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This essay explores the change in women’s outlook on life and the shift in feminine gender roles in the “roaring” 1920’s. The gender roles changed as a result of World War One, when society changed for women when they achieved suffrage, receiving the right to vote. Historian Michael Lerner wrote, “women had the right to enjoy themselves socially as much as men did, whether through drinking, sex, or indulging in the pleasures of urban nightlife.”  Woman gained the freedom which they didn’t have before World War One as they had been seen as the stay at home ‘house wife’.  This essay will study how women gradually became more independent and what they did with that freedom, plus showing how women changed through smoking, drinking, dancing, their body shapes and style of clothing.  I have chosen the images which I think reflects the woman of the time best, they provide a good insight into the life of woman in the 1920’s . The academic quotes have been taken from, Michael Lerner, Dr. R. Murray-Leslie, 

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Figure 1, shows the traditional way the women chose to dress in the 1920’s. This photograph is of a famous flapper called Clara Bow many people were inspired by the way she dressed. Women began to wear a long loose dress but also  they also started to wear the skirts and dresses short, which they hadn’t previously done. Their outfits usually consisted of shapeless dresses which hung straight down, avoiding touching the body as they tried to hide as much body shape as possible. Also the dresses had no waistline, allowing the women to move about more freely.  Women would also often bound their breast for a flat chested boy like silhouette which can be seen in this photograph. “slim figures, flat chests and slim hips”. Since the 1920s androgyny has been associated with the search for greater independence for woman.  Another thing woman changed about their look was their hair.  The new hairstyle trend was to cut the hair just below the ears, or to have a bobbed hairstyle with a dozen curls which really shocked the nation as the hairstyle was very unladylike.  Flappers ignored the controversy about gender and appearance with the new androgynous hairstyle. The style of the dress created a dropped waistline which gave the look of a long, slim figure. A tubular silhouette erased the typical feminine shape.  The boyish silhouette spoke of adolescence. Clara Bow standing on her own shows the independence she has gained. Her pose could be classed as seductive which would have been seen unacceptable to the Victorians and Edwardians. Lastly Clara Bow looks beautiful and elegant. 

Figure 2 shows two young woman smoking cigarettes on the train, “cigarettes were advertised to woman as a sign of modern sophistication and the 1920s “flapper” is usually pictured with a cigarette in her hand. ” Louise Benner.  In the picture you can see the cigarette is elongated which was classed as ‘sexy’. Also you can see the women are on the train on their own which never had the freedom to do before. Smoking was another example of “freedom” and woman rights to enjoy the same pleasures as men. They also now had time to socialise which they didn’t before. Hats were similarly used to conceal any expanse of brow and were firmly jammed down on the head.  Formerly they had been precariously perched on top. In  the 1920s woman started to display more skin, the hem line on dresses went from being just above the ankle to just above the knee which made the women appear more sexy. Women began to wear more visible makeup which can be seen in figure 3 which the heavily defined cheek bones. In figure 3 the woman is holding the cigarette elegantly which gives the impression that the flapper is sophisticated. The woman in the images look like they are enjoying their cigarettes. 

These figures show how different the lives of the women were after getting the vote and gaining their freedom,  “The flapper asserted her freedom through participation in new social activities, some of which had previously been open only to males. As if to further the platform of the New Woman before her, the young woman of the 1920s defied the conventions of acceptable feminine behaviour, which disturbed her parents and the elder community whose thinking was still entrenched in Victorian and Puritan ethics” (Brown, 1987; McGovern, 1968). During the 1920’s the woman went more public, if they wanted to go out on their own they would. It can be suggested that the experiences that the woman faced during World War I had an effect on how they lived their lives in the 1920’s  – what they had seen at the front as nurses and at home working in  industry and professions not previously open to woman and only male. 

