It’s no cliché that the woman’s body was liberated in the 1920s.
The kind of clothing women wore in the XIX century, was clearly a kind of garment that was designed to hamper her in her everyday life and would effectively restrict the range of her activities. She would wear a bodice to shape her body into an hourglass, the way it most suggested femininity in the aesthetics of the time, but that very bodice made her breathing difficult to a point that fainting was a common occurrence especially in the last part of the XIX century. Long skirt further limited movements, making many activities difficult – and so undesirable – for many women.
Indeed, women’s look revealed women’s social position even before the 1920s.
But in the 1920s women’s expectations about their life changed dramatically and so did the way they saw themselves. No more just the queen of the house and the family, she had no desire to be confined to the house and her male counterpart accepted this new state of things. Looking for a life companion even before marriage, men and women sought to spend time with their partners and more out-of-the-house experiences than they used to. So, women needed to be able to actually do the same activities men. No more chocking bodies, then. No more long, hampering skirts. No more heavy layers of clothing weighting them down.
The scantiness of young women’s clothing was sure shocking for many elders, but it was almost a necessity in the new life young women led. Bodices and long pants were replaced by light, essential underwear. Layers of dressing where replaced by frocks, blouses and skirts. Skirts became increasingly short, with the shorter hem appearing in 1926, just below the knee. The New Woman danced frenetically in speakeasies, she jumped on cars with friends and boyfriends, she would do sports and spend a lot of time outdoors. Her new look reflected her new lifestyle… as well as her new self-awareness.
Starving for beauty
There is no arguing that an active woman had a lean body. The modern woman was someone who was always up to something. She would dance, she would do sports, she would go around town. And even if she didn’t actually do any of these things or did only a part of them, she should look like she did.
The magic words of the 1920s woman were: modern, lean, attractive and healthy.
In fact, health and idea of health became central in Twenties lifestyle. People should not only he healthy, but they should above all look healthy. And because the modern life demanded to be active, young people started to think to an attractive body as a lean, athletic body.
This brought about a completely new practice: dieting, or – as it was then commonly known – ‘reducing’.
In the earlier decades, magazines offered advice in equal amount on how to gain weight (and have a curvy, feminine body) and how to lose weight (if you body was too curvy). But in the 1920s, advice started to lean overwhelmingly toward how to lose weight.
This depended in part on advancement in the medical filed. Medical doctors were the first to advice on cutting fats in response to the first evidences that eating habits and health condition are tightly linked. The eating habits of people actually improved (at least for those layers of society who could afford it) with an increase in the consumption of fruit and vegetables and a decrease in the consumption of meat and sugary food. Mothers and wives became more conscious of
what a balanced nutrition was like and changed their consumer habits in response.
But what became a dieting fad went well beyond this. Pushed by the new concept of attractiveness and the example of the thin, willowy Hollywood stars, 1920s girls tried to be thin in all ways possible… including ways that weren’t healthy at all. Dieting pills, chewing gum, laxatives and a plethora of often quite fantastical diets became a young girl’s routine practices.
Counting calories became common especially after Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters published her book Diet&Health: with keys to calories in 1918, which sold millions of copies during the 1920s. But all kinds of dieting manuals, commercial diet programs, reducing creams and other weight-loss products flooded the market. Many of these methods were not healthy in the least. Smoking was not only daring, and therefore modern, but it was also considered to be a good way to control weight, so it was widely advertised as healthy.
One of the most popular commercial diets was the so-called “Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet”, a restrictive 585-calory program that recommended to eat only “grapefruit, oranges, Melba Toast, green vegetables and boiled eggs”, and was clearly not a balanced eating routine. But although medical doctors kept cautioning that many of these popular diet fads were potentially dangerous, many young people didn’t care to listen.
Children of the sun
The relationship between people and the sun went though a huge change.
Previous to the Twenties and especially in the XIX century, the good-looking feminine woman would have a very pale complexion, which would suggest her angelic nature –and would also speak of her spending her time inside the house.
Besides, that was a general assumption: wealthy people spent their time indoors, while all the other worked the land, becoming tanned under the sun of long hours working the fields. Being tanned meant to be poor.
In the 1920s, that idea reversed. Doing sports, which meant being slim and attractive, was often done outdoors, so having a “healthy tan” soon became a fad and a status symbol. Being able to sunbath meant having the time to devote to it and the money to travel to sunny holiday places, something only well-off people could afford, while now poor people would more often work long shifts in a fabric rather than out in the fields.
Legend has it that it was Coco Chanel who made the tan the “must have” fashion accessory when in summer 1923 she enchanted French society by stepping off the Duke of Wellington’s yacht with a definite suntan… which she allegedly got by accidentally staying in the sun too long.
