The Flapper Girl and the History of Female Fashion
I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.
—The Great Gatsby
Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald got it right when he put those words in Nick Carraway’s mouth, describing the 1920s as a period of opulent parties and sheer decadence. Gone were the conservative and timeworn values that defined the previous decade.
Reeling from the ravage of World War I, the American economy saw an unprecedented leap that brought prosperity to the nation. Having been deprived of the comforts of home, the generation who fought in the war compensated with an extravagant lifestyle and frivolous spending when they returned.
The Roaring Twenties also signaled changing attitudes toward women’s liberties. Women were given the right to vote and were freed from their tight corsets. This was the birth of the modern woman: the flapper girl. She had bobbed hair, put on makeup, smoked cigarettes, drank liquor, listened to jazz, danced the Charleston, and frequented petting parties. The 1920s were the best of times until they ended with the great stock market crash of 1929. Regardless, they were a defining era for women everywhere and revolutionized fashion for females.
The flapper girl was unpredictable. Though she was viewed with disdain by the older generation, who complained that she was wild and disgraceful, she didn’t care and continued in her attempts at reinvention. The free-spirited character of the flapper girl was most evident in female fashion.
To keep up with the times and dance to the livelier tunes of jazz, which was all the rage in the 1920s, flappers trimmed down their clothes and made them lighter so that they could move more freely. They also ditched their pantaloons and corsets because they found them too constricting. Instead, they wore step-ins underneath, which looked a lot like today’s nightgowns.
Looking at the history of female fashion, the trends and styles of the period were heavily influenced by several art movements, namely, surrealism, impressionism, and art deco. Clothes bore strong colors and geometric shapes, which were strong reactions to the simplicity and rigidness of the decade before it. Velvet, silk, and furs were favorite fabrics among the upper class. Cotton and wool were abundant and made cheaper. Prints on fabrics became more elaborate and featured Egyptian designs. The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 and Hollywood movies like Cleopatra gave birth to this trend.
The 1920s female fashion also saw the rise of the boyish garçonne look and Coco Chanel. It was the appropriation of male clothing to the female figure, and this look was popularized by Chanel and highly favored by Hollywood celebrities like Marlene Dietrich. The look was androgynous and innovative. Chanel is often credited for liberating women from the corseted silhouette and introducing them to casual chic. Men’s sailor outfits and dungarees have become inspiration for her fashion pieces. Knickerbockers and baggy trousers were no longer exclusive for men. Because of Chanel, it has become a staple in female fashion to allow women to engage in sports.
Appreciation for makeup grew in the 1920s. Flapper girls were sporting powdered faces with brightly rouged lips and cheeks. Prior to this era, only women who had supposedly loose morals would dare to use makeup. The bob was considered the trendiest haircut, which saw flapper girls chopping their hair off just slightly above the shoulder. It was later replaced by the shingle, which was even shorter.
Going back to Nick Carraway, the Roaring Twenties were indeed filled with an “inexhaustible variety of life.” Women redefined themselves and broke away from the Victorian image of femininity. It’s because of flapper girls that we have a new definition of a “modern” woman.
I would also like to hear from you about your favorite fashion trend from the twenties. Share them in the comment section below. You can also reach out to me in Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads. Check out The Promise of Sunrise and differentiate the fashion developments between twenties and twenty-first centuries.
“1920s Fashion for Women.” American Historama. Retrieved July 18, 2017. http://www.american-historama.org/1913-1928-ww1-prohibition-era/1920s-fashion.htm.
Rosenberg, Jennifer. 2017. “Flappers in the Roaring Twenties: The New, Modern Woman.” ThoughtCo. Retrieved July 18, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/flappers-in-the-roaring-twenties-1779240.