The woman of the 1920’s were influenced by the legacy of the suffragette movement as they gained their freedom. Fashion influences later came from the increasing popularity of the film industry and the “leading ladies” of the day such a Clara Bow (figure 1). “She did not wear a corset, and she bared her arms. Her skirts went up to her knees…exposing her skin. But she hid her breasts….It was a peculiar combination of sexuality and boyishness and every young woman who was not very, very serious wanted to be a part of the excitement.” (Collins, America’s Women, 329-330.).  Suggesting that women’s attitude towards fashion had change and no longer felt the need to cover their bodies, constrained to long skirts, high necks and long hair to keep men’s thoughts clean. “If sex is determined by biology, then gender is learned and acquired as a set of social trainings about how female and male bodies behave.”  (Craik, 1944: 44)

It can be suggested that because many females had lost husbands/boyfriends/fathers/brothers they wanted to live life to the full because they thought life was too short.   Working class women still had more freedom in the workplace but the money they earned was for the family as many had husbands who had been injured during the war and could not work.  Although they did not have the finances to indulge in partying and high class fashion, they still tried to dress and embrace the 1920’s fashion style. “Although not all woman of the 1920’s describes themselves as flappers, many adolescents and young women chose to embrace the flapper appearance, if not the lifestyle” (Banner, 1983;Fass,1977)

Before the 1920’s woman were chaperoned by another woman so they were never alone with a man. The First World War changed people perceptions on what was socially acceptable.  Woman were beginning to speak openly about sexuality, engaging in more casual sexual relationships than previous generations. “Dating emerged as a new social activity that allowed couples to test compatibility with several partners without making a commitment.”  (Brown, 1987; Brumberg, 1988/2000; Perret, 1982) states that  the observations of Sigmund Freud, British “sexologist” Havelock Ellis, and Margaret Mead, helped women to begin to voice their desire to express themselves sexually.

The poster suggests that woman began to play a more active role in sports, social life and even the workplace. The shorter hemlines made it easier to cycle and move quickly. “asserted her freedom through participation in new social activities, some of which had previously been open only to males.” 

The 1920’s saw the rise of women consuming alcohol, this was one way of women socialising with both men and women  “asserted her freedom through participation in new social activities, some of which had previously been open only to males.”  It was beginning to be more acceptable for women to drink in the presence of men. Drinking, smoking, and fashion became ways for flappers to show their sophistication.  Social scene was for those with money who could afford to party.  Women would Go out at night, doing high-energy dancing and consuming alcoholic cocktails. “But for a flapper anxious to assert the freedom to engage in activities previously considered taboo, drinking and smoking were symbols of self-expression and power. Therefore, a hidden hip flask and a stash of cigarettes were considered de rigueur for many flappers and college women” (Fass, 1977).  This can be seen in Fig 5 where the women is hiding her drinks flask under her dress attached to her leg by a garter. The flappers drank and smoked openly. 

Lastly dancing became a way for women to socialise.  The Charleston is one of the best known dances to come out of the 1920’s.  It was a very free dance and a fun way for the woman to relax and enjoy themselves and escape the horrors of World War I. They formed a group called “The Flappers” .  Fig 6 shows how the Flapper has pulled her skirts up to the top of her leg giving her more freedom of movement.
 “Similarly, dancing was a point of contention between American youth of the 1920s and their parents. Young people loved to dance, but because of the close proximity of the dancers to one 

another and the rhythm of the jazz music, many parents found dancing downright lewd” (Brown, 1987; Fass, 1977). 

To conclude my essay on the change in women’s lives in general during the 1920’s, in my opinion the whole change stemmed initially from the suffrage campaign for the right for women to vote, through to women’s involvement in World War I.  This is because women learnt that they could function in a male orientated world.  They had to perform roles that many considered were closed to women.  The horrors of World War 1 made women want to live life to the full.

The academic writings and images within this essay shows the change in women’s attitude and the shift in feminine gender roles in the 1920’s.  The images show confident and out going woman and how relieved they were to finally have freedom.  This was not just in the work place but socially.  They were able to go out on their own, mix with men and have a new found sexual freedom.  Using the academic writers’ viewpoints and quotes helped me

I gained a better understanding of what went on the 1920’s regarding the change in women’s lives.   It gave me the opportunity to see how the legacy left by these women is still felt today.  


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