Vintage Beauty from the Roaring Twenties

Laura Macfehin takes a looky-loo into what made a flapper flap.

In November 1921 Archbishop Kelly of Sydney penned and published a pastoral letter strongly condemning the latest women’s fashions, saying that “the devil’s snare is found to be set surely and fatally in the allurements of attire”.  He begged clergy and laity alike to be vigilant in preserving Christian doctrine by repudiating new and immoral fashions.

Not long after a British doctor made headlines condemning the use of “modern rubber belts” (he was thinking– probably too much– of girdles) these he claimed gave an “unnatural, boyish figure and prevented the expansion of the hips essential to happy motherhood” thus constituting a “national danger”!!


What was it about these fashions that was so threatening?  As with most fashions it was what they signalled rather than the clothes themselves that were the problem.  After the First World War young woman seemed less concerned with the conventions of the past.  They weren’t going to wait for a chaperone, or wait to be asked to dance– they adopted individual dances they could do in a group or on their own.  

In fact, most of these changes were fairly superficial– most women were still going to end up wives and mothers or working in fields prescribed as feminine, but the possibility that they might not, and the potential usurping of authority from traditional sources like doctors, churchmen and parents by film stars and the like was obviously worrying enough to condemn the frocks and accoutrements of the flapper!

The original ‘It’ girl– Clara Bow.  She was considered rather uncouth by the Hollywood elite.  She managed to fight the slanderous rumours about her love life but the town wore her out and she retired to a ranch not long after.

Yes Sir!  That’s My Baby!

These days the word ‘flapper’ is what most people think of when they think of the 1920s, and you can see it attached to some very dubious costuming choices around Halloween and school ball season, but what was a flapper really?

The term actually predates the 1920s, but really took off when silent movie stars like Olive Thomas, Colleen Moore and Clara Bow became popular. Films like ‘The Flapper’, ‘Flaming Youth’, and ‘It’ spelt out what it meant to be a modern woman. Modernity was key here—this was the gay abandonment of previous generation’s rules and values. The flapper valued fun—dancing, motoring, flirting—everything was meant to be done at breakneck speed.


Hair we go! 

Louise Brooks and her iconic bob

So if you had just come out of the local picture palace and decided you HAD to be a flapper too—what was the first thing to be done? Get your hair cut of course!

The 1920s was the first time shorter hairstyles for women really took off. They were somewhat risqué because they could be quite androgynous, and they also suggested a hastier, more carefree lifestyle (although in practise the cutting and dressing of these styles were just as time-consuming as longer ones).

The three main styles of the flapper were probably the shingle, the bob and the Eton crop. Women could now go to professional hairdressers who specialised in the latest cuts, as well as marcel waving and singeing, so you no longer had to have a lady’s maid to achieve the latest look .

Baby Face

Once your hair had been singed off and marcelled into an appropriate shape it was off to the cosmetics counter. This really was the decade when make up became overt and a truly artificial look became fashionable again.

Now (mostly) lead free face powders could be applied without fear of madness or your skin slipping off. A grease paint foundation was around but as the name suggests it was mainly utilised on stage and screen. Most women would have used powder, rouge, lipstick in a push-up tube, kohl pencil and cake mascara.

In general the fashionable complexion was still very pale, although the popularity of Coco Chanel’s tanned look and Josephine Baker meant their was at least some acknowledgement of darker beauty.

On top of a heavily powdered face the flapper would draw on thin eyebrows (plucking didn’t really take off until the thirties) that sloped somewhat downwards towards the temples and a heavily ringed eye with mascara brushed onto the lashes. Rouge was applied in rounds on the apple of the cheeks to enhance the general moon-face affect, and then a small dark cupid’s bow was drawn onto the lips, generally a little within the natural lip-line. If you had trouble getting this right, you could purchase lip-stencils to guide your hand.


Magazines like Photoplay took advantage of the huge interest in movie stars and makeup by printing tutorials on how the different stars achieved their looks—their beauty routines and favoured products.


Putting on the Ritz

Before you go out dancing you will need to put something on – but what?  Obviously fashions changed over the decade but the three watchwords of the jazz age– youth, modernity and action were present throughout.  In general this meant hemlines rose (although not above the knee– sorry trashy online costume shop) and waistlines dropped.  Evening clothes were made to accommodate wild dances and day clothes were designed to allow sporting pursuits and working in offices.


So did flappers really “rouge [their] knees, and roll their stockings down“?  Well yes, actually they did!  Stockings were rolled down to just under the knee, with the rolled top working like a garter.  The bare knees could then be rouged if you wished to draw attention to their bareness– remember hemlines were still lower than this so these cheeky knees would only be seen if you were flinging your legs about in a Charleston or Black Bottom frenzy.  

The rolled stocking also suggested that you were too modern and carefree to wear the kind of girdles and garters the previous generation went in for (although many women still wore girdles and even corsets to try to achieve the fashionable boyish figure).

Silk, rayon and cotton stockings were all available at this time, as well as ‘cut’ stockings which were cut out of very fine fabric like chiffon and incredibly flimsy.  Cotton stockings were considered a bit utilitarian and rayon was a bit shiny– ladies were known to powder their stockings to dull them down a bit.  Silk stockings in a pastel shade to match (or clash!) with your evening dress were the cat’s meow!  

Some came with a little rosette at the top which hid a mirror and compact, or a pocket into which you slip cab fare and your front door key.

Evening wear was often constructed out of light weight fabrics like silk chiffon, voiles or crepe de chine
Practical cotton dresses for working around the home

Designers of the 1920s invented styles that have been regularly repeated on runways ever since.  Coco Chanel brought a slimline, sporty silhouette while Elsa Schiaparelli went in for flights of fancy inspired by surrealist artists like Salvador Dali.  In America ‘Prohibition dresses’ featured a hidden pocket for your flask.  Madeleine Vionnet popularised the bias cut, that allowed figure skimming styles while Jean Patou was famous for his ‘cubist’ cardigans with matching scarves, gloves and hats.

There is a reason why stylists and designers continue to come back to this era for inspiration– as well as dripping glamour like so much monkey fur and fringe, it seems to embody a sense of liberation and fun.  Which makes me think– if the essential element to flapper style is attitude then those tacky ‘Gatsby‘ costumes with sequined headbands and cheap boas might possibly be the perfect thing– especially if they make toes of a forty-two year matron like me curl!

If you are enchanted by the look of the 1920s you can recreate your own jazz age at home.  Companies like offer authentic 1920s sewing patterns for the home sewer while has period accurate make up like cake mascara.

Break out the gin and 78s and be the bees knees!

3 thoughts on “Vintage Beauty from the Roaring Twenties

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