The Roaring 20s era is being revisited at the Museum of the City of New York as part of Women's History Month. The 1920s was a time when many women enjoyed new political and social freedoms, fabulous clothes, and long nights doing a dance called the Charleston. The 1920s are remembered for changes that were more than skin deep.
One of the most enduring images of 1920s America is the flapper, a young woman in a slinky dress, with bee-stung lips and smudge-pot eyes, dancing frantically with a long string of pearls swirling around her neck.
Barbara Stratyner is co-curator of Roaring into the Twenties: The New, New York Woman. She says this feminine icon is one of mythical proportions. "The myth is based partly on Hollywood, partly the popular fiction of the time. The idea of the flapper, who was smoking and drinking all of the time and dancing the Charleston simultaneously. That did exist, of course. But it was a slice of women," she says. "The women with disposable income, or women who pretended they had the income. Women of a certain age, in their twenties."
Ms. Stratyner says there was much more to the period than the flapper. The celebrated frivolity of the so-called Jazz Age was underpinned by something quite serious. Women won the right to vote, a victory with far-reaching implications. "It meant they had the power to change legislation to get legal rights over their own income. They could own property, they could inherit, they could start businesses under their own name," she says. "They still had to organize to change the laws, of course. The laws didn't automatically change in their favor."
Women began using the vote to change laws. They also began starting their own businesses, writing detective novels, and organizing unions. In effect, the feminine flamboyance of the period was simply a celebration of these new freedoms.
Exhibition co-curator Phyllis Magidson says one of the ways women celebrated was to colorfully make-up their faces as never before. It was the beginning of a cosmetic revolution. "The whole vocabulary of health and beauty was formalized. You look at fashion magazines today, and all of the sections of the magazine derive from the 1920s. Makeup was really taking off. And you have products, not only cosmetics, but cases for cosmetics. You have compacts, wonderful jeweled compacts and, with that, a whole theatrical vocabulary of gestures," she says. "Everybody is posing. They have long necklaces that you can fiddle with. You have a cigarette holder that you can punctuate a point with."
Some of the most influential business women of the era were figures in the world of cosmetics. Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein are known worldwide today, but they exploded onto the scene in the 1920s. "The 20s was the foremost decade of marketing. People were marketing everything, with no restrictions as yet, for claims on beauty products. You have Madame Curies Radium Crčme, The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] was not really restricting anything. Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein were implying that these were not just cosmetics, but that there was something sub-surface going on. Rubenstein appeared in her ads wearing a white lab coat," she says.
Ms. Magidson says everything had to be something your mother or grandmother would never have had.
The Roaring into the Twenties exhibition is dominated by sparkling, sequined, slip-style dresses made of chiffon and velvet lame. Designed for dancing signature 1920s dances like The Shimmy and The Charleston, they were flapper standard issue.
Also on display were the first modern women's bathing suits. Before suits like the Annette Kellerman, knee-length leotard came on the scene, women went swimming fully-clothed in long, wool dresses.
But Curator Barbara Stratyner says no change in women's fashion change was more liberating and more symbolic of women's liberation than the disappearance of the corset. "Corsets were done in, finally, by the availability of attractive, rubberized fabric. Instead of the boned corset which actually depressed the rib cage and damaged the diaphragm, cutting down on effective breathing, and could damage the heart, as well, women wore a comfortable garment that had elastic sections," she says.
Women don't do the Charleston much anymore. Meter long pearl necklaces are a rarity, and fewer and fewer women smoke. But they are now a force in government, business, higher education and sports, and that's the real legacy of the 1920s, and the point of Roaring into the 20s: The New, New York Woman.