Maggie Jackson

When we consider the 1920s in America, one of the first aspects that comes to mind, is the iconic image of the Flapper. The Flapper and fashion standards set by this trend are not just a symbol of the decade, but a crucial factor in understanding this time period in 20th century America. Fashion provides a lens into the culture of the 1920s, as it personifies bigger themes that were at play in this era of women who pushed the boundaries of tradition in a way that could not be reversed. It served as a way to express the new modern women that appeared within in this decade, a woman who rejected the normal convention of corsets and long hair, for a convenient bob and higher hemline, in order to move about freely in the new opportunities available. A cultural climate of expanding female freedoms developed within in society, as a result of several factors, including World War I, which provided momentum for women’s rights. As with all war, it called upon women of the home front to step up during the absence of a male presence, allowing for new responsibilities for women in the public sphere of life.

A woman and fashion icon of this independent mindset was Coco Chanel, a flapper originator, who was one of the first to bob her hair and to reject corsets in favor of a relaxed look based on comfort. Opening shop in Paris in the year 1913 as one of the few female designers of the time, she offered clothing inspired by her own personal style of comfort and borrowed menswear pieces.[1] The Chanel look provided the basis for the Flappers of American style, following the same boxy and easy to wear pieces seen on the women of Geneva’s campus and other campuses across America in the 1920s. These pieces were focused on causal everyday wear, designs which complemented the rise of ready-to wear, or prêt-a porter as it is in known in France. This revolution in clothing manufacturing, traditionally following an haute couture or “high sewing” manner of production, limited the availability as items were made on piece by piece basis. The Jazz Age brought variety and practicality to the American consumer.  Through the mass production of ready-to-wear, personal style was available for the first time.  Department stores such as Macy’s and Sears brought the Parisian flair of Coco Chanel to the general public, while magazines like Harper’s Bazaar showcased trends, bringing high fashion to the common woman.[2]

Although fashion maintained its characteristic as a mark of status, there was a shift in the Jazz Age from an elitist view of style to a commonality of fashion culture no matter your rank in society. Being in style by keeping up with the latest trends became a fixation in the daily life of women during this period, which is why the creation of ready-to-wear clothing was such an important development in social culture. For the first time women were willing to sacrifice quality for variety and selection in their wardrobes, a side effect of rising consumerism in the culture and economy of the Roaring 1920s. This provided a foundation for personal style in culture with a gradual acceptance of different interpretations of taste, like the Flappers who rejected the common ideal of beauty and femininity.[3] Individuality became an important part of fashion and social culture, no longer would the upper class be the only voice of trend setting, instead the direction of style would come from the bottom-up, through the new concept of street style. Imagination came alive in the playfulness expression of style during this decade, young women particularly on college campuses embraced the new look of the 1920s, each putting their own spin on it as the Flapper trend took off. At Geneva we can see individuality develop after 1923, before this point the clothing choices among women on campus were like that of a uniform. In 1924 the women of Geneva broke free of this conformity, and developed their own individual way of expressing their style. It is fresh and experimental, some even wearing what appears to be menswear adopted as womenswear, with this environment the essence of street style is found.

Popular culture of the day also contributed to the trends of the Jazz Age, as the coinciding growth of the entertainment industry, provided a new platform for style to be presented to the public. Through popular film stars and dancers, the culture of the celebrity was born, leading to a new kind of style icon for the college students across America. Women aspired to look like Clara Bow and the Ziegfeld Girls, while college-aged men looked to the style of Rudolph Valentino, who championed the “Sheik” trend of slicked back hair and clean shaven faces.[4] In addition collegiate men looked to Charles Lindbergh and professional athletes like golfer Bobby Jones and tennis star Bill Tiden.[5] Despite of their celebrity status, the style icons of the 1920s were not exclusively of noble or blue blood families, they were common people who had worked to achieve their new found status. This is also true in the case of Coco Chanel.  The style movements of the 1920s were driven by the general public as they contributed to the greater cultural conversation of fashion, through their own unique person expressions of style.

Personal style and individuality were the most significant contributions of collegiate culture on fashion in the 1920s. College students were the new generation, going out into the world with a new vision for what they wanted to accomplish and who they wanted to be, which could be expressed to the world through their choices in style. Men deviated from the traditional suited persona and aspired to be like the new athletic heroes of their generation.  Women could also express a new found confidence in their place in the world, through a bob and relaxed clothing allowing them to make a statement when they walked into a room. Women were free to be themselves through their dress; their personalities no longer had to hide behind long tresses, be restrained by corsets, or be weighed down by extra yards of fabric. The declaration of street style by Flappers and college students alike ignited a new aspect of culture that would carry on throughout the 20th century, as fashion became an increasingly important part of our daily lives and society into the modern era.

The fact that such a new movement in culture that was in some ways rebellious against the established societal norms was present at Geneva College, speaks to the power of this movement. Geneva College is a small conservative community ascribing to the Reformed Christian faith, morality was taken seriously and questionable acts within the society would not have been easily accepted. The influence and power to reach this small community by the year 1924 and to widely become the normal way of dress by 1927 speaks to the greater motivation at work in the mind of the Flapper movement, besides the obvious assumptions of lower moral standards. Students at Geneva College did indeed showcase a moderate expression of Flapper style, the hemlines hovering below not at the knee and the pieces mainly channeling a menswear look, they were still in fact Flappers. It is evident at first glance; it was not so censored down that the students look out of place in the general public of the 1920s, in America or abroad. Geneva students by ascribing to the new look of a modern woman, and accepting her into the community, participated in the greater social experiment of the era, and showed that it was more than just rebellion or a choice to sexualize themselves, it was about change for their generation.

[1] Krick, Jessa. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, “Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971) and the House of Chanel.” Last modified October 2004. Accessed April 10, 2013.

[2] Drowne, Kathleen. The 1920s. (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 2004), 96.

[3] Drowne, 96-100.

[4] Lowell, Lauren. Illinois State University, “The Roaring 20s.” Last modified May 25, 2006 . Accessed April 10, 2013.

[5] Drowne, 115.

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