Beautiful Little Fools: The 1920s

The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald came up with a name which summed up the spirit of the decade following the First World War, a name which has become synonymous with decade: The Jazz Age. Fitzgerald’s most famous work, a short, poetic novella called The Great Gatsby, is perhaps the quintessential story of the era. The Great Gatsby conjures up a world of glittering parties fueled by illegal alcohol and attended by the young, beautiful, and glamorous which is mostly how we remember the 1920s.

The world appeared to have changed beyond all recognition after The Great War, not the least in regards to what the fashionable young women like those at Gatsby’s lavish parties wore.

A dress from 1906, eight years before war, would have looked much different from a dress made in 1916, two years into the war. By 1926, fashion had done a complete 360 degree turn. It had lost interest in exaggerated feminine curves and elaborate hairdos. The opportunities which opened up in the 1910s and 1920s for women meant that women’s clothing had to become more practical and unfortunately, more masculine. Corsets were eventually ditched all together, and long hair, once prized as a woman’s “crowning glory”, were cut off. Legs and arms were more visible than they had ever been. Makeup had become socially acceptable.  Some of the most daring fashionistas even wore pants. Women also became more interested in traditionally masculine pastimes such as sports, drinking, smoking, and casual sex. Girls who took advantage of all of these social changes and enjoyed a good time were known as “flappers.” Interestingly, the corresponding term for “flapper” in French is “garçonne”, the feminine version of the French word for boy which roughly translates into “tomboy.” So radical was the flapper and all she stood for that we even get stories of parents filing lawsuits against their daughters for dressing and behaving in ways which they disapproved of and some conservative states in the American Bible Belt banned women over fourteen from wearing short skirts.

The flapper features greatly in The Great Gatsby. It’s two main female characters, Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, are beautiful and glamourous young women who move in the highest circles of society and dress in the height of 1920s fashion. Stylish and fun loving girls show up at Gatsby’s parties. But Fitzgerald paints the flapper in decidedly dark colors. Jordan is cynical and dishonest. Daisy is flighty and shallow and ultimately fickle and careless. Though Daisy loved Gatsby she ended up marrying a wealthier and more socially acceptable husband. When Gatsby wants her to leave her husband Tom, she is unable to give up her comfortable lifestyle and lets Gatsby take the blame for her when she accidently kills Tom’s mistress in a car crash. Perhaps the reason why Daisy’s behavior is so disappointing is because Gatsby so idealized her and saw her as an ideal of perfection rather than a person.

The Great Gatsby shows how little society had actually changed. Despite the fact that they could now work and vote, a woman’s life’s work was to catch the wealthiest husband they could. Men still held women up on a pedestal instead of seeing them for what they are, flawed and all too human individuals.

Daisy famously says that she wishes her daughter will be a fool because “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Intelligence and seriousness was at best unattractive and at worst undesirable. While the previous generation expected women to be demure and submissive, the generation Daisy came from valued giddiness and carelessness in girls. A woman was still expected to look pretty, smile, and ignore all that was unpleasant regardless of whether or not she was trussed up in a corset. Even with all the outward trappings of emancipation women had gained, they still could not expect to be taken seriously.

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