(Credit: London News Ltd/Mary Evans)

The wild era that changed what we wear

The Jazz Age was a wild era that changed the way we dress and how we live our lives to this day, writes Lindsay Baker.

“It was an age of miracles,” F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his essay Echoes  of the Jazz Age. “It was an age of art, it was an age of excess.” In his fiction, the author beguilingly captured the sybaritic Roaring 20s – hedonistic, glamorous, decadent, opulent. Photographs and illustrations from the era reflect this seductive, dazzling sense of wildness and fun – flapper girls smiling ecstatically and dancing with abandon in their swishing, tasseled dresses and bobbed hair, or posing in tumbling marabou boas and towering feathered head-dresses.

The rhythms and beats of jazz permeated the visual – Dennis Nothdruft

“There is a constant sense of rhythm and femininity and glamour,” says Dennis Nothdruft, who has a special interest in 1920s fashion, and is curator at  London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. “There’s a sense of society crashing into the modern age, with movement and speed and romanticism.” So how and why did the 1920s ‘roar’? And what made the Jazz Age so unique – and influential?

The speed of change during the 1920s was dizzying. Booming prosperity and social upheaval combined with a youthful, post-war euphoria and new female empowerment to make the 1920s paradigm-shifting, boundary-busting decade. “The generation before them had been slaughtered in the war, and there was a devil-may-care attitude,” Nothdruft says. And like the musical genre it was named after, the Jazz Age was full of unruly spontaneity, improvisation and edginess. “Jazz was the sound of the ‘20s, and the rhythms and beats of the music permeate the visual.”

Sin and spectacle

The 1920s was when “the modern woman’s wardrobe began,” Nothdruft says. Out went the tight corsets and bustles of the Edwardian era, as did the long, hugely impractical dresses, elaborate hair styles and hats of that time, and in came the shorter, drop-waisted dresses and easy-to-manage bobbed hairstyles. Silk pyjamas became popular for lounging, entertaining at home or for the beach, with chinoiserie and Egyptian styles particularly popular in clothing and jewellery – the latter due largely to the blockbuster exhibition of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Coco Chanel even took to wearing trousers. What began as a niche, bohemian youthquake soon trickled down. The fashions became pervasive and the bobbed hairstyles de rigeur among the general female population, and with them a sense of liberation and confidence.

And now that the motion picture was emerging, the new trends could reach more people faster than ever before. Hollywood was bursting into the popular consciousness with an explosion of film palaces going up across the world, and massive stars coming into their own – like the glamorous Gloria Swanson in her elaborate head dresses and rebellious ‘it girl’ Clara Bow.

In the extravagantly ruffled robes de style by Lanvin and in the ubiquitous feathered boas, fringes and tassles, there was a new feeling of dynamism – perfectly captured by American illustrator Gordon Conway, herself a flapper career girl, whose work encapsulates the music, sensuality and glamour of the time. “These clothes were made to move and dance in, and the capes with huge collars and no structure literally fell off the wearer as she moved,” says Nothdruft.

She always arrived courtside in a fur coat and played tennis in flapper dresses

A new sense of speed and movement pervaded culture – crucially the motorcar had arrived, and even tennis became racey. “There was an explosion of athleticism,” says Nothdruft, whose exhibition devotes a section to the sportswear of the era. Women’s tennis had previously been a genteel pastime, with ladies in long dresses and heavy petticoats drifting daintily around a lawn. But in the 1920s the first female star of tennis, French player Suzanne Lenglen, was transforming the women’s game with her tough, fast playing style (considered by some commentators ‘unladylike’) and her diva-ish ways. She always arrived courtside in a fur coat, whatever the weather, and played in modern flapper outfits – calf-length, slim-silhouetted silk dresses in red or orange. She also had a tendency to smoke and drink cognac on the court – to steady her nerves, she said. She shocked the crowd by serving overhead, and became known as ‘the Goddess’.

Breaking the mould

It was also the first time that mannish styles became fashionable. “There was a trend for women wearing tuxedos and tailored suits. Coco Chanel borrowed hers from her boyfriend along with fisherman’s sweaters and tweeds,” says Nothdruft.  “And lesbianism was also fashionable for the first time, certainly in café society in Paris, London and New York.” Among the stylish, talented lesbian stars of the era were painter Romaine Brooks and her partner, the writer Natalie Barney, along with the poet and author of The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall. Women like these helped set the agenda for the decades that followed, and their chic, androgynous style has proved enduring – androgynous dressing and masculine tailoring for women have appeared at regular intervals over the subsequent decades, and now, nearly a century on, the look is once again enjoying a renaissance, at French label Céline in particular.

For the first time women could choose not to marry - Nothdruft

In New York it was the era of the Harlem Renaissance, with a wave of creative energy from black artists, musicians and writers, notably writer and social activist Langston Hughes, one of the earliest innovators of jazz poetry.  Meanwhile in Europe racial boundaries were increasingly being challenged, with African-American jazz musicians widely feted, and the talented and flamboyant cabaret dancer Josephine Baker becoming an icon of the era.

It was a time of liberation and boundary breaking, says Nothdruft: “The career woman was born, and for the first time women could choose not to marry. Young women were working in the day, and were out un-chaperoned in Chinatown dens, jazz clubs and speakeasies.” The party lasted for 10 years and then, as Fitzgerald put it: “leaped to a spectacular death in October 1929”. Glittering but tragic, beautiful and damned, the emotionally bankrupt lost generation – this is how the Jazz Agers have often been depicted. But in its mood and its aesthetic, not to mention its sheer progressiveness, the Jazz Age remains arguably the most beguiling and culturally influential era of them all. And fun while it lasted. As Fitzgerald wrote in Echoes of the Jazz Age, his essay for a 1931 issue of Scribner’s Magazine: “After two years the Jazz Age seems as far away as the days before the War. It was borrowed time anyhow – the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand ducs and the casualness of chorus girls. But moralizing is easy now and it was pleasant to be in one’s twenties in such a certain and unworried time.”

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