Was it a war on capitalism?
The first thing you notice about the flapper ladies, who appeared in the American press in the 1890s as the vanguard of radicalism, is their fashion. They looked like Victorian girls — but were no longer Victorian girls. Their clothes were cheap and they were in their 20s at the time. This idea that women have to show strength and manliness to earn money has stuck. It’s a fundamental tenet of modern identity politics. When you make yourself a target for criticism for looking unwomanly, it’s OK to defend yourself.
But, in a sense, this is all a bit silly. Is it because women are just so much more like men than men are like women? The flappers were not dressed to appeal only to men, or to make men feel better about their own sexist society. When women wear cheap clothes, they do it to appeal to men. It’s a way of saying that women are the primary victims of sexism — not men.
In the 1920s, women were wearing skirts, high heels and high waistcoats, much in the fashion of the time. They were also experimenting with the idea that women could look good regardless of their age. So it’s not like the women who are fighting for women’s rights have no idea about this sort of thing.
Did you study the flappers themselves as you were researching your book?
Absolutely, I went to the flappers’ homes in New York as well as other locations around the country, to meet women who were still living those very styles today. The women told me everything. What they didn’t want was people thinking of them as whiny feminists, or as an identity movement. They want to wear what they want and have their children be safe. It’s an extremely modern concept, and they live in a totally different world from their mothers’. What they want is their own children to have fun and feel secure. It’s also true they are the women who are pushing back against the idea of femininity — as well as a whole range of issues in society, from inequality in health to the commodification of everything.
The way the book has gone out of print is that in the 1930s, women were just trying to survive, trying to show off their bodies in what they thought was “authentic” fashion. Men tried to tell them that those clothes were dangerous, or not beautiful, or they were doing it themselves somehow.
I wanted to
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