Have you heard? There’s a new swell in town named Gatsby, and he’s bringing flapper flair back into fashion. Baz Luhrmann’s latest cinematic spectacle—his take on The Great Gatsby—promises to be a sensational commercial for Prada and Brooks Brothers, who partnered with Luhrmann’s wife, costume designer Catherine Martin, on the film’s clothing. Fashion-world heavyweights, like Vogue and WWD, are already gushing about the new Roaring Twenties styles.
“She flirted because it was fun to flirt. The things she did were the things she had always wanted to do.”
But if you think the flappers were only about drop-waist dresses, fox furs, cloche hats, and excessive celebration, you’re missing the point. The trouble with Gatsby is, as beautifully as F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the opulent world of 1920s high society in his novel, he gets flappers all wrong. That’s because he portrays this liberated “New Woman” through the eyes of men. Even so, his novel has become the go-to source for American pop culture when we want to relive the Jazz Age.
Of course, given his directing style, Luhrmann would be drawn to a classic tale of intrigue, betrayal, and reckless excess that allows him to create a stunning, opulent Art Deco tableau. The Roaring Twenties possess an undeniable magic—a brief, giddy period of time when America wasn’t at war and wasn’t broke.
Through their writings, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald—the young, glamorous literary couple du jour—defined the Jazz Age as we know it. Scott declared his Southern belle wife, whom he married in 1920, “the first American flapper.” The inspiration for Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Zelda was known for her wild antics, like drunkenly jumping, fully clothed, into the fountain at New York’s Plaza Hotel. Even as a kid, she was always creating a scene: She stole a car when she was 8; she went swimming in a flesh-colored bathing suit in her teens.
In her June 1922 piece for “Metropolitan Magazine” called “Eulogy on the Flapper,” 22-year-old Zelda only hints at the radical edge of the flapper movement.
“The Flapper awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure, she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn’t need it and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim and most of all to heart. She had mostly masculine friends, but youth does not need friends—it needs only crowds.”
But in 1925’s The Great Gatsby, Scott depicted a more dire view of flappers. Narrated by a man, the cautionary tale seems to warn against the wiles of The New Woman—the feminist ideal of an educated and sexually liberated woman that emerged in the 1900s. So instead of intelligent, independent women telling their own stories of rebelling and rejecting their mother’s values, you have male war buddies sharing how vapid, spoiled socialites carelessly wrecked their lives. In “A Feminist Reading of the Great Gatsby,” Soheila Pirhadi Tavandashti points out the pattern:
“The novel abounds in minor female characters whose dress and activities identify them as incarnations of the New Woman, and they are portrayed as clones of a single, negative character type: shallow, exhibitionist, revolting, and deceitful. For example, at Gatsby’s parties we see insincere, ‘enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names,’ as well as numerous narcissistic attention-seekers in various stages of drunken hysteria. We meet, for example, a young woman who ‘dumps’ down a cocktail ‘for courage’ and ‘dances out alone on the canvass to perform’; ‘a rowdy little girl who gave way upon the slightest provocation to uncontrollable laughter’; … a drunken young girl who has her ‘head stuck in the pool’ to stop her from screaming; and two drunken young wives who refuse to leave the party until their husbands, tired of the women’s verbal abuse, ‘lifted [them] kicking into the night.’”
Indeed, Zelda, who was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia and died at an insane asylum, spent most of her marriage struggling to define herself as an artist and her own person. Her husband copied liberally from her journals and letters for his novels. When she finally wrote an autobiographical novel of her marriage in 1932, Save Me the Waltz, he edited out several of the stories that he intended to use for his own, 1934’s Tender Is the Night.
But Zelda, as fearless and trail-blazing as she was, can’t even embody the flapper movement fully. For one, it was not all white women, as NYU’s Modern America reports: “For the time being, the bob and the entire Flapper wardrobe, united blacks and whites under a common hip-culture.” Secondly, the flapper’s rebellion against Victorian sexual mores didn’t start among the high-society debutantes, but in “working-class neighborhoods and radical circles in the early 1900s before it spread to middle-class youth and college campuses.”
That’s the piece that most people forget: The flapper movement wasn’t simply a fashion trend, as Emily Spivack at Smithsonian.com’s Threaded blog explains; it was a full-blown, grassroots feminist revolution. After an 80-year campaign by suffragists, women were finally granted the right to vote in the United States in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, many women entered the workforce, and when the soldiers returned in November 1918, their female counterparts were reluctant to give up their jobs.
