Most of this will seem pretty obvious, but I think it’s worth spending a moment reflecting on just how trailblazing the dazzling young women of the 1920s really were. An awful lot of what us females take for granted may not have got off the ground without them – whether or not you believe that it’s turned out to be a particularly good thing in the long run. The 1920s really did change the world into something more modern.
First off, there’s the whole underwear issue. For years before the flapper, there were “rational dress movements”, campaigns desperately trying to change attitudes to female dress by showing just how oppressive it was. At one point, they worked out that such fashionable “essentials” as a bustle, crinoline and corsetry not only did untold damage to a woman’s internal organs, it added a stone (2.2kg) to her body weight. Just to get dressed. And it took ages and frequently needed assistants! Fortunately, the outbreak of the First World War went a long way to change things; mass conscription of men meant that women had to enter the workforce to keep the country running, and this in turn meant that what had been “fashionable dress” was shown to be completely impractical. It was the death knell for the bustle and quite a lot of tight corsetry.
This changing silhouette had a further nudge with the likes of Coco Chanel and Paul Poiret. They both began their couture careers by either designing or working with sportswear – the Wimbledon champion Suzanne Lenglen wore a lot of Poiret – which meant that the preferred physique needed to be long, lean and unconstrained. Elaborate corsetry or an overly curvaceous figure meant that the clothes didn’t hang properly and in some cases could cause havoc with a woman’s ability to Charleston.
The fabrics and styles of these new outfits meant that they were relatively easy and cheap to copy, creating a vast ready to wear market and enabling women who couldn’t afford genuine couture to dress fashionably at a fraction of the cost. Alongside this grew a market in cosmetics and hair care products together with a host of printed publications offering advice and suggestions on how to wear the latest trends. Yes, the fashion press as we know it was born, and it was very much the heyday of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Some of those early issues are wonderful reading.
The movies added real glamour to the mix; elegant beautiful women appeared on screens in virtually every major town and city across Europe and America. This growing cult of celebrity meant that studios needed vast publicity departments to ensure that their stars were in the papers frequently and for all the right reasons. It gave young women something to aspire to, and the endorsement of a product by a film star would guarantee its success.
Women dieted, exercised, played sports and believed they had a right to be lovely in ways previously unheard of. This was completely knew in the 1920s – ladies didn’t play sports, and the healthy, suntanned look would have been considered common before then – and although more recent versions of this lifestyle can leave an awful lot to be desired, it seems clear to me that we owe the flappers an awful lot of our modern way of life.