Modern Love

Lipstick, Booze, and the Origins of Slut-Shaming: Dating in the 1920s

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Call it Gatsby Fever if you like, but there’s no stopping it these days — from lavish theme parties to art deco weddings to extravagant dinner soirees, our interest in the Roaring ’20s is reaching full-blown-obsession status.

But what was life really like for young people  in the ’20s, the decade that ushered in years of sustained economic growth (up until the last year, anyway), the women’s liberation movement, Amelia Earhart, and the birth of dating? How did all those single women, suddenly free to venture out with men they weren’t married/engaged to, manage their lives? Here’s a look at some of the biggest cultural events that shaped dating in the Gatsby-era.

Drinking Is Prohibited (Thereby Making It Incredibly Cool)

In 1919, Prohibition began with the passage of the 18th Amendment, and lasted until its repeal in 1933. As anyone who’s ever watched a ’20s movie knows, this in no way stopped young people from drinking. Young couples snuck off to underground speakeasys and both women and men carried concealed flasks, filled to fuel the night’s escapades.

As F. Scott himself put it, “When prohibition came…among those who could afford it, there was more drinking than ever before.” -The Beautiful and the Damned

1926 photo of a woman with a flask in her garter.

Women Get Their Vote On

The rise of women’s suffrage had a — not surprisingly – significant impact on women of all ages. By moving into the public arena, women at last found a forum to battle their rigid domestic roles, and paved the way for independence and equality. For young women, the concept of a life focused on individual pursuits (rather than simply “get married and start having babies”) meant a whole new culture of freedom to go out and enjoy themselves, just for the sake of it.

Left: Photo of three women standing outside the 1920 Republican Convention in Chicago. // Right: Headline on the front page of the Durant Weekly News on August 20, 1920.

This New Thing Called a Car!

Remember your high school American History lesson about Ford’s assembly line? One result of his mass production genius was that car ownership exploded. And what better way to foster romance than in a car? Couples finally had a way to head off on unchaperoned dates, plus they had a private space to snuggle up close at the end of the night.

First Miss America Pageant winner Margaret Gorman in a Birmingham Motors automobile in 1921.

 

Headline from The Miami News in 1922.

Of course, not everyone acted responsibly when it came to cars and dates. In a 1922 article in The Miami News, the police department cited the leading causes of Miami car accidents:

  1. Driving with one hand and holding girl with the other.
  2. Cutting corners.
  3. Too much speed.
  4. Driving a car while under the influence of liquor.

The Flapper Rises

As they took off in cars, women also took off heaps of restrictive clothing. Inspired by the newly-popular fashions in Paris (spearheaded by rising star Coco Chanel), American women shed their corsets and floor-length gowns. Hemlines rose and necklines plunged. Short haircuts, painted lips, and silk stockings ruled the day. The new woman of the ’20s was totally different from her mother: she worked and voted. She smoked, drank, and danced. She dated. She celebrated her new freedoms in style. She was a flapper.

Left:February 2, 1922 cover of Life Magazine // Right: 1922 photo of a typical flapper in Idaho.

The Flapper by Numbers

In case their readers were confused, the helpful folk at The Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner published 13 qualities one could use to identify a flapper, should she be spotted in the wild.

Photo and description of a flapper in the August 2, 1922 edition of the Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner.

  1. Hat of soft silk or felt.
  2. Bobbed hair.
  3. Flapper curl on forehead.
  4. Flapper collar.
  5. Flapper earrings.
  6. Slip-over sweater.
  7. Flapper beads.
  8. Metallic belt.
  9. Bracelet of strung jet.
  10. Knee-length fringed skirt.
  11. Exposed bare knees.
  12. Rolled hose with fancy garter.
  13. Flat-heeled, little girl sandals. 

Flapper Backlash: The Original Slut-Shamers

Granted, parents didn’t just stand idly by while the youngsters romped about town. Some parents nearly exploded with outrage over whose fault it was that their well-brought-up daughters were leaving home, dressing provocatively, and acting so unladylike. There was plenty of public shame heaped on flappers, who were labelled “the saddest type of all.”

In the October 1922 Ladies Home Journal, Barton W. Currie wrote in an Editor’s Letter:

“It would be a fine thing for this generation if the word ‘flapper’ could be abolished. Its prewar definition was, ‘a sprightly and knowing miss in her early teens.’ Its after-war significance entangled itself with the ‘dreadful’ side of youth – with jazz, short skirts, bobbed hair and glistening legs; with the ‘immodest’ passing of corsets: with cigarette smoking; with petting parties and gasoline-buggy riding; … with one-piece bathing suits; … with birth control and eugenics…”

(Note: “petting parties” were exactly what they sound like — basically, the parties we all went to in high school.)

Headline from The Evening World’s February 3, 1922 issue.

Who was to blame for this new, scandalous young woman? In a decidedly ironic move, the first woman in congress, Oklahoma Representative Alice Robertson, slapped all the blame on mothers:

“You can blame the flapper’s mother every time. […] While mother is flapping around at an afternoon tea … or bridge game daughter goes out flapping in an auto. It’s only natural. Let the mothers stay at home, then they would find that their daughters would come flapping home, flap into an apron and spend their out-of-school hours in a thoroughly wholesome way.

The Rise of Dancing

Despite the outrage, flappers kept on. They flapped to the theater, they flapped to the restaurant, and, most often, they flapped to the dance hall and lindy-hopped to the latest jazz numbers.

Dancing was such a craze that marathon dance contests made their debut.

Right: 1923 Photo of some marathon dancers. // Left: 1925 Photo of dancing couple. They look…happy.

An ad from the November 1922 Ladies Home Journal espousing the “melody method of reducing,” – known today as losing weight by dancing.

 

November 1922 Ladies Home Journal ad

Even the Crash Couldn’t Stop It

After almost a decade of abundance, the U.S. economy took a devastating hit with the stock market crash of 1929, which began the downward spiral into the Great Depression. Despite the brutal hardship of the next few years, couples still found ways to escape the drudgery of the time — once dating started, it couldn’t be stopped.

Crowd gathering on Wall Street after the crash

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