When thinking of the Jazz Age, the image that is so vividly painted in my mind is that of the elegant and empowered woman with her bobbed hairdo and headband, balancing a cigarette between her fingers with a graceful nonchalance, and any picture you take of her in that moment would be worthy of the cover of Vogue. She is quite the Jordan Baker, as opposed to the Daisy Buchanan: independent, strong minded, doesn’t take any nonsense (but still has the occasional nonsensical moment, herself – I mean, don’t we all!). And of course, she is wearing that dress. The dress that shows us she is in control. The Flapper dress: the revelation of the Jazz Age in women’s fashion, flouting the restrictions of socially “acceptable” codes.
One connotation of the term “flapper” can be linked back to its late-nineteenth century meaning: “prostitute” – some argue that it was the reckless frivolity of 1920s women and their irreverence for social conduct that originated the naming of this category of women. However, “flapper” as a term to describe the new age of Western women was pioneered in Great Britain with the more positive nuances of the young girl in her teens who has not yet reached womanhood, but is desperately attempting to feign an older, more independent persona. It was later famously adopted by Fitzgerald to illustrate the frivolous partygoer determined to escape the insufferable boredom of her reality in search of a good time. There was also the garçonne: a look instigated and popularised by Coco Chanel, inspired by the image of a young boy. It encouraged a slim frame and flattened breasts: an attempt to regain grasp of that limbo somewhere between youth and adulthood.
The Jazz Age (not without Chanel’s influence) saw fashion daringly move away from the conservative dress of the previous decade to clothes that expressed the out-with-the-old mentality of the new era by revealing bare shoulders and flaunting the legs. Women were more openly conscious of their sexuality; the loosely flowing materials began to expose the boyish sensuality of the female silhouette. The murmur of rebellion grew as hemlines rose (naughtily) to just below the knee; and if the skirt did maybe slip to (oops…) flash the entire knee, she would be taking frivolity to a whole new level. Of course, this is only the stereotypical image of the Flapper that has been driven by film, literature and the media, but it’s this rebellious glamour that so profoundly resonates in the mind of the fashion world.
The innovation that was the Flapper dress embodied the newfound independence of women. The tragedies of the war left a hole in the lives of many women and there was no longer going to be any waiting around for their lives to fall into place. Women learned that it was time for them to take their futures into their own hands. After years of struggling for women’s rights, women in the United States had finally achieved suffrage with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. In Great Britain, the Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave women the right to vote. This long awaited triumph brought with it a liberating sense of freedom. Women began to drive automobiles, smoke at their own accord, and engage in casual sex.
So, why is this iconic style of the ’20s so often at the forefront of the fashion world? It is its rebellious nature, its escape from tradition and its refusal to conform to social norms: concepts that epitomise the ideals of the modern trendsetter. Anyone who cares for style and individuality does not want to be known as the “follower”. It is about creating something innovative – having the freedom to take what is out there and make it your own. That is what the Jazz Age did for fashion. It revolutionised our way of thinking about fashion by refusing to follow what came before it. It is not a rule to which one conforms; it is a unique state of mind adopted by the individual in order to be individual.
Written for Razz by Amrita Pal.