The world had suffered the loss and destruction of WWI resulting in a social and cultural revolution. The economic boom following WWI caused the 1920’s to be commonly referred to as “The Roaring 20’s,” “The Jazz Age,” and in England, “The Golden Age.” Cultural shifts in music, fashion, politics, and social issues made the 1920’s a wild and exciting time. The world was changing as it was finally able to reap the benefits of the newly industrialized world.
In 1920, the first radio news station was broadcasted, giving way to a whole new world in media sharing. A San Francisco newspaper reported in 1922, “there is radio music in the air, every night, everywhere. Anybody can hear it at home on a receiving set, which any boy can put up in an hour.” The radio created a nationwide unity; people could laugh at the same jokes, listen to the same music, and hear the same news in real time.
The radio also made it possible for regular people to hear famed musicians. Previous to the invention, the only people who heard world class musicians were those who could afford tickets to their shows or pay them to play at their parties. The famed Irish singer John McCormack was a regular performer on the RCA Victor Hour, and regular Americans could listen to the famed soprano Lucrezia Bori from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Artists whose talent and legacy previously lived in the minds of only those who were able to see them in person could now be heard by the world.
In the year 1920, after a 72-year struggle, women finally gained the right to vote. WWI had just come to an end in 1918, and from 1918 to 1919, influenza took some 50-100 million persons. Countless women were still reeling from losing brothers and husbands. To the Suffragette’s dismay, the young women of the 1920’s did not want to carry on the fight to greater equality. Instead, they wanted to have fun and so the flapper was born.
The flappers wore makeup (in ways that were previously seen as a stylable look for a lady of the night), dramatically short dresses whose hemlines rose above the knee, high heels, and the signature short cut flapper hairstyle. They bound their chests, smoked, drank, and experimented with sex, all behaviors that were considered blasphemous to the older generations. The flappers are celebrated in history as women who represent female empowerment and a declaration of independence as they leveled the playing field with men. They were pushing away the Victorian era norm of the quiet woman who stayed at home. The flappers were less concerned with politics than their suffragette mothers, but they made great strides as they sat in bars acting as men did, working office jobs that men worked, and experimenting with fashion in ways that were considered ridiculous.
The Jazz Age
The Jazz movement spawned in the post-WWI world, capitalizing on dancing and nightlife. Radio Broadcast and recording technology helped to launch the popularity of this new music style which brought African American culture to the white middle class. The radio created a way for white Americans to experience black music without coming into contact with African Americans. It also paved the way for the wildly popular form of music entertainment known as Minstrelsy. Minstrelsy mocked African American culture and reinforced African American stereotypes as white men dressed as black men while they imitated and mocked black music.
Despite the racially charged and nationally popular attraction, the 1920’s was also a time of progress for ethnic minorities in America. The American prohibition and the popularity of Jazz and Vaudeville created nightlife atmospheres where black, white and other ethnic minorities could co-mingle. Speakeasies commonly allowed the co-mingling of races and were typically seen as “progressive.”
Josephine Baker is also credited for assisting with this phenomenon as the popular jazz singer had it in her contracts that her audience always needed to be mixed. For the first time in American history, there was a middle ground where people of different ethnicities were able to come together and exchange ideas. This was also a huge stride for those of mixed race as they were often unable to socialize in either of their heritage’s social settings. The fact that jazz was celebrated by both white and black Americans created a middle ground in a deeply segregated American society.
The Art Deco style was first exhibited in Paris, 1925. A result of the industrial revolution, it represented modern elegance, sophistication, and wealth. Products were both mass-produced and individually created in the streamlined, anti-traditional style. It featured “reflect admiration for the modernity of the machine and for the inherent design qualities of machine-made objects.” Art Deco design spanned from architecture to fashion.
Art Deco design in fashion was characterized by a simple, clean look. Unlike the hourglass figure popular in the Victorian era, Art Deco fashion featured flowing rich fabrics and colors that relied on the simple angles of a dress for style. The de-emphasis on the shape of women created a new look of androgyny. During WWI, women were forced to leave their homes to work and enter society. The tightly laced corsets and thick skirts they were accustomed to would no longer suffice. “The evening dresses reflected ladies’ desire to dance without being limited by her clothes. Her dress was typically held up by narrow straps on the shoulder and had slits down the thigh to allow her complete freedom while doing ‘The Charleston.'”
Bessie Smith was a pioneer in music and a pioneer in the plight of the American women. She sang about drinking, drugs, alcohol, sex, and even bisexuality. As the African American female wrote and sang about blasphemous topics, America’s shocked audiences grew to love her. A superstar for her time, Bessie Smith traveled with a 40 person crew in her show, her own personal train car, and pulled in an unheard of sum of $2,000 a week from her show.
Her over the top, frivolous style has become iconic for the 1920’s. She sported large feathers, jewels, and extravagant beaded dresses, demonstrating the excessive culture at the time. Bessie Smith’s shows were all about the glamour, the entertainment, and the show stopping performances. Jazz was all about pushing the limits of society and music, and Bessie Smith perfectly represented that.