Flaming Youth

Flappers and Feminism at the Museum of the City of New York

"Jane isn't wearing much, this summer," Bruce Bliven wrote in the September 9, 1925, issue of The New Republic. "If you'd like to know exactly, it is: one dress, one step-in, two stockings, two shoes. A step-in . . . is underwear—one piece, light, exceedingly brief but roomy. Her dress, as you can't possibly help knowing if you have even one good eye . . . is also brief. It is cut low where it might be high, and vice versa.

"These . . . are Jane's clothes but they are not merely a flapper uniform. They are The Style, Summer of 1925 Eastern Seaboard. These things and none other are being worn by all of Jane's sisters and her cousins and her aunts. They are being worn by ladies who are three times Jane's age, and look ten years older; by those twice her age who look a hundred years older. . . . Ladies who used to go away for the summer with six trunks can now pack twenty dainty costumes in a bag."

The joie de vivre of the flapper and her skimpy, glorious outfits are on full and resplendent display at the Museum of the City of New York's "Roaring Into the Twenties: The New New York Woman," where Jane and her relatives—or at least their beaded gowns and dancing pumps—have taken up residence (through September 14).

Though the flapper in the popular imagination is synonymous with the 1920s, the museum begins her story decades earlier with the struggle for workplace rights and the fight for the vote. "Getting There After Fighting for 40 Years," reads a circa-1915 suffragist banner in the show, but it would take five more years for New York to finally grant women the vote. She might cast her ballot, but she couldn't toast her candidate: In 1920 the Eighteenth Amendment banned alcohol, giving rise in short order to New York City's 32,000 speakeasies.

And what was Jane wearing on her visits to these watering holes—places where women, so recently confined to home and hearth, were now bumming cigarettes, chugging cocktails, and publicly powdering their noses? If the joint was below 14th Street, it's a fair bet that, then as now, the carousers favored what the exhibit calls "artistic dressing."

"In counterpoint to mainstream fashion, artistic clothing made a vivid and outspoken statement about profession, temperament, sexual orientation, and political activism. Greenwich Village bohemians particularly embraced exotic garb," reads the museum card next to a collection of wildly spirited clothes: an ensemble decorated with tiny mirrors; a fringed dress that began life as a piano shawl.

These fashions, with their ethnic references and handmade touches, are spookily similar to the dresses intended for Jane's great-granddaughters at shops like Anthropologie. The exhibit even has an embroidered peasant blouse, still bearing its original paper Liberty of London tag, that is virtually identical to the shirts sold at Surma in the East Village, a neighborhood where flapper-bohemianism has flourished for the last 70 years.

But not everything at "Roaring Into the Twenties" bespeaks a downtown sensibility. Across the back wall of the exhibit hang evening clothes so sumptuous they outshine anything on a contemporary couture runway. These lavish creations include a 1928 Poiret dress called "Homage à Rousseau" that is heavily encrusted with glass beads and was made for someone named Marie Elsie Whelan Goelet Clews, whose 1914 divorce was partly blamed on her "artistic temperament." (In a stroke of retailing genius, the museum shop is currently offering metal mesh evening purses by Whiting & Davis, the same company that made them in the '20s, and as pretty as anything in Mrs. Clew's boudoir, for around $100 each.)

Still, the upper crust has always treated itself to fancy stuff. The thrill of the '20s is that so many working women were swept up in the tide of modernism, even if it only meant hemming up a hand-me-down dress or daring to visit Coney Island in a bathing suit, like the gray wool jersey one by celebrity-swimmer Annette Kellerman in the exhibit. (It looks like an abbreviated union suit.) Kellerman, who performed in aquatic shows at the Hippodrome, was arrested in 1907 for wearing a suit just like this one; by the '20s, she was manufacturing and selling them by the thousands.

There was another tool to help Jane break with the past: a pair of scissors. In 1914, the popular dancer Irene Castle cut her hair. (A couple of her preserved curls are in the show.) Barbershops hung out signs that said, "Castle clips here"; in the ensuing decade, women all over America were emboldened to follow her example, shedding both literally and figuratively one of the crowning restraints of the Victorian century.

Because, really, what woman wants a lot of heavy hair bogging her down when she's on the dancefloor, executing the Shimmy or the Black Bottom or the Charleston? Dancing had become a fierce national passion. (In F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920 story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," Bernice's aunt describes one girl as "so thin this year that she looks as though Arizona were the place for her. She's dancing herself to death.") The exhibit is full of dancing dresses and ballroom slippers, and even an early example of a celebrity endorsement—an ad in a 1925 issue of Dance Lovers magazine for an exercise regimen with the startling testimony ("They had my coffin made—The Doctors said I must never dance again but now . . . ") from the hoofer Evelyn Law.

Law wasn't the only one doing commercials. Colleen Moore, who starred in a silent called The Perfect Flapper, had her own line of perfume; Follies girl Marilyn Miller put her calves in the service of a lingerie company. If there was sufficient disposable income around for colognes and stockings, some women were even earning enough to break the taboo against buying themselves jewelry. Seaman Schepps, a company that still has a store on Park Avenue (Schepps was born on Delancey Street; family legend has it that he was named after the corner bank), began offering bold, reasonably priced pieces—the exhibit has his carved rock crystal rings—completely unlike the conservative solitaires and strands of pearls that had theretofore dominated the baubles market.

In the end, it is the legacy of the flapper as working woman—embracing the liberation of easy clothes and the thrill of paying for them with her own paycheck—that makes "Roaring Into the Twenties" so touching. Unlike her predecessors, who may have waltzed till dawn but then had the luxury of sleeping in, the '20s woman, with a job to do, was no doubt relying on an early version of the disco nap. In her 1946 memoir, Talking Through My Hats, Lilly Daché, whose cloches are in the exhibit, summed up her feelings about being a hardworking Manhattan milliner in the years between the First World War and the Depression: "In the 1920s, New York was a hoyden. She was gay and daring and sometimes even dangerous . . . hardly ever did I get to bed before three, and always I was up again at eight, ready to start another hysterical day."

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