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 high school classic 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. Fashion-world heavyweights, like Vogue and WWD, are already gushing about the new Roaring Twenties styles.
But if you think the flappers were only about drop-waist dresses 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.
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:
“She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure… 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 1925’s “The Great Gatsby,” Scott depicted a more dire view of flappers. Narrated by a man, the cautionary tale warns against the wiles of The New Woman—the feminist ideal of an educated and sexually liberated woman that emerged in the 1900s. 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.’”
Indeed, Zelda, who was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia and died at an insane asylum, spent most of their 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.”
That’s the piece that most people forget: 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.
First, these flappers ditched the constraining, skin-covering clothes of their Edwardian mothers. 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. In fact, 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 young women would load up with affordable costume jewelry and take their newly invented lipstick tubes and compacts out with them to speakeasies, where they would smoke, drink hard liquor, listen to jazz, and dance the Charleston, the Black Bottom, or the Lindy Hop, dances considered sexually provocative. 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, and even had sex with men they had no interest in committing to. It’s not that 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. Look what might happen, he seems to worry, if we keep letting women drive cars!
“The Great Gatsby” was not a hit when it came out; at that point, being scandalized over flappers was already passé. 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. Flapper fashions can be seen in the 1926 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.
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. Along with all those feminist hallmarks, she also created a new, more demanding beauty standard for women that requires wearing makeup, tanning, and dieting and exercising to stay lithe and youthful.
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. But these vain, manipulative characters wrecking havoc onscreen in their fabulous Prada shifts are not the true flappers, the ones who made the world as we know it.
Photo of flappers at a college football game from Addison Scurlock Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.