Channeling the Flapper Girl | The New York Times

May 15, 2013

A tableau from the ’20s, when women dressed in a classic style that was at ease with the era, and took advantage of the freedom offered by having their own cars.Paul Popper/Time Life Pictures, via Getty ImagesA tableau from the ’20s, when women dressed in a classic style that was at ease with the era, and took advantage of the freedom offered by having their own cars.


That’s the best thing you can say about the style of Baz Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby.” It has the sleekness of an Art Deco skyscraper, a fast car or, as Cecil Beaton reminded me, Daisy Fellowes’s head.

I actually loathed the movie and its schizoid fashion: the Prada dresses better suited to today’s bodies, the lackluster fabrics, the French bobs with ears sticking out. But I love the ’20s, or rather, the years between 1919 and 1923, when a generation of young people was experiencing the commingled pleasures of cars, cheap alcohol and shortened skirts. In an essay published in 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald said of those early years of the Jazz Age, “Who could tell us any longer what was fashionable and what was fun?”

Yes, indeed: who?

Not Vogue and The New York Times, whose fashion mavens were preoccupied with Paris couture and Newport society and whether Biarritz had eclipsed Deauville as the preferred European playground. In a 1917 article entitled “The Extreme Adolescence of America,” Vogue introduced its readers to the flapper: “She is a fantastic grotesque, pretty in the modern manner, which is a wild mixture of Paris, futurism, the primitives, and a little rouge … She is feverishly interested in two things, herself and her clothes.”

A tableau from the 1930s.H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile, via Getty ImagesA tableau from the 1930s.

Yet, despite the early acknowledgment (The Times does not mention flappers until 1922), Vogue remained on the whole indifferent to this American wild child and what her self-obsession foretold. Looking through Vogue in the early ’20s, as well as the Seeberger Brothers’ photographs of “grandes elegantes,” at places like Chantilly, one sees skirts well below the knees, with all kinds of drapes and entanglements.

This was curious, considering what was happening among the young people in America. In fact, it was not until late 1924 that you began to see the type of short, narrow, low-back dress associated with Chanel and the ’20s. And within a year the style was everywhere, with the fashionable head, as The Times noted, now “a speck on the silhouette.”

There is much in Mr. Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” that is missing, like the sporty knitwear created by Patou and Chanel that became an emblem of the modern, unfettered woman, and much that is simply wrong, like the notion of a lady golfer in pants, or the fib of having a character remark that Daisy is pretty enough to be on the cover of Vogue — when Vogue still put illustrations on its covers.

Clearly with a contemporary audience in mind, Mr. Luhrmann and his wife, the costume and set designer Catherine Martin, chose to focus on a harder, cooler view of the ’20s, and not strictly a lily-white view. For me, somehow, it was reading Beaton’s description of the look of the French-American socialite Daisy Fellowes, her “unparalleled air of sleekness,” that put the film’s style into perspective.

And yet I can’t help thinking that despite Mr. Luhrmann’s research, despite his collaborations with Miuccia Prada and Brooks Brothers, and his chats with his friend Anna Wintour, that he missed something quite elemental about the ’20s — namely, the flapper.

I don’t mean the corrosive creatures hopping around in the movie’s party scenes. They’re no more real than Hollywood’s versions in the ’20s. In Fitzgerald’s opinion, no picture “mirrored even faintly the younger generation” until 1923, when “Flaming Youth” came out, and then Hollywood drove the theme into the ground. Bruce Bliven, in an article in The New Republic called “Flapper Jane,” published in 1925, got the essence of her wardrobe when he wrote: “Jane isn’t wearing much, this summer. If you’d like to know exactly, it is: one dress, one step-in, two stockings, two shoes.” But by then she was no longer news.

The more I looked at snapshots of anonymous girls in loose cotton dresses, including one with cropped hair, her bare legs dangling over the side of a Model T, the more I understood the significance of something Fitzgerald wrote: “Isolated during the European War, we had begun combing the unknown South and West for folkways and pastimes, and there were more ready to hand.”

And: “As far back as 1915, the unchaperoned young people of the smaller cities had discovered the mobile privacy of that automobile given to young Bill at 16 to make him ‘self-reliant.’ ” And a good deal less prudish.

Maybe the flapper wasn’t urban, or anyway a New Yorker, after all. Maybe she was a purer manifestation of the women’s movement, its hatred of chauvinism, and the freedom offered by cars. That’s just a guess. Her style was certainly modern, in its ease and carelessness and connection to youth; it was also deeply American, at a time when New York houses were trying to be less dependent on French fashion. But in the class system of the ’20s, you can see why the flapper was already a lost cause. Lacking taste, she attracted more scorn than curiosity from the fashion press.

As Valerie Steele noted in her cultural history “Paris Fashion,” the years between the wars saw a host of dazzling women, among them Fellowes, rise to the top of the social pyramid by dictating what was fashionable. But at the start of the ’20s, France may have been impeding freedom.

In 1921, The Times ran a remarkable article by its ace diplomatic reporter, Anne O’Hare McCormick, in which she described the secret efforts by the French government to persuade couturiers to drop hems and add side panels and other garniture. It was all at the behest of fabric and trim manufacturers, who complained that the new, simpler styles used less material and therefore hurt their businesses. The article explains why Paris fashion remained long and fussy through the early ’20s.

It also makes you wonder about those teenage prophets of the Jazz Age, and what would have happened if, as Fitzgerald hoped, the older people had stepped aside “and let the world be run by those saw things as they were …”

A version of this article appeared in print on 05/16/2013, on page E2 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Channeling the Flapper Girl.

Author: Camara Dia Holloway

I am an art historian specializing in early twentieth century American art with particular focus on the history of photography, race and representation, and transatlantic modernist networks. I earned my PhD at Yale University in the History of Art Department. Besides my leadership role as the Founding Co-Director of the Association for Critical Race Art History (ACRAH), I am recognized for my expertise on African American Art, particularly African American Photography, and as a seasoned consultant for exhibitions, museum collections, and symposia/lectures planning.

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