Women in the Roaring Twenties (Fall 2012)

The Roaring Twenties was the birth of a new woman. She defied society’s standards of what its women were supposed to do, say, wear, act like and be. She gained political power by gaining the right to vote. She broke out of her domestic shell. She wore shorter skirts, more dramatic makeup, and cut her hair. She flaunted her sexuality. She drank, smoked, and danced in clubs. She was a flapper.

Before WWI, the Gibson Girl was the ideal norm to describe the average woman. According to PBS.org, the Gibson Girl “was a figment of the imagination and product of the pen of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson”(pbs.org); she was society’s ideal woman of the 1900s. The requirements of this title include both internal and external aspects. Starting at the top, she was expected to have long, full hair that could be perfectly styled on top of her head in neat curls. For her face, she would not wear excessive or dramatic makeup; she would either wear none or so little that it would not be noticed, giving off a very natural and carefree vibe. Her clothing and body were also determined by society’s rules. She was expected to be tall and thin and possess curves in all the right places, chest, hips and rear. A popular aid in this process was wearing a corset, a well known symbol of pre-flapper fashion; this created the illusion that these women had an incredibly small waste, yet hips that were satisfactory for child bearing. Alike the flappers, the emotional aspects of the Gibson Girl were just a specific and important for their image and title as the physical ones. These ladies were expected to be confident and independent, but understand their lower place in society. It was acceptable for them to be sexually dominant, but not in the same ways as the flappers were years after. Gibson Girls could acknowledge that there was sexuality in their society and speak about men, but most commonly reject their invitations, claiming their independence as women and not being risqué by any means. They were allowed to attend college and seek a husband, but there was absolutely no political involvement, protests, demonstrations or anything of that nature. The Gibson Girl and the Flappers are very different; the ideal of the Gibson Girl in the early 1900s aided in the creation of the complex and infamous style of the Flapper girls.

Before World War I, there was a very strict and common role of families and gender in society. The women stay home to cook, clean and take care of the children. Women would not work or hold independent or strong roles in the family. They would not commonly deal with money, make political decisions or defy their husband’s ideas. Men would be the breadwinners of the family, own the land and make the political decisions. A common idea of this time period is that the women were the men’s property and he worked hard each day to provide for her and their children; it would be disrespectful for a woman to want to work or challenge her husband’s position as head of the family. But, when WWI broke out, the history force of ‘personal identities’ relates to the changes among gender roles and family. Many women had to enter the workforce because they had to support their families. This is a great depiction of the women taking on the men’s roles in society. As stated before, women did not work, but with their husbands overseas, they were left with no choice. These progressive women of the Roaring 20s took a stand and defied society’s norms. Also, many men did not survive and the ones that did had to live life to the fullest because of the reality that they could die the next day. When men had come back after the war, people expected everything to go back to normal, but they could not act as if what had happened had not impacted them. Society wasn’t the same and neither men nor women could view life as they previously did and this was evident in the shift and flexibility of gender roles in society.

After a large number of men in a generation died, the ‘Gibson Girl’ no longer wanted to waste her life away waiting for a man to take interest and pursue her; she needed to take what she thought was an independent style and put a new spin on it. This new independence, brought on by the shock of the new vibe America lived in, resulted in many new and exciting additions to women’s lives. One of the most memorable and impactful additions occurred on August 18, 1920 with the addition of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote. This shows the impact the history force of politics and government had. These women were breaking away from the old set of values and adopting new ones, demonstrating that women of the 1920s were evolving and the country was going to have to do so with them. This gave women a feeling of being accepted and justified as individuals. This is what drove them to become more confident to make such bold moves in the flapper culture.

The appearance of this new, politically forward woman was very controversial, but that did not stop them from creating what can be recognized as the most drastic and notorious fashion movement in American history. Unlike the Gibson Girl who conformed to the man’s idea of what she should look like and how she should conduct herself, the “new” women wore makeup, cut their hair, and dressed differently. Before the flapper movement, expressive make up was a symbol of a scandalous woman or a stripper, but the new woman of the Roaring 20s wore make up to express themselves and teach society that there cannot be restrictions or stigmas attached to a woman’s external style. Instead of the long, full and specifically styled hair, the flappers introduced the phenomenon of the “bob” hair cut. Still widely popular today, a bob is a very short hairstyle, which is a straight cut falling right below the chin. It was incredibly uncommon for woman to have short hair in the early 1900s. Another transformation these women made was their clothing. They traded in the corsets, long skirts and high collared shirts for shorter hems on their skirts and more flamboyant clothing. The flappers wore knee-lengthed skirts, which was an outrage to the more conservative society in the early 1900s. This was considered scandalous and gave older generations more of a reason to label these young women as rebellious. Sometimes, they even tried to look more like a boy by tightly wrapping their chest with fabric to flatten their busts.