Truth be told, by the turn of the XX century the connection between the exposure to the sun and vitamin D had been discovered and sunshine was been advocated by doctors to help avoid some disease and skin conditions.
One early advocate of the benefits of the sunlight was Dr. John Harvey Kellog. His first “Incandescent Light Bed” (one of the first sun beds) was constructed in 1891 and helped relieve many medical conditions including goat, eczema, rheumatism and certain forms of tuberculosis.
But by the 1920s, using sun beds had become a cosmetic practice.
Show up your legs, ladies!
In Victorian society, women (nice girls, that is) didn’t show their ankles. That was considered daring and provocative.
Twenties New Women showed off they legs gladly. In fact, while they plaid down both breasts and hips, they highlighted they legs all the ways they could.
Women had used stockings for a long time, but in the Twenties stockings went through a lot of change. They were made of silk, cotton, wool and rayon.
Rayon was a new synthetic material and so of course it was very popular among young girls. But it was so shiny that many women would powder their legs over the stockings to make them look matte (today’s common belief that girls powdered their naked knees appears to be inaccurate).
Stockings came to about mid or upper thigh and had to be held up by garters or garter belts. Young women would often roll their stocking down, just above or below the knee.
Beige, ivory and pastel colours were favoured, but stockings came in many fashion. Allover patterns were very appreciated, with stripes being the favourite pattern, though polka-dots, bows and zig-zags were also very popular. The most daring girls would go beyond that and embroider contrasting coloured feathers and flowers around the ankles and the calves. Picture would be painted anywhere on calves and knees.
It was really ‘anything goes’ in order to attract attention to the legs.
Nails had been coloured for thousands of years using paste, liquid and waxes made from all sorts of ingredients, largely unchanged for centuries.
Liquid varnish more similar to what we used today was first introduced in 1917, when Cutex launched its varnish made from coloured resins.
The industry of varnish was evolving fast, spurred by the car industry ongoing search for ever faster and more polished varnishes to use in their factories. After WWI experimentation showed that boiling nitrocellulose made it soluble in organic solvents which, once evaporated and dried, left a hard, glossy lacquer.
It was perfect for the car industry, but with just a few little tweaks it became perfect for nail polish too.
The first product, which didn’t really adhere well and soon wore off, were in translucent, soft pinks that created a natural look reminiscent of the old waxes. In 1922 Cutex developed the liquid and powder polish that eventually came in various shades of bright rose, pink and red.
Girls would file their nails oval, sometimes with quite a pointy tip, then varnish only the centre of the nail, leaving the half moon and the tips bare. This helped the varnish to last longer and since it was very difficult to be done by the girl herself, it became yet another status symbol which showed she had the money to pay for a manicure.
The sensual boy-looking flapper
It may be difficult for us, women and men of nearly 100 years later, to understand the beauty of the flapper.
Sure, she showed off many feminine characteristics of beauty, like her eyes, her mouth, her legs, but on the other hand, she also plaid down other features. A flapper would be lean, very lean, not at all curvy. She would in fact play down her hips buy pushing her waistline at hip level and she would bandage her breasts to make them less prominent. On top of all this, she would crop her hair very very tight. In short, she would try to look a boy as much as she could.
To us, this would make for a less attractive woman, not a more sensual one. But we have to consider the underlined suggestions this new look created in that society.
The New Woman would dare to do what women had never dared before. She “painted” her face as “questionable women” did in the past. She cut her long mane which had taken their mothers so much time to care after. She refused the ponderous dresses and opted for a kind of garment that allowed her a range of activities that had been previously discouraged of women.
She tried to look attractive to men because now young people would choose each other rather than accept their family’s decision about their future. Girls, as well as boys, would choose their partner and the family life they wanted together. Besides now they were able to program when to have children and how many.
This was what men found attractive in their “new women”. The cropped hair and the “painted” face talked of a break with the past to embrace a new life of freedom, new values and a new lifestyle that was those young people’s own, because they were the ones who first created it.
This is why, even if a lot of the New Woman’s new look was fuelled by fads and certainly created by the fashion and film industry, it also spoke of a deeper change that had nothing to do with fads. And if it’s true that only a small number of women were able to adhere to the New Woman’s new look, all women – across age, race, class and even culture – strived to achieve that look because of what it implied.
The New Woman was a wild creature hungry for freedom, a figure miles ahead of her time. As the Great Depression fell over America and the world, the New Woman and her expensive look and lifestyle waned. Decades would pass before the liberated woman of the 1960s took up her legacy.
So, this is the end of the New Woman’s New Look series. It was quite a ride, let me tell you. I originally planned to post it in a matter of a couple to months, it took me nearly a year. I really really enjoyed it.
