How New Styles Made the ‘New Woman’ of the Roaring ’20s
“The Great Gatsby” is back, along with the glittering splendor, opulent parties, nightclubs and slinky fashions of the Roaring Twenties. Tiffany & Co. is celebrating with Jazz Age jewels; Brooks Brothers Inc. has rolled out a Gatsby line of menswear. Vogue featured the movie’s star, the U.K. actress Carey Mulligan, on its cover.
In Baz Luhrmann’s rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, Mulligan is Daisy, the slender and rich young woman with whom Jay Gatsby -- in this case, a suave Leonardo DiCaprio -- is obsessively in love. She is perfect for the part of the fashionable “new woman,” slim-hipped and small-breasted, who can pull off wispy, knee-length evening dresses and lean, no-waist chemises.
By 1925, changes in fashion that had begun early in the century had culminated in the “flapper” style. No longer did women manipulate their bodies into the voluptuous hour-glass shape that had prevailed in the late 19th century. They refused fashions that accentuated bosoms and buttocks, features that were meant to signal their suitability for motherhood. The new look advertised sexuality, not procreation.
Fashion designers both created women’s desires and responded to them. The French couturier Paul Poiret, for example, proclaimed that he liberated women in 1903, when he dispensed with styles that required a boned corset. Poiret, Jeanne Lanvin, Coco Chanel and many other prominent designers featured clothing that flowed sinuously over a woman’s body. These designs, lauded in fashion magazines, were copied for department stores and local shops; women who sewed for themselves easily found patterns. Instead of being laced into wasp-waisted gowns, a woman could slide on a soft jersey dress, or Chanel’s unadorned little black dress, or a long, knit cardigan over a jaunty, open-necked shirt.
Fashion historians offer various explanations for this revolution: Women had moved into the workplace and refused to be encumbered by heavy floor-length dresses and layers of petticoats; they were engaging in sports, such as tennis and golf, and needed clothing that allowed them to move freely; they expressed their desire for power by wearing asexual, androgynous or masculine styles.
Economic historians offer other explanations: The war created a fabric shortage, so less was available for clothes; also, with more employment opportunities in business and factories, it became difficult to find domestic help, so women preferred clothing that didn’t require excessive cleaning and care.
Whatever the reasons, women’s fashion magazines, as early as 1908, noted a new trend: “The fashionable figure is growing straighter and straighter, less bust, less hips,” Vogue announced, “and a wonderfully long, slender suppleness about the limbs.” The ideal look for women was “boyish” and youthful. But then, as now, few women had those attributes. Then, as now, the fashion industry stepped in to help.
Corsets never went away. Instead, they were transformed into rubber and elastic foundation garments that compressed the breasts, stomach and hips to create the straight line that women coveted. Only with these compression garments, Vogue admonished, could women achieve the “uncorseted” look.
“To carry the look of youth, your form must radiate the magnetism and virility of girlhood,” announced an advertisement for one company’s “Feather-Light Elastic Vest.”
Fad diets became popular. Some women noticed that smoking dulled their appetite; others opted to follow strict reduction plans, sometimes prescribing no more than 700 calories a day. Lulu Hunt Peters’s “Diet and Health, With Key to the Calories,” aimed specifically at women, was America’s top-selling nonfiction book in 1924 and 1925. Besides playing tennis and bicycling, women engaged in gymnastics as a means to control their weight. Most drastically, some resorted to cosmetic surgery to achieve the slim, shapely leg that now was revealed by knee-length skirts. Surgeons who had treated wounded soldiers discovered a new clientele: women who hated their bodies.
For women in the 1920s, a slender body was evidence of self-discipline and will power. Control of one’s silhouette became a statement of modernity, denoting moral, intellectual and especially sexual freedom. Ironically, this freedom had to be attained through repression. “The whole duty of a woman,” Vogue said, “is to devote herself exclusively to the shrinking of her shadow.”
The women who populate the new Gatsby movie are, as Fitzgerald described them, “young and rich and wild.” They wear diamonds, silver slippers and diaphanous dresses dripping with beads. They flit, Fitzgerald wrote, “like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars” past tables laden with “spiced baked hams” and “pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.” They will eat little, though, of the feast. Fitzgerald’s novel is about desire, about what money can, and cannot, buy. Women in the 1920s desired a new way of being; the fashion industry translated that desire into baubles, beads, jersey and silk -- and a body image as constricting as the most unyielding whalebone corset.
(Linda Simon is the author of “Chanel” and “Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety From the Telegraph to the X-Ray.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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