Read This Before You See “The Great Gatsby”

BY Cristen Conger / POSTED May 13, 2013
Hammerbrook - City can this really be true?
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A classic flapper bob on American actress Peaches Browning. (Flickr/Library of Congress) A classic flapper bob on American actress Peaches Browning. (Flickr/Library of Congress)

America’s got flapper fever, thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s Art Deco-drenched “The Great Gatsby” remix. And even though Carrie Mulligan makes for a dazzling Daisy Buchanan, the film flapper extraordinaire is a bit of highly revisionist history. As sociologist Lisa Hix notes over at Collector’s Weekly, F. Scott Fitzgerald portrayed the New Woman flapper of the early 1920s as little more than a dizzy drunks, obsessed with fashion, speakeasy hijinks and breaking men’s hearts. And while Gatsby on screen might be a sumptuous Vogue-ready feast for the eyes, it skips right over the cultural significance of the flapper who openly defied the rules for how young women should conduct themselves. Sure, they dressed differently, smoked, danced and drank, but flappers also were turn-of-the-century feminists.

So if you’re reading (or re-reading) “The Great Gatsby” or going to see the movie spectacle, here’s some recommended reading to understand who the real Daisy Buchanan and her drop-waist dress-sporting gal pals might’ve been:

How Flappers Worked (by me!) — “In 1915, two years before the United States became involved in World War I, H.L. Mencken introduced the word “flapper” into popular media. The term traces back to British slang for a teenage girl, but Mencken reclaimed it with more specificity. Writing for the literary magazine, “The Smart Set,” he described a new sort of female identity emerging in the United States: a woman who consumed music, literature and periodicals voraciously, taking her cues for behavior and style from the media in front of her, rather than the moral codes of decorum.”

‘The Great Gatsby’ Still Gets Flappers Wrong (Lisa Hix) — “The flapper movement wasn’t simply a fashion trend, as Emily Spivack at Smithsonian.com’s Threaded blog explains; it was a full-blown, grassroots feminist revolution. After an 80-year campaign by suffragists, women were finally granted the right to vote in the United States in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, many women entered the workforce, and when the soldiers returned in November 1918, their female counterparts were reluctant to give up their jobs. As a result, young, unmarried women experienced far greater financial independence than they’d ever had before.”

The Flapper: The Heroine or Antagonist of the 1920s (NYU) — “As Ford mass-produced cars via the assembly line and gained competition, automobiles became more affordable to even the newly working young women. Not only did the automobile allow the Flapper to go wherever men could and to share in all their enjoyments, but it also spawned what would become a great shift in traditional courtship and dating. “In other days the boy paid court to his ‘girl’ on an ivied porch or in a cosy parlor, under the watchful eyes of a mother or the stricter vigil of a maiden aunt”. In the twenties, however, couples drove away from home, “indecently” as the parents believed. “By 1927 more autos were enclosed… creating new private space for courtship and sex”. This more intimate setting combined with the close dancing habits of the Flapper altered women’s perspective on, and openness to, sexual behavior.”

A Flapper’s Dictionary (Bookflaps) — “The dictionary went into some detail, listing the group’s slang and providing definitions. In the process, it also provided an insight: through the slang we can begin to discern attitudes and priorities and the mindset of the adherents. And the adherents, after all, were our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Who knew?”

1920s Fashion History (Fashion Era) — “High fashion until the twenties had been for the richer women of society.  But because construction of the flapper’s dress was less complicated than earlier fashions, women were much more successful at home dressmaking a flapper dress which was a straight shift.  It was easier to produce up to date plain flapper fashions quickly using flapper fashion Butterick dress patterns.  Recorded fashion history images after the twenties do reflect what ordinary women really wore rather than just the clothing of the rich.”

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