"You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet!" Reflecting on the Roaring Twenties.
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
A century ago, a decade known as the Roaring Twenties blasted into the public sphere. Today, as we ring in 2020, the modern eye associates the 1920s with flappers and Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. But there was more to these ten years than their glitzy portrayal. This was a world that had conquered a war and an influenza epidemic. The Western world had an opportunity to take a brief, sparkling breath.
Women in the United States of America were given the right to vote in 1920 (1928 for those living in the United Kingdom) after decades of protest. The first wave of feminism had seen small victories towards the independence of Western women, rewarding those who had worked tirelessly for the right to political freedom. Suddenly, the female identity became a little more valuable. Trends reflected this.
Fashion modernised rapidly after the Edwardian era, freeing the torso from corsets and pulling hemlines above the ankle. Western society had begun edging away from the structured silhouette of the female figure during wartime, but it had become almost entirely abandoned by the 1920s. Silk stockings dressed exposed legs, women wore brassieres and cut their hair short. The aesthetic represented ideals of androgyny, as dresses no longer clung to the womanly curves that had been emphasised in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Clothes were becoming more affordable, so fashion reached the lower classes, but the elite had the luxury of wardrobes full to the brim with designer goods. Timeless designers found their name amongst the wealthy; Coco Chanel released the iconic No.5 in 1921, Salvatore Ferragamo began crafting his designer shoe brand and Jeanne Lanvin aided in revolutionising a new wave of couture.
New Zealand was not a stranger to the exciting change titillating Europe and the United States. Daylight savings was introduced in 1927, and Auckland’s Civic Theatre opened its doors in 1929. The All Blacks became our heroes after excelling in a 1924-25 tour of the Northern Hemisphere, and rugby was solidified as our national sport. War gave our small island the chance at a global identity, and we seized the opportunity to do so.
When the world changes, art movements often follow suit. With globalisation and world-changing events comes the need for an art movement that reflects such chaos. It was an exciting time to be an artist, and it all appeared to culminate in Europe. More so, the romance of Paris was merely heightened by those who lived, loved and drank their way into fame. Josephine Baker, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway. Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The list does not seem to have an end. New Zealand’s own Katherine Mansfield died of tuberculosis in 1923, but slots in easily as a notable contribution to Modernist literature. These artists had survived the First World War, and were a part of the ‘Lost Generation’. The looseness of art, literature and live performance reflected the trauma they had endured. In Europe, Art Deco, Dada and Surrealism were the key art movements, with artists rejecting tradition in favour of brash opinion and abstract notions, and in New York City, the Harlem Renaissance gave African-American artists a voice in both dance and literature.
Film also came into focus as a fantastical new form of visual art. The decade began with Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino, near-perfect as they traipsed onto the screen in their endless stream of silent films. With a single sentence uttered by Al Jolson in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the decade ended in a cacophony of sound. While audio in film is merely a background noise in 2020, it was considered a phenomenon. Hollywood took its first steps in establishing a timeless industry. Suddenly, a new breed of celebrity was born. When Rudolph Valentino died in 1926 at the age of thirty-one, thousands of fans mourned the loss as though he were a personal friend. Names like Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were on the lips of the public; they were deities to the modern mind. These celebrities were glamorous and an accessible form of art; Clara Bow was commonly referred to as the ‘It Girl’, with her sharply angular eyebrows and pursed lips. Film was celebrated because it could be adored and reached by all classes, and the limits of make-believe stretched beyond possibility. The first Academy Awards ceremony took place in 1929, and film became a cultural staple.
People often forget that the final act of The Great Gatsby is not a happy ending.
If anything, the Roaring Twenties can be considered a lull between two extraordinarily awful periods in world history. Progress was made and art was flourishing, but either end would bookend tragedy. The First and Second World War forced change upon everyday life, but at the cost of millions of innocent lives. Germany was a broken nation, reflected in its art and growing dire by the day. Traditional politics had been reeling since the start of the decade, giving rise to conservative Fascist beliefs. Adolf Hitler brewed his ideals for the NSDAP in the heat of tense German politics, culminating in the 1923 Munich Putsch. In Italy, Benito Mussolini and his Italian Socialist Party triumphed and seized control in 1922. The destruction of empire saw the rise of fervent fascism. But throughout the globe, political and social uncertainty still held an iron grip. Many women across the world had yet to gain suffrage, and the Jim Crow laws continued to drive inequality deeper into the roots of the USA. Race and gender still determined privilege and luxuries and would continue to do so. The new ‘flapper’ style was criticised for sexualising the female form by both men and older women, tearing apart generations that had come of age in very different worlds.
With prohibition enforced in 1920, the United States saw a rise in illegal activity. Al Capone is the most synonymous character to emerge from this period. While prohibition was never strictly enforced in New Zealand, the Temperance movement had been a matter of contention for decades. Unlike the USA, by 1922 public favour for a nationwide alcohol ban had decreased dramatically.
From 1929, the world was thrown into a tumultuous period of economic panic, otherwise known as the Great Depression. With countries like Germany still heaving from their losses post-Treaty of Versailles, it was a tragic end to an otherwise eventful decade of art and culture. Unemployment in economically prosperous countries soared to unsurmountable levels, leaving thousands impoverished. Under the guise of prosperity and newfound modernity, people who made their wealth and spent it laboriously in the 1920s were among those searching for scraps of hope. The United States struggled with the aftermath of the Wall Street crash until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1941. New Zealand saw a sharp decrease in exports, crippling a still-growing economy. In a globalised world, the threat of a broken economy harmed more people than ever before.
So, welcome to our Roaring Twenties. Throw on your finest and dance the night away. One hundred years on, how different are we really?
Søland, Birgitte, Becoming Modern: Young Women and the Reconstruction of Womanhood in the 1920s, Princeton, 2000.
Hall, Thomas E. and J. David Ferguson, The Great Depression: An International Disaster of Perverse Economic Policies, Michigan, 1998.
Jacobs, Lea, The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s, Berkeley, 2008.
Baldick, Chris, Literature of the 1920s: Writers Among the Ruins, Edinburgh, 2012.
Bryony Ammonds-Smith is a third-year Bachelor of Arts student double majoring in History and English at the University of Auckland. Her interests centre around the twentieth century, predominantly film, fashion and social change in Europe and New Zealand. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.