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Flappers in focus

Flappers in focus

Caught between the first world war and the Great Depression, the jazz age was a period of social transformation. A new exhibition shows how women’s clothes captured the mood

Caught between the first world war and the Great Depression, the jazz age was a period of social transformation. A new exhibition shows how women’s clothes captured the mood

Kassia St Clair | September 28th 2016

Asked what women wore during the 1920s, most people would picture the same thing: a drop-waisted dress, low-heeled Mary Jane shoes, a long string of pearls and a headband decorated with a diadem and a curling feather. “1920s Jazz Age: Fashion and Photographs”, a new exhibition at the Fashion and Textiles Museum in London, shows why this is such a persistent image of an era bookended by the first world war and the Great Depression. 

Designers were making clothes that reflected profound social and cultural change. The corseted silhouette of Victorian and Edwardian times was already becoming looser before the first world war, as simpler fashions and the drive for women’s suffrage caught on. The war, which forced women to enter the workforce in greater numbers, sped up the revolution: long skirts and trailing sleeves were serious impediments around factory machinery or on the farm.

Once the war was over, many women returned to their old lives, but the spirit of emancipation persisted. Women were gradually gaining political as well as economic power: over-thirties were given the vote in 1919 in Britain, and with fiancés and husbands killed on the battlefields, would-be housewives were forced to become financially independent. Meanwhile, the crumbling of the old social order and the growth in the retail sector meant that women that might once have gone into domestic service became shop girls, living in cities with a disposable income to spend on travelling, make-up, clothes, fashion magazines and cinema tickets.

They were well-served. Vogue was founded in Britain in 1916 and in France in 1920, reflecting a boom in fashion and cosmetics; Hollywood’s silent-movie industry was reaching its peak. The stage for the jazz age was set, and women demanded choice. They were dressing to suit themselves.

New beginnings
The Dolly Sisters, shown here in a photograph from 1923, epitomised the transformative power of the 1920s. Born in Hungary as Rozsika and Janka Deutsch, the identical twins emigrated to America and metamorphosed into Rosie and Jenny Dolly, stars of the stage. Although they appeared in several films, they specialised in vaudeville, comic song-and-dance routines performed in elaborate, revealing costumes. At the height of their fame the sisters could command $2,000 a week, equivalent to around $25,000 today. They once earned $1,200 for a single night’s performance at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.

Birds of paradise
But why should the professional performers have all the sartorial fun? Women at all levels of society were experimenting with new and wildly impractical fashions such as this sheer, chenille-trimmed cape. It disdains to protect its wearer from the elements, instead acting as a dramatic, peek-a-boo frame and emphasising the leaner, drop-waisted lines that had come into fashion. Indeed, the new styles with their flat fronts and large panels, were perfect for displaying elaborate patterns or embroidery, such as the delicately woven metalwork here. 

Fit for a king
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922, and its subsequent excavation, started a craze for all things Egyptian. Hieroglyph-inspired prints became all the rage and so, too, did sequins. Inspired by the slim metal disks found sewn to some of the boy king’s ceremonial clothes, they were enthusiastically adopted once it was seen how well they caught the light as the wearer shimmied around the dance floor. This dress combines golden sequins with a more contemporary motif: a stylised Charles Rennie Mackintosh-inspired rose. It isn’t hard to see why King Tut’s tomb caused such a stir. In the romanticised image of Ancient Egypt – a sophisticated civilisation ruled by a boy who died young – bright young things of the 1920s found a flattering parable for their generation.

Powder and rouge
​Before the 1920s makeup was largely frowned upon. Although plenty of Victorian women wore skin preparations (including deadly lead-based cosmetics to make their skin aristocratically pale) it had to be subtle. Conspicuous rouge, eye shadow and lipstick signaled that the wearer was a woman of ill repute. But, like so many other social mores, this one was destined for a swift death in the 1920s. Flappers, like the ballet dancer Anna Ludmilla, a favourite muse of the American photographer James Abbe who took this image, liked their colours bright and had no problem with artifice whatsoever. The cosmetics industry blossomed as women began aping the looks they saw on the stars of the silver screen. Lead-white bases were out and tans were in. Skin-darkening preparations became more popular, including one marketed by the African American star Josephine Baker.

Freedom of movement
It was George Taylor, an economist, who first suggested that as stock markets rise so do women’s hemlines. The Twenties are often taken as a case in point. In fact, over the decade there was continual experimentation and, as this fashion illustration by Gordon Conway shows, considerable latitude for women to express their individuality. One thing that designers and wearers were united upon, however, was that clothes had to allow the wearer to move. Gone were the heavy Victorian gowns that smothered limbs and needed to be worn with S-bend corsets. The new women of the jazz age had been unleashed: they played tennis, travelled, went to work and, of course, danced.

1920s Jazz Age: Fashion & Photographs Fashion & Textile Museum, London, until January 15th 2017

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