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The Great Gatsby Still Gets Flappers Wrong

Filmgoers are looking forward to the latest movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby, in theaters May 10th. Baz Luhrmann's take is opulent and fashionable, but shows the flappers of the Roaring Twenties through a man's eyes.

The flapper movement wasn’t simply a fashion trend, as Emily Spivack at Smithsonian.com’s Threaded blog explains; it was a full-blown, grassroots feminist revolution. After an 80-year campaign by suffragists, women were finally granted the right to vote in the United States in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, many women entered the workforce, and when the soldiers returned in November 1918, their female counterparts were reluctant to give up their jobs.

As a result, young, unmarried women experienced far greater financial independence than they’d ever had before. Bicycles, and then cars, allowed them to get around town without a male escort. The spread of electric lighting allowed nightclubs to flourish, just as the Prohibition Amendment of 1919 forced them to go underground. Drinking at illegal “speakeasies” became a thrilling part of flapper culture. Suddenly, it was possible for women to go out and enjoy freedom and rebellion in a way they never had before when they were beholden to their fathers or husbands.

First, these flappers ditched the constraining, skin-covering clothes of their Edwardian mothers. Inspired by Cubist art and Art Nouveau haute couture, flappers rejected the dramatic, hyper-feminine S-shaped Edwardian silhouette created by tight, time-consuming corsets for sheath dresses that gave them boxy boyish shapes. In fact, this straight up-and-down figure was so extreme that curvier women went out of their way to squeeze into girdles and bandage their breasts flat. It was so severe that Luhrmann’s film doesn’t really go there, as most women today would not want to sport such a curveless look. These radical women pushed the boundaries of androgyny even further by chopping off their long Edwardian locks for bobbed hairstyles.

Then again, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote what he knew, and he knew his wife, Zelda, on whom he based Daisy, the flapper in The Great Gatsby. Read about Zelda Fitzgerald and other less wealthy flappers at Collectors Weekly. Link


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I'm trying to remember my history class from decades ago on the 20s, so bear with me. Stockings were held up by garters around the leg, and could fall easily during strenuous activity. Flappers dancing wildly often had their stockings fall (which later led to the introduction of the garter belt), showing off their knees as they danced.

Previous generations of women had been constricted by corsets, which often contained metal supports; long, leg-tangling skirts; clothing fit tight to the body, which often restricted arm movement; long hair which could fall easily unless care was taken. The rolled-down stockings with the bare knees were a symbol of freedom for the flappers; they made clear that these were women who were not going to be constricted or restricted.
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It's fairly simple: Totally bare legs were considered indecent in public back then (I'm not sure if it was also punishable as lewd conduct, but it very well might have been). To still be rebellious, the flappers would show some defying thigh instead.
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