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.
But if you think 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.
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.
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.
But in the 1925 novel 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. … 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.”
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 19th 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. These vain, manipulative characters wrecking havoc onscreen in their fabulous Prada shifts are not the true flappers.
Cover of Flapper magazine from 1922, showing actor Billie Dove in football uniform, from Wikimedia Commons
This is an edited version of a longer piece with more illustrations at Collectors Weekly.