April 10th is the 96th anniversary of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The novel exhibited to readers the decadent, glamourous, opulent world of the 1920s that people are still enamoured with today.
The Fashionable 1920s
Fashion in the 1920s was completely dominated by women. For good reason too. A massive social upheaval involving women occurred in the 20s. For one they were in the workplace. Women entered the workforce during World War I, and for the first time a lot of women were making money of their own. With your own money means greater choice for oneself, which meant that women, for once, weren’t completely reliant on men for their livelihoods. Women could even choose not to marry *gasp*. To mark this newfound independence, the 19th amendment was passed in the US which gave women the right to vote. What does this have to do with fashion? Everything. Women began to dress differently to reflect their new social and cultural situation.
Thus, the ‘Flappers’ were born. According to Dennis Nothdruft, curator at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, the 1920s saw the emergence of the modern woman’s wardrobe. Tight corsets, bustles, impractically long dresses, elaborate hairstyles and hats were out. These were symbols of the previous Edwardian era that many women found restrictive and rigid. What was in were shorter, drop-waisted dresses (a dress with a sash or belt around the low waist) and bobbed hairstyles.
The economic boom that Western countries faced after WWI saw an increase in wealth for many people. Egyptian styles became popular in clothing and jewellery. Ancient Egypt reflected the same kind of opulence that the 1920s were famous for. Gold, oriental, monumental. Adding to this Egyptian craze was the exhibition of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
For men, fashion changed very little between the Edwardian period and the 20s, but it did see the rise of the lounge suit and the death of the frock coat. High-waisted pants were popular too.
Colour was everywhere. Pink, yellow, green, whatever. Fashionable men were leaving behind the drab grey and black of the Edwardian period. If you’re having a good time, your clothes have to reflect that. Just watch Baz Luhrmann’s film adaption of Gatsby to see what this looked like.
Art Deco was a movement in architecture, design, and art that represented luxury, glamour, exuberance, and an undying faith in the progress of society and technology. It often combined very expensive materials and magnificent craftsmanship that was fused into a modernistic form. Absolutely nothing was cheap about Art Deco. Even the furniture included materials like ivory and silver inlays.
Jewellery was styled in a distinctly modern way. Clean, simple lines and geometry gave jewellery a distinct shape and style that is instantly recognisable. Eastern influences could be seen as intricate oriental patterns and exotic motifs appeared. Rings were highly influenced by Art Deco with new designs favouring non-traditional cuts like square, rectangle, and oval
On a much larger scale, Art Deco architecture changed the skyline of many cultural capitals of the world, most notably New York. The Chrysler building, the Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Centre are all brilliant examples of Art Deco architecture. At the time they were the tallest and most recognisable modern buildings in the world.
Art Deco wasn’t limited to a building’s exterior. Interior design was just as grand, so grand that it was often popular in the lobbies of government buildings, theatres, and office buildings. These Art Deco interiors were often called ‘Cathedrals of Commerce’ to coincide with their grandeur. They were colourful and dynamic. Art was often distributed throughout. A mixture of sculpture, mural and ornate geometric design made from marble, glass, ceramics, and stainless steel. It was beautiful. It was over-the-top. It was art.
Owning a car of any sort was a luxury at the turn of the century. But with Henry Ford and the Model T, cars were becoming far more commonplace than they ever were before due to their newfound affordability (relatively speaking). Not as common as today mind you, but now the middle class could afford a car if they wanted. No longer were cars a status symbol of the rich. As a result, car manufacturers began to develop luxurious variations of their automobiles.
Most cars at the beginning of the 1920s were open tourers but as people wanted to be more comfortable in their cars, they eventually became enclosed and fitted with accessories like heaters. By 1923, closed sedans were far more common than open tourers.
Gatsby’s car was described as one of exuberant luxury. The brands that emulated this most effectively were Mercedes, Hispano-Suiza, Cadillac, and Packard. For great examples of this kind of luxury you only need to look at the 1926 Packard twin 6 Roadster or the 1928 Rolls Royce Sport Phantom.
Having a Good Time, Old Sport?
Gatsby is the embodiment of all this. Intentionally so. Fitzgerald used the character, and the novel, to call attention to the glittering but tragic, beautiful, damned, and emotionally bankrupt ‘lost generation.’
Fitzgerald wrote, “After two years the Jazz Age seems as far away as the days before the War. It was borrowed time anyhow – the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls. But moralizing is easy now and it was pleasant to be in one’s twenties in such a certain and unworried time.”
And maybe this is the appeal of the 1920s. Knowing that it all came to a disastrous end in 1929 with the onset of the Great Depression might be part of it. Its tragedy adds to its glamour. That’s why the Gatsby theme works so well for a party because parties aren’t meant to last forever, they burn brightly but only for a short time. And so did the 1920s.