Be assured, this is not the last time I’ll talk about the 1920s New Woman. In fact, I’m already planning a couple other post.
What about you? What did you liked the most and found more interesting? What would you like to read more about? Let’s continue this journey together!
The shifting role and position of women in society was one of the big changes of the 1920s. The way women chose to present themselves and their looks is the mirror of an evolution that goes far beyond mere fashion
- Shameless, Selfish and Honest – The changes in society that allowed the coming of the New Woman
- The New Woman Appropriates the New Makeup – Women appropriate their sensuality
- Flapper Jane Goes Shopping for Makeup – What’s inside a 1920s beautycase
- Cut It and Bob It – Flapper Jane Seeks the Boyish Look
- Flapper: The Boyish Look of the Sexy Vamp
Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977
History – The Roaring Twenties
The Guardian – A history of diets: from Byron to 5:2
Jazz Age Club – The Cult of Sunbathing
Fascination Street Vintage – 1920s Make-Up & Cosmetics Pt. 2 – Tanning
Vintage Dancer – 1920s Stockings, Tights, Nylons History
Jazz, this is a wonderful piece of work, and a treasure trove of information for anyone writing in the period. It also highlights your formidable skills as a researcher. Still looking forward with bated breath to the day when I can read The Old Shelter, and things like this are a big part of the reason. Having had the wonderful experience, I would highly recommend anyone looking for a short, taut thriller to savor the appetizer that is Give In to the Feeling. It is a fabulous read.
You inspire me with this post, and its attendant series. I sincerely hope you have great success with your supernatural Roaring Twenties projects. You are an author who deserves to be read!
Jack, now I’m all shy. You always have such kind words for me 🙂
I’m happy you liked the post. I really liked writing this series and I can see that I’ll write about the New Woman again, in the USA and elsewhere.
Can’t wait to read more of your stories myself.
Thanks so much for stopping by.
I thought this was fascinating. Some things I knew but not, for example, about only painting the middle section of the nails. I think that looks quite weird, though I like the rest of the Flapper style. It must have been quite shocking to some how quickly standards changed from total cover up to some of the scantily clad young women here.
You bet. I don’t think we can actually understand how shocking the New Woman was to her contempararies. So many things she did for the first time we’re accustomed to take for granted.
I didn’t know about the moon manicure myself, but after watching the tutorial I kind of feel like trying it. I’ll let you know how it turns out 😉
Absolutely fascinating! Those corsets did worse damage than fainting… they actually displaced womens organs. They were quite dangerous.
I know. I’ve seen picture of Victorian nudes where you can clearly see the change in the woman’s body caused by the corsets. Creepy…
Lisa @ Bookshelf Fantasies
Fascinating! What a wonderful post.
Thanks Lisa. I’m so happy you enjoyed it 🙂
I really enjoyed this post! It’s hard for me, as a modern woman and plus size, how anyone could’ve ever found boyish figures on women to be sexy, though I know people of that era would, by and large, not understand the appeal or popularity of more curvaceous figures. Every era and culture has its own normal.
As tomboyish as I’ve always been, I do love reading about vintage clothes, hats, shoes, and even makeup. I guess it’s living vicariously through women who represent something I know I’ll never be.
Sorry, that first line should say “to understand how anyone.”
We tend to consider fashion something shellow and quickly forgotten. I thin it actually says a lot about the people who wore that fashion. It’s so fascinating.
Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
I saw this and thought of you:
Thanks so much for sharing the link, Anabel 🙂
I find that the author is trying to make a point more than eximining a historical event (personally, I think the flapper movement was more complex than she depicts), but it’s still an interesting article. I particulaly liked the passages from 1920s newspapers and speeches. That really gives a sense of how shocking flapper attitudes were.
J Lenni Dorner
Fascinating stuff. Crazy that dieting is less than 100 years old, yet rules so many lives.
Great research here. Well done.
Hi Lenni, how nice to see you here 🙂
Social history is fascinating, don’t you think? It may teach us so much about ourselves.
Such an awesome post! I would have fit in very well with ladies of the 1920’s.
LOL! Me too 🙂
I’m happy you found it interesting. Thanks so much for stopping by.
Styles, trends, the what’s hot and what is not. Fascinating. Great post, I enjoyed the images you used to compliment this piece.
Thanks Shari 🙂
I really enjoyed writing this series. I discovered a part of history that is often misrepresented, especially in novels.
Interesting blog. As a young man, I always thought of this type of dress was outdated and glad girls of my youth didn’t wear that type. Years later, young daughters of my own, well, funny how things change. Fortunately, my daughters are, at least now, modest and we hope they stay that way. Thanks for the great piece.
Thank you for reading, Robert.
I find 1920s fashion so beautiful. But I know a lot of people who don’t. LOL.