THE ROARING TWENTIES
By Lyndon Chen
The Roaring 20s – a decade characterised by cultural prosperity within the Western hemisphere, known in France as the années folles (crazy years). A decade of significant cultural change. Women’s suffrage, art deco, surrealism, liberalism, and dance clubs flourished during these years of rapid societal progression. In particular, the unprecedented innovations in music and fashion of this period entered the lens of mainstream media. Their respective evolutions were largely interlinked, and the attire of the 1920s would not be what it was without the popularity of jazz and blues.
Jazz has its origins in the South, particularly in New Orleans, Louisiana a city with a famously multicultural population. The residents had ancestry tracing back to Africa, Europe, Central America, and Native American populations. By the late 19th century, the slave trade had brought around 400,000 Africans (predominantly from West Africa) to North America, bringing with them their folk music and language. Simultaneously, increasing numbers of black musicians begun playing European instruments (such as the violin), and African music was interpreted through a European lens. Jazz was the result of two vastly different styles of traditional music coming together, producing an amalgamation of rhythm and harmony foreign to both cultures, creating a platform for legends such as Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ma Rainey to emerge onto. While composers such as Louis Gottschalk had already integrated Latin, Caribbean, and African themes into European classical music, this was often exclusively for the concert hall. Jazz provided a new opportunity for all socioeconomic backgrounds to enjoy this multi-ethnic art form.
Furthermore, music was also able to be distributed in a multitude of new ways. Prior to the 20th century, live music was only available in the form of concerts. However, the invention of the radio and the phonograph were both crucial in allowing jazz to be experienced by a wider audience. Additionally, theatrical entertainment greatly evolved in the first half of the 20th century. As vaudeville’s popularity declined, the silent film and the talkies dominated the first and second halves of the 1920s respectively, both offering soundtracks increasingly inclined towards jazz. The first talkie, titled The Jazz Singer, featured Al Jolson, famous for popularising African American music among white Americans who were unwilling to listen to performances by black artists.
Due to this, fashion also had to adapt into something that all people could wear to enjoy jazz. Whilst Victorian clothing was appropriate for sitting down to enjoy concerts in grandiose venues - such as corsets and large bustles for women, and heavily starched shirts and top hats for men - these did not grant the freedom required to dance to jazz. Social dancing in America had quickly become popular as a form of artistic release, sparking demand for change. As swing dance grew concurrently with jazz throughout the early 20th century, both men and women began to dress in clothes that provided less restriction. Fitted suits in neutral colours had previously been the standard for men, and although this practice is yet to disappear even today, they became baggier and brighter over the course of the jazz age (perhaps culminating with the popularity of zoot suits in the 1940s).
As has often been the case, the change in women’s fashion was much more remarkable: the 1920s marked the age of the flapper girl. Characterised by their defiance of social norms and disregard for “ladylike” behaviour, women took inspiration from actresses of the talkies such as Clara Bow and Louise Brooks – both sex symbols of their time each with great speculation surrounding their sexuality. During this time, dresses were looser and shorter to allow for greater upper body movement, and various accessories came into fashion, including long strings of glass beads and cloche hats. However, many had distaste for the androgynous style that flapper fashion also brought about for women. Coco Chanel popularised naval uniforms and wide-legged trousers for women, which were often worn with short, bobbed hair – a more masculine look that was worn in spite of heavy criticism from the older generations. This unrestrained attitude defined the female persona throughout the decade and is remembered even today with great fondness.
However, all good things must come to an end, and the Roaring 20s was met with a rather abrupt one. The 1929 Wall Street Crash and the subsequent Great Depression meant that Americans’ extravagant lifestyles (“the most expensive orgy in history”, remarked F. Scott Fitzgerald) were no longer possible. As American society began to regress, some of its former fashion began to resurface – feminine curves and longer hemlines became traditional once again as jazz musicians struggled to find opportunities throughout the first half of the 1930s. Despite the further suppression caused by the Second World War, both fashion and music re-emerged in the 1950s completely revolutionised – both loose and formal clothing became societal standards as rock and roll, the blues, and R&B became the genres to transform American artistic expression. Perhaps what is good does persist through peril.