Risqué new styles in the 1920s emphasized short skirts and sleeveless tops, and helped lead a revolution in consumer spending and social mores.
Before World War I, women’s hemlines revealed the ankle for the first time after centuries of floor length gowns and dresses. When the hemline shot up to the knee, it was nothing short of scandalous to the older generation!
Imagine the arguments that must have occurred in countless households across the country. A young woman, clad in a short, sleeveless dress comes downstairs to leave on a date with the third boy in as many weeks. Her parents must have reeled at the changes.
At her age, her mother most likely had worn a modest dress with a high neckline and long sleeves. Her father would have courted her in the old fashioned manner, calling on her at home with all of the family present.
But the young Flapper was independent, footloose, and fancy free! She dated young men to have fun, not just to find a husband as her mother had. Her style was much more relaxed — no tight corsets, pointy shoes, or “impossibly large” hats. Her wardrobe was modern and simple.
The style was very boyish, with dropped waists and straight sides. Womanly curves that had been accentuated for decades were now hidden. Women even taped their breasts down to achieve the fashionable look.
Consumerism Fuels Purchases
Before 1900, styles changed quite slowly. After the war, production of magazines, newspapers, modern advertisements, radio commercials, and Hollywood movies disseminated information more rapidly than ever before. The growing consumerism of the era fueled a boom in spending on fashion, particularly among young girls.
In fact, clothing was a primary investment for most young women. Social pressures encouraged them to buy, discard, and buy again. Designers were always coming out with new styles, declaring last season’s clothes hopelessly out of style.
The Generation Gap
The Roaring Twenties marked the first time a true “generation gap” was identified. Before 1900, your life closely resembled that of your parents and grandparents. Things changed much more slowly in the 19th century.
With movies, mass circulation magazines, and the radio, a mass culture soon emerged. All at once the world seemed much smaller. Young people could look to their favorite stars for fashion and behavioral cues. Parents and local community leaders were no longer their role models. Fashionable and up-to-date clothing in the latest styles became a must.
Dating Replaces Courtship
One of the most dramatically altered rites of passage in the 1920s was the shift from courtship to dating. In the Victorian era, teens and young adults observed strictly choreographed courtship rituals.
A young man would call on a woman at home, with her entire family present. They would not be allowed to spend time alone together without a chaperone. The purpose of courtship was solely to find a life partner. It was not looked upon as a source of entertainment.
The new concept of “dating” could not have been more different. Young men and women no longer sat at home getting to know each other under the watchful eye of her parents. Instead, the boy would pick the girl up in his automobile to take her to dinner and a movie — without a chaperone!
There were some who believed the car itself could corrupt a young woman’s morals, calling it a “den of sin on wheels.” It became acceptable for both sexes to date any number of partners, since the focus was on having fun, not finding someone to marry.
Emily Post and Etiquette
Indeed, even Emily Post eventually succumbed to this new form of youthful entertainment. In the 1922 edition of her book Etiquette in Society, she included a chapter called “The Chaperone and Other Conventions.” In the 1927 edition the same chapter was renamed “The Vanishing Chaperone and Other New Conventions.” It stated that a girl with “proper morals and strength of character” did not need a chaperone. By 1937 the title of the chapter was “The Vanished Chaperone and Other Lost Conventions.”
- Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig
- The 1920s by Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber