Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sexy, Scandalous, Revolutionary

One of the fun aspects of writing fiction is that you get to create the world your characters inhabit. So you design or select their homes, furnishings, cars, boats (in my case), books, music, and, of course, clothes. So I’ve recently been drooling over photos of fabulous sequined, beaded, bejewelled, gilded, feathered, fringed, flirty, flapper frocks.

The Roaring 20s was an age of opulence and excess, as illustrated in the works of Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, indeed, in the latter’s own outrageous lifestyle with his wife Zelda. It was also a revolutionary era when young women rebelled against the strictures of Victorian society and morality. They scandalized the older generations because they smoked and drank in public (this, during Prohibition), wore makeup, danced “immodestly”, dated unchaperoned, bobbed their hair, and hiked their hemlines. No longer confined by breath-snatching corsets, they wore comfortable clothes in which they could easily participate in sports or dance the night away, and which facilitated sexual exploration, often in the back seats of cars.

The most influential couturier of the “modern” woman was Coco Chanel, whose “garçonne” look or flapper style, made some diehard complain that “women no longer exist; all that’s left are the boys created by Chanel.” If the clothes didn’t show women’s curves, they did reveal unprecedented lengths of leg. One Baptist minister opined:
“Mary had a little skirt,
The latest style no doubt,
But every time she got inside,
She was more than halfway out.”

To see some stunning gowns, visit these websites: Antique and Vintage Dress Gallery and Vintage Textile. It’s evident from the descriptions that the fully beaded dresses were heavy (4 pounds or more), and instructions are given for how to get out of the ones that have no closures (and ergo, no openings). “Bend way forward at the waist, pull the skirt up and then raise your arms over your dropped head and let gravity help you wiggle out of the dress.”

To see how these gowns scintillated, especially when dancing, have a look at this clip on YouTube. The dress that Carol Channing is wearing wouldn’t have had an underskirt slit that high at the side, but otherwise is representative of the period fashion.

I would love to wear one of these vintage dresses (or a replica) at my next book launch, as Book 3 of my Muskoka Novels takes place during the 1920s. In the meantime, I have to go and design half a dozen houses and cottages, a 6-slip boathouse, and a slew of costumes for a fancy dress ball!

For a fascinating look at the Jazz Age, read Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern, by Joshua Zeitz.

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