As a result, young, unmarried women experienced far greater financial independence than they’d ever had before. Bicycles, and then cars, allowed them to get around town without a male escort. The spread of electric lighting allowed nightclubs to flourish, just as the Prohibition Amendment of 1919 forced them to go underground. Drinking at illegal “speakeasies” became a thrilling part of flapper culture. Suddenly, it was possible for women to go out and enjoy freedom and rebellion in a way they never had before when they were beholden to their fathers or husbands.
“These things are not merely a flapper uniform. They are The Style, Summer of 1925 Eastern Seaboard, worn by all of Jane’s sisters and her cousins and her aunts.”
First, these flappers ditched the constraining, skin-covering clothes of their Edwardian mothers. Inspired by Cubist art and Art Nouveau haute couture, flappers rejected the dramatic, hyper-feminine S-shaped Edwardian silhouette created by tight, time-consuming corsets for sheath dresses that gave them boxy boyish shapes. In fact, this straight up-and-down figure was so extreme that curvier women went out of their way to squeeze into girdles and bandage their breasts flat. It was so severe that Luhrmann’s film doesn’t really go there, as most women today would not want to sport such a curveless look. These radical women pushed the boundaries of androgyny even further by chopping off their long Edwardian locks for bobbed hairstyles.
At the same time, flappers revealed a shocking amount of skin. The older generation was absolutely outraged by the site of bare knees and arms, which flappers would highlight with loads of bangles. They were also appalled by the red lips, rouged cheeks, and kohl-lined eyes of flappers, as previously only prostitutes had worn makeup. But these young women would load up with affordable costume jewelry and take their newly invented lipstick tubes and compacts out with them to speakeasies, where they would smoke, drink hard liquor, listen to jazz, and dance the Charleston, the Black Bottom, or the Lindy Hop, dances considered sexually provocative. So flappers were derided for being both too masculine and too titillating.
Importantly, most flappers felt no particular hurry to get married, since they were working and able to provide for themselves. They dated casually, flirting, kissing, petting, and even had sex with men they had no interest in committing to. It’s not surprising that artistic men like Fitzgerald would find them so attractive—and terrifying enough to make them the center of his novel cautioning against self-indulgence and hedonism. Look what might happen, he seems to worry, if we keep letting women drive cars!
The Great Gatsby was not a hit when it came out; at that point, being scandalized over flappers was already passé. Once Clara Bow and Louise Brooks played adorable flappers in silent movies, the short hairdos and boxy drop-waist dresses, albeit with respectably long skirts, became the dominant style of the day.
In a 1925 piece in “The New Republic” called “Flapper Jane,” Bruce Bliven writes: “These [looks] which I have described are Jane’s clothes, but they are not merely a flapper uniform. They are The Style, Summer of 1925 Eastern Seaboard. These things and none other are being worn by all of Jane’s sisters and her cousins and her aunts. They are being worn by ladies who are three times Jane’s age, and look ten years older; by those twice her age who look a hundred years older.”
So flapper fashion had lost its edge by the mid-1920s, when department stores and mail-order companies had discovered the money-making potential of this radically new look. Flapper fashions can be seen in the 1926 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, as shown in Smithsonian.com’s “The History of the Flapper.” It wasn’t long before, the Great Wall Street Crash of 1929, which led to the Great Depression of the 1930s, crushed the fun, free spirit of Jazz Age, forcing men and women alike to get less materialistic and more practical about money.
But the flapper’s influence on American culture could not be undone. She rejected the notion that women should be submissive and keep to their “separate sphere” of the home. She proved that women could work and live independent from men—and party just as hard. She opened up new conversations about dating, sexuality, and sexually transmitted diseases. Along with all those feminist hallmarks, she also created a new, more demanding beauty standard for women that requires wearing makeup, tanning, and dieting and exercising to stay lithe and youthful.
Keep all this in mind while you watch the new “Gatsby.” Like the 1926 Sears catalog, Hollywood is exploiting an ever-popular cultural phenomenon to sell you something. But these vain, manipulative characters wreaking havoc onscreen in their fabulous Prada shifts are not the true flappers, the ones who made the world as we know it.
(Recommended reading: “A Feminist Reading of the Great Gatsby,” by Soheila Pirhadi Tavandashti; “The History of the Flapper,” parts 1-5, by Emily Spivack at Smithsonian.com’s Threaded blog; “The Flapper: The Heroine or Antagonist of the 1920s” from NYU’s Modern America; “When flappers ruled the Earth: how dance helped women’s liberation” by Judith Mackrell at the Guardian UK; “The Roaring 20s: Jazz, Flappers, and the Charleston” at Hub Pages.)