Flapping Fashion


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’.

Zelda Fitzgerald—”The First American Flapper”
Scott used to call her the ‘golden girl’. This was way before she drove him to death!

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.

Do you want to have some more carnal knowledge of me?

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

Marion Cotillard brings her Flapper A game, headband and all. Très magnifique!

2. THE CLOCHE HAT

These adorable hats could double up as protruding ear correctors

3. THE MARY JANE

Flappers sure knew how to ace the sexy-librarian look with these lovelies

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?

Picture credits:

en.wikipedia.org

polyvore

costumesupercenter.com

imgfave.com

justjared.com

Flickr.com (@McArt)

ebsqart.com

heels.com

kylet.myweb.uga.edu

 

10 thoughts on “Flapping Fashion

  1. My favorite fashion accessory from this period is definitely the cloche. I don’t know what it is but it just seems so classy and sassy at the same time. As always, a lovely and well-informed piece, Aparna. :)

  2. I must admit—as a kid, I thought fashion was a whole hot of hooey. But I understand its value now. It reflects history better than texts can. It represents the zeitgeist (I’ve always wanted to use that word!) And it’s greater than art because you live your life in it, as Stanley Tucci’s character says in The Devil Wears Prada. As you said, the flapper age helped free women. The clothes we wear say a lot about who we are. Perhaps they even affect our feelings and actions.

    • Well-said! I am a sucker for the word ‘zeitgeist’ too. I do think what we wear speaks a lot about how we feel that day, and in a broader sense, who we are. I say this from personal experience, as I’ve had many mood-uplifting days purely because I thought I was well-dressed that day :)

  3. This was a fascinated read for me. Well done! My gram was born in 1901 and in her wedding photo (one of my personal favorites) she is at the altar wearing a true flapper-style dress, complete with a short hairdo of perfectly styled curls. She was on the cutting edge back then!

    • Thanks! I am glad you like it!
      Wow! A flapper-style wedding—your gram must’ve been a true fashionista!
      As a kid, I wanted to convert to christianity just so that I could get married wearing a wedding gown (Weddings in India are a tedious affair). Your gram has given me an ever better idea ;)

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