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Women’s Fashion of the 1920’s : the Flapper

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She sits lazily draped over a bar stool, casually swaying to the persuasive rhythm of West End Blues. She effortlessly pulls on the cigarette in her hand, deeply inhaling the smoke and allowing it to slowly escape her deep crimson lips, a hazy atmosphere enclosing her. Men cannot resist her whilst women whisper in hushed tones about the inappropriate length of her dress. She sighs, tucking her cropped hair behind her ears. She is the modern women- independent and exuberating style and luxury. Scandalous and spontaneous. She is the 1920’s flapper. Whilst performing research on women’s fashion in the 1920’s, I became well acquainted with the “modern woman” of the day, the flapper. My fascination and admiration of this fierce new breed of woman only grew stronger the more I poured over books, web articles and photos. The flapper was not only elegant and lavishly dressed in beautiful clothing, but also the attraction of every party, instantly drawing others in with her effortless charm and spontaneous attitude.

The more I learn, the more I desperately long to be a part of this spectacular group of women. I am sure many women in the 1920’s expressed this same longing, and that is why the flapper style became wildly popular in America and Europe during the twenties. “Flirty flappers dressed in helmet shaped cloche hats and low- waisted dresses breaking into the Charleston” is the most popular image thought of when thinking of young women in the 1920’s. But the very short silhouette only belongs to the second half of the twenties, where it was made famous by well-known women of the decade. Just as with fashion trends set in the present day- movie stars, socialites and “its” girls were greatly responsible for creating this “image” of the modern woman, causing it to spread like wild fire amongst the younger generations of women. They may not have achieved world peace, but these famous personalities influenced one of the greatest fashion trends of the 20th century. Examples of style icons of the twenties include Gloria Swanson, Colleen Moore and Louise Brooks. So what characteristics did a woman of the twenties have display in order to form a part of the flapper image?

Women’s clothing in the 20’s took on a boyish, shapeless silhouette (created through unemphasized waist lines and high bust lines). Women became more independent and self-spoken as the decade progressed and this evolvement of women’s role in society was clearly reflected through fashion- as women tried to mirror men’s form and clothing. Women went as far as deliberately flattening and even bounding their bust to create a flat-chested form beneath clothing. The body surface was also broken up by shapes of contrasting colours to achieve the slim line. Dresses were now at cut knee length, the shortest they had been in history- causing quite a sensation. Magazines were said to be full of humorous drawings showing the effects confident young women were causing in their short skirts. They were shown walking boldly down the streets with older women giving hostile stares, or sitting on a train blatantly showing knees and thighs, much to the horror of elderly gentlemen whose spectacles had fallen from their eyes in shock. Women’s legs were also given the impression of nudity with the aim of emphasizing them. Flesh coloured stockings made of artificial silk were worn. A sharp brimmed, helmet shaped hat, called the cloche, became the most common form of head accessory wore by women anywhere and everywhere.

Cloche hats were love symbols, where each different style carried a particular coded message. An arrow-like ribbon indicated a single girl who had already given her promise of love, a firm knot meant a woman was married, but a flirtatious bow was a symbol of the independent fancy-free girl. Beneath these well- spoken hats was head of hair cut incredibly short! The “bob” was the fashionable short hairstyle worn by flappers that showed the ears, shaped the skull and exposed the neck. The bob was later shortened even further by a few brave women once they had become accustomed to the “bob”) into what was known as the shingle or Eton crop. Before the decade had run its course, 99% of American and Western European women had cut their hair short. “Painted flappers” used cosmetics freely and rather crudely (in the opinion of some). Faces were well powdered, cheeks were extremely rouged and eyebrows were pencilled in or shaved off and pencilled in an arched shape above the natural place.

This peculiar habit is possibly the only characteristic of the flapper that I do not approve of. Women were said to have a permanently surprised look on their faces. Last but not least, women completed their look with carefully painted bright red lips. These are only the basic aspects of what made a flapper spectacular and alluring to so many. The style evolved further as women from different areas, cultures and personalities took their own approach to the timeless style. Famous clothing items such as the Turkish inspired “smoking suit” and turban are good examples. Women wearing these perfectly fitted suits appropriately smoked Egyptian or Turkish cigarettes placed in elegant holders- because of course, who could wear a “smoke suit” and not smoke a cigarette! Flappers were the jazz babies of the twenties, characterised by their scanty style and sheer confidence when entering a room. They may have been criticized by many, but they were certainly loved by a whole lot more. Their flirty style and breath taking beauty are admirable, but it is their fierce spirited that we will always remember.

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