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Chic lit

Abigail Smith
Wearing trousers!? In the 1920s that said a lot about a woman - and how novelists wielded style as a literary tool. Abigail Smith investigates.

Are you in a flap about flappers? If you read fashion magazines, it seems you should be. ‘Get the Gatsby look!’ they shrill, in anticipation of the blockbusting film version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s book. Yet however revolutionary drop waists or cloche hats are supposed to be for this year’s wardrobe, they were genuinely boundary-pushing the first-time around.

Clothing has always been an important interface between the personal and political; societies and the women within them are endlessly judged by what they wear, whether the topic is burqas in France or miniskirts on assault victims. In the same way we associate the buttoned-up women of Gissing or Gaskell with the restrictions of Victorian society, so too have the glamorous trends of the Jazz Age become shorthand for the new way of doing things.

Laying weary eyes on British women for the first time since the Great War ended, Virginia Woolf’s Peter Walsh reflects in Mrs Dalloway: “There was a freshness about them; even the poorest among them dressed better than five years ago surely; and to his eye the fashions had never been so becoming.”

Focus on frivolity

The renewed emphasis on appearance was doubtless a reaction to the austerity of war. “To dress extravagantly in times of war is worse than bad taste. It is unpatriotic’, proclaimed posters. With this government-sanctioned restriction on fashion lifted in peacetime, the interwar years burst with the freedom of experimentation. Inspired by tennis star Suzanne Lenglen, women did away with the restrictiveness of corsets and embraced her on-court style of one-piece dresses with floppy hems.

At last, fashion for fashion’s sake was no longer off limits and contemporary writers duly revelled in garment details.

Fashion is a rich thread that runs throughout Edith Wharton’s work. When the narrator of The Age of Innocence catches sight of brazen divorcée Ellen Olenska at the opera, she describes her as displaying “a little more bosom and shoulder than New York society is accustomed to seeing” and marking herself out as a woman “careless in the dictates of Taste”.

Perhaps she should have sought advice from fashion authority Lawrence Lafferts. As a young admirer once said,”If anybody can tell a fellow just when to wear black tie with evening clothes and when not to, it’s Larry Lafferts.” Although set towards the end of the 19th century, the book’s title – The Age of Innocence – sets itself up in direct contrast to the age in which Wharton is writing, foregrounding the influence of present-day preoccupations (such as fashion) on her recollections of the past.

The androgynous modern woman

Despite 1920s fashion being known for shorter skirts and decadent fabrics, the flapper movement was as much about androgyny as it was femininity. Coco Chanel, a rising influence at the time, popularised the straight-up-and-down physique that bust-reducers made possible and the flapper’s long-bodied, sleeveless dresses emphasised. Film star Marlene Dietrich pioneered the pyjama trouser, while hair tucked beneath cloche hats was boyishly short. After all, women had been doing men’s jobs during the war and were now enjoying more active lifestyles, so why not raid their wardrobes too?

Reflecting the pervading mood, masculine women were suddenly highly desirable, perhaps none more so than Ernest Hemingway’s Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. As a re-imagining of the archetypal love interest, Brett is a boyish trendsetter, well aware of how to make the current sporting style work for her: “She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed over like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.”

Just as fiction had furthered the androgynous female during the 20s, so it helped her demise as the decade came to a close. Banned in 1928, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness tells the story of Stephen Gordon, a girl born to parents who desperately wanted a boy. Stephen excels in male pursuits, grows to resemble her father physically and – unpalatably for the time – is attracted to other women. Her feminine mother Anna is driven to distraction by her daughter’s mannish tendencies, and “there was constant warfare between them on the subject of clothes.” The book became the subject of an obscenity trial and the ensuing publicity took something of the shine away from the androgynous aesthetic of the twenties.

That a book about femininity and sexuality was considered so dangerous makes the link between literature, lifestyle and politics all too apparent. A woman’s right to choose between trousers and a skirt no longer raises a (comparatively unplucked) modern eyebrow. And for that we know which decade’s fashion and fiction to thank.

What they wore: your time capsule wardrobe

Sporting gear

Women found themselves behind the wheel in their wartime jobs and now driving, golfing and other active pursuits symbolised their newfound independence – as did the hats and gloves that went with them.

See: Spirited young thing Iris Storm in Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, who zips around in her fast yellow car wearing a hat that ‘women, who have many hats, affect pour le sport‘.

Silky fabrics

Diaphanous dresses with handkerchief hems cut on the bias were amongst the most show-stopping evening wear. Such voluminous gowns would have been considered wasteful while hostilities raged.

See: Daisy Buchanan and her friend Miss Baker in The Great Gatsby. F Scott Fitzgerald dedicates extended description to their ‘rippling and fluttering’ dresses that seem to bring the whole room to life.

Masculine styling

Boyish bodies, trouser suits and short hairstyles were integral to the era, with brave women opting for the schoolboy-inspired Eton Crop. Cigarettes were also an accessory: once the preserve of their male counterparts, women were now smoking in public.

See: Monique Lerbier in La Garçonne by Victor Margueritte. This scandalous female disdained ladylike attire, and the term ‘garçon’ came to describe the tomboyish figure of the 20s.

Image credit: GSV.

the glamorous trends of the Jazz Age have become shorthand for the new way of doing things



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