Do you know what ‘maidenhead’ meant in the Tudor era? Or that hanging, drawing, and quartering was not a method to make a quarter pounder? If you do, you are probably a Netflix junkie or—like me—a Netflix junkie. No, seriously, like Adriana croons in ‘Midnight in Paris’, the past has always had a great charisma for me. I enjoy watching period films and reading about their lives: what they thought, how they spoke, what they wore. Save for this irresistible curiosity, you couldn’t have paid me to watch the ‘porn’ucopia that is ‘The Tudors’. Well, maybe if you offered truckloads. But then again, why would you?
Don’t read me wrong. I am not a romantic. I don’t fancy living without internet and antibiotics, and after watching Breaking Bad, without having meth as a career option. But, if there is one thing about the ‘golden age’ that grabs me by the eyes after King Henry VIII’s colorfully decadent life, it’s the fashion of those times. It’s fascinating how the social and political climate—mutating at an accelerating pace then—subtly manipulated the way people dressed. I am not a big fan of the corsets and the ass-enhancing bustles of the 1500-1800s; sun-repellent-dress induced rickets was probably a major cause of death then. I am talking about the fashion that came right after the docile ‘Gibson Girl’, and permeated more like a lifestyle, and revolutionized the ethos of feminine style. I am talking about the snazzy, bold, impossible to miss ‘Flapper’.
A flapper was a mid-teen girl in the 1920s. What she did as a flapper has multiple interpretations though: some believed she was a frivolous, self-indulgent young girl flitting away like the proverbial butterfly; some called her a young prostitute with her open galoshes making the onomatopoeic flapping sound. Some even thought she was an older woman simply being curious and open to experimentation. Frivolous or not, young or old, her flamboyant personality was hard to ignore. What made her special was not only an impeccable sense of style—their time saw the first little black dress—but also what it signified. The flapper lifestyle sprouted hot on the heels of the first world war, as an act of decrying feminine stereotypes. With the men away at war, women had begun to step out of the Küche and enter the workforce. Also, the war wiped out a significant proportion of young men—men who were either of marriageable age or who were already married. This left scores of young women without partners and left to fend for their own. Could there have been a better time to rebel?
So it began: women dated, flirted, indulged in alcohol (it was the time of prohibition), smoked and danced Jazz. The flapper was the human equivalent of a one-shoulder dress—something about its asymmetry makes you take a second look. She was the textbook non-conformist (did I just use an epigram?), very much like an Alexander Mc Queen of the 1920s: flouting norms, making bizarre look fashionable.
It was no coincidence that the flapper reign dovetailed perfectly with the first wave of the then nascent feminist movement, spawning a rebirth of clothing styles, as with any cultural upheaval. Women fiddled with different cuts and silhouettes—silhouettes that were comfortable, and cuts that did not shackle them literally or figuratively. They stepped out of their asphyxiating corsets, and chopped off their Goldilocks tresses. Hems rose; waistlines dropped. Sleeves became entirely optional. For the first time in history, they exposed their legs, which, coming at the tail of the gargantuan-gowns-and-flounces era, was a whirlwind of a change. It was a trend not only embraced by the elite—the ‘torchbearers of fashion’—but also by a huge chunk of the 99%.
What was striking, even contradictory about the flapper was the watering down of the feminine, voluptuous look of the Victorian times—tubular, flowing outlines, flatter chests for the garçon look—juxtaposed with the flamboyant makeup and flirtatious behavior clearly meant to attract male attention. However sexually dissonant this style was, it seemed to work for the men. The flapper was new, strong, confident, sexually assertive teetering on the edge of racy—basically, every man’s fantasy.
I know I could ramble on vacuously about cuts, drapes and silhouettes and probably get away with it. But, that wouldn’t be very rewarding to your patience thus far, would it? So I pause right here and give you my absolute favorite picks from the flapper wardrobe:
1. THE DRESS
2. THE CLOCHE HAT
3. THE MARY JANE
As a dewy-eyed enthusiast of all things fashion, I find it hard to imagine that the almost viral presence of the flapper lifestyle lost its zing by the turn of the decade. While I am an optimist, and truly believe that the world is only getting better to live in, I won’t deny naively wondering sometimes: Had the essence of flapper-feminism stayed on, would we still be bickering about shaving our legs for men?