Another aspect of fashion that was affected by this time period was women wearing hats. Different styles of hats became very popular and another way for women to express themselves. This included hats with feathers, beading, netting, different shapes and colors and more. Because of this development, Gabrielle Chanel started her own millinery, which is the designing and producing of hats. In addition to her support of the hat making its way into woman’s fashion, Chanel created a clothing line in harmony with the flappers. She shortened skirts and used jersey material, which had previously only been used for menswear. Her designs were very fashion forward and new to society as they were more simplistic and had a masculine twist on them. Instead of intricate beading, tight corsets, intense curled hairstyles and the such, she gave women the opportunity to dress more comfortably. This shows that their style could be equal to men and so could their brains. Women were not commonly seen as influential or boss-like members of society; men ran companies, made political and financial decisions and were the “bosses”. Chanel challenged this by designing her own clothes even though many men of the 1920s would not support her endeavor in any way shape or form. Chanel was, and still is, a very influential woman and is also a role model to many fashion forward and progressive women to this day. The Chanel brand is now one of the most highly-sought after fashion brands. This not only shows her success, but also how influential and what an important part she was within this time period. The new woman’s external style was very controversial, but is a great representation of the drastic and exciting change that woman created in the Roaring 20s.

The internal fashion and expectations of the new woman, or the flappers, was equally as important and controversial as their clothing or hairstyles. They woman had an entirely new attitude and way of life. This wasn’t just a trend, but it was a social statement as well. Women felt more relevant within society, so they acted on that. This included drinking alcohol socially, smoking cigarettes and going to night clubs. Before this time, women did not commonly go to clubs without their husbands, or single women would behave in a very, very different and more conservative way than flapper girls did. The flapper movement fits in harmony with the JAzz Age in the 1920s, adding to the fast paced and flaunting lifestyle of women. Flappers were independent, strong willed, opinionated and progressive. Opposed to the Gibson Girl image before them, Flapper girls did treated sex very casually. This was seen as reckless and skanky by society. They dated freely, confronted men and experimented with their sexual appetites. They participated in co-ed activities, especially on college campuses. A phenomenon popular to flapper girls was called “petting parties” where boys and these new, forward woman would hang out and participate in sexual activities. They would kiss, practice foreplay and experiment in ways that would never have been deemed acceptable by the conservative society. This was very shocking and controversial in society and this is said to still be a concept that lingers in today’s society. The new woman broke out her societal shell, exerting more confidence, independence and a sense of a stronger role in society. They wanted to be equal to men and show that they, too, could be sexual, opinionated and influential creatures and it should not limited because of their gender.

The Roaring Twenties was also a time of new technologies. The history force of science and technology impacted this time period as well. A completely new form of transportation was becoming popular. The Henry Ford’s innovation of the automobile was fast and risky, just like the Flappers. They took advantage of this new idea and started using cars. They did not only use cars for transportation, but used the backseat as a new spot for sexual activity. The fact that they tried to look like boys didn’t stop them from flaunting their sexuality.

The Roaring Twenties were a grand time of change for women both mentally and physically. Women were able to break away from the confines of society that men bound them to for so long and the results of this shift are still evident in our society today. Because of the emerging of the new woman and the Flapper girls, women are able to vote, express themselves through self-determined styles, be equal to men in positions in society, and have more confidence as a gender at large. The activities, styles and ideals of the new woman in the 1920s were risky, looked down upon by some, progressive and influential. The changing of their clothes, hair, makeup, political stance, ability to be in the workforce, participation in the sex culture, use of technology, and way they presented themselves in general depict exactly what the flappers and the Roaring 20s stood for: change, a new outlook on life and holistic success.


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