For work, I think her dress would have been plain, made from cotton, maybe with an apron on top so help keep it clean. She may have also worn detachable sleeves to prevent the outfit sleeves from getting dirty when dealing with the cows. Alternatively, she could’ve worn a shirt and skirt combo that followed the same shape (or lack thereof) the dresses of the time, detachable sleeves could have been used here too.

Similar work attire

For her days off she seemed like the kind of person to favour the style of the separate garments. This includes a long skirt that reached her mid-calf, a shirt (judging by that photograph she seems to be a fan of the bowknot style), and a jacket.

Headwear was just as popular in the 20s as in previous decades. The Edwardian era say huge hats, some even with dead birds on them. The 20s was very much the opposite. Trying to get away with the drama of large hats, headwear in the 20s aimed to make the head look small and sleek. The fashion in the 20s was all about looking streamlined, think art deco. The most popular hat was called the cloche. You can see Gertrude wearing a gorgeous cloche hat in the photograph above. The word cloche comes from France and means ‘bell’. It rounded the head and made it look small which was desired. You could get many styles of the cloche, some had wider rims and some had decorations, but they all had that recognisable ‘bell’ shape.

Advertisement for cloche hats

Living in the countryside it didn’t make sense for Gertrude to have fancy heeled shoes. Cornwall is full of muddy fields and cobbled roads so, for practicability, a lower heel, or no heel, and sturdy strap or laces were better. A strong leather would have been used. For work, she would have worn a flat shoe, maybe an oxford or lace-up boot. As she was in her thirties in the 1920s, either shoe is a likely choice for her. Older women often wore lace-up boots because that’s what they grew up knowing and sometimes couldn’t get used to the shorter shoes, stuck in their ways. Boots could be lined with wool and fur to add warmth in the winter months, I can imagine that is something she would have done to keep warm on the farm.

Beaded jewellery was popular. You’ll often see high-class women sporting long beaded necklaces, often made with pearls. Gertrude was a working woman who probably didn’t have the opportunity to dress up like this, so jewellery was likely kept to the minimum. The outfit she is wearing in the photograph at the top she is probably wearing her Sunday best for the event, as you can see she doesn’t have much (if any) jewellery on display.

Makeup really took off in the 20s. Down turning eyebrows, pale skin, dark eyes and lips, and rouge made up the main aspects of what the 20s was all about. A lot of this was for partying, the jazz age was all about that partying. Going out dancing was pretty big, Amanda Hallay, fashion historian and lecturer, believes the makeup was meant to make it look like you had been out dancing all night. Gertrude doesn’t take me as much of a party-goer, so I doubt she really dipped into much makeup.

Clara Bow
The 1920s movie star, Clara Bow

I really wish I knew more about Gertrude, it’s weird that I know more about some of my ancestors that lived hundreds of years ago when I was born in the same century that Gertrude was actually alive in. The lack of records about her, census’ and registers, is such a shame. I’d love to get to know her better, at least we have this lovely photograph of her.



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