A Superficial Liberation
So often, it seems, we refer to the 1920s as a landmark of women’s liberation. In a revolution of jersey, drop waists, raised hemlines, and bobs, women shattered expectations and discovered what it means to be mobile and free. Right?
Well, maybe not.
In the 1920s, the woman’s life certainly appeared to transform. According to a media desperate to move on from a devastating war, the new woman could be an artist or an intellectual; she took part in new technologies and became associated with them. And as these new opportunities surfaced, the new woman had a new look, as well. Athletic and boyish, she was, visually, a complete reversal of all those who had preceded her. She—unlike those corseted ancestors—could run and drive with her short skirt and literally liberated legs.
At a superficial level, these new images seemed to challenge existing gender norms. They reversed what the beauty ideal was, who was delivering that ideal, and who was able to achieve that ideal. During the Victorian Era (1807-1901), women had reshaped their bodies in order to achieve the standard of domesticity. Bulky layers of petticoat, crinolines, and paddings fabricated illusions of wide hips and an exaggerated female silhouette. With a focus on sexual reproduction, these garments compounded the idea that women should be un-sexual, delicate beings who remained within the private sphere (but still served the highly female purpose of child reproduction—obviously).
As women strived toward this overabundant mass of skirts, their quality of life sharply declined. The sartorial requirements of the Victorian lifestyle debilitated women, impeding movement, draining energy, and damaging internal organs and respiratory systems. But while they were suffering, the economy flourished: women invested in pills, salves, and gynecological devices to rebuild her delicate health.
By contrast, the 1920s woman was meant to be more efficient, more muscular, and more athletic—even boyish. The new woman did not emphasize her shapeliness; she was mobile, energized, and free from constrictions. With her androgynous, geometric figure, she was not even identifiably a woman (gasp!). She cut her hair, revealed more of her body, and wore cosmetics (which had previously been reserved for prostitutes). Furthermore, this sleek style was a proletarian, mass-produced movement, with even working and middle-class women imitating Coco Chanel’s haute couture styles. With these changes in mind, a woman’s clothes became a visual reflection of what Mary Louise Robert calls “the fantasy of liberation.”
However, the unconventional, androgynous silhouette wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. As more and more of the body was revealed, more of the body was being observed. Women became increasingly attuned to the many nuances of what could be “wrong” with their bodies. And with the rise of standardized sizing, women no longer made clothes to fit their unique shapes—they had to conform to the clothes available to them (aka someone else’s idea of a “correct” women’s body).
Moreover, the new woman’s fashions were only comfortable relative to the Victorian extreme. One writer, amidst her praise of the new style, admitted that Jean Patou’s creations were “so narrow that ‘madame’ will not go very far, and would do well to have the car wait for her to return.” Still worse than limited mobility, new concepts of beauty were rooted in the concept of the “body’s malleability.” Rather than allowing women to embrace their natural figures, women sought to maintain an “ideal weight” and spent copious amounts of time and money on beauty products, diet pills, and weight-loss teas (sound familiar?).
Not to mention that—in embracing androgyny—convention pushed back even more fiercely. Women were charged with “scorning motherhood.” They were criticized for failing to repopulate their decimated, war-torn country. Families fell silent at meals, unable to interact with the newly bobbed daughters. One father even sought legal action against his daughter’s hairdresser—while another thought murder would be more effective.
So yes, in the early twentieth century, when the new woman stepped out alongside her automobile, it looked like she might reverse existing notions of gender. But the reality did not quite meet the image. For aspiration to any ideal—no matter how unconventional—is physically and psychologically damaging.
Today, we navigate these same tensions between visual liberation and adherence to trend. In Chanel’s 2014 fall/winter ready-to-wear collection, Karl Lagerfeld’s models jumped out into an avant-garde runway, sporting thick-soled, embellished sneakers. Despite what seemed to be an obvious hint at a sense of freedom and glamorization of comfort, the sneakers were bizarrely paired with corseted tweed suits. When Lagerfeld’s creativity was nearly universally lauded, it only further evidenced that steps forward in fashion are often met with a step (or two) backwards. But perhaps Lagerfeld was simply trying to invoke Chanel’s origins as accurately as possible—presenting his new women as mobile and modish, while constricting her all the same.
De Grazia, Victoria. How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922-1945. Berkeley: U of California, 1992. Print.
DiCaprio, Lisa, and Merry E. Wiesner. Lives and Voices: Sources in European Women’s History. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.
Roberts, Mary Louise. “Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Women’s Fashion in 1920s France.” The American Historical Review 98.3 (1993).
Smith, Bonnie G. Changing Lives: Women in European History since 1700. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1989. Print.