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Seminal Styles of the 20th Century: Designers, Divas and Fashion Firsts That Shook the World--Part One: From the Gilded Age to the Flapper

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Does sex influence fashion, or does fashion influence sex?

  Before the Flood

The 1890s was an age of both surfeit and frustrated yearning. The practice of casual copulation was more than frowned upon; it was sin to be censured and stamped out. To be sure, there were heartless harlots, whorish hussies, and dissipated dandies about, whose torrid, carnal exploits were the meat and potatoes of deliciously filthy gossip that only served to stoke the fire and brimstone of conservative convictions. To members of genteel society, these creatures were to be loathed and reviled—or if possible, pitied and “saved” from their lives of tragic debauchery.

Of course, there were exceptions. Famed actress and much-imitated fashion plate, Lillie Langtry, carried on a three-year sexual liaison with Prince of Wales, Edward Albert (“Bertie”), that, although tacit on its face, was the talk of the town (London), the empire (the Brits) and even the world (us damn Yanks). In addition to pleasuring and being pleasured by the Prince, Langtry enjoyed a high-society status that effectively shielded her from the banal slings and arrows of middle-class morality. Rather than destroy her reputation, Mrs. Langtry’s extramarital hijinks only added to her social cachet (much to the chagrin of her aggrieved husband, who named Bertie—among others—as correspondent in their divorce proceedings).

Thankfully, for the balance of the decent bourgeoisie, the bulk of such immoral flotsam kept to where it belonged—either on the stage, or in cathouses. As a result, the sexual appetites of the masses were sublimated into more gustatory channels. Big became beautiful. The exaggerated hourglass figure of the Gilded Age—with its abundant bosom, ample bottom, and cinched-in waist that de Sade himself might have concocted—glorified a cornucopia of physical form, while at the same time, denying access to the delights of any libidinous feast. But passion is a river cannot be dammed forever, and when the barrier is breached, oh, what a lusty tide is loosed on the land.

  From Chattel to Chanel

By the first decade of the 20th Century, world events combined with advances in science conspired to re-weave the fabric of society. With the advent of birth control, the consequences of sex were no longer pregnancy, shame, and ruin. Women, either by choice or circumstance, were beginning to enter the workforce. Although wedded bliss was still the ideal state, it was no longer the only option. In Europe, as the thunderclouds of war began to gather, naïve mindsets and all-you-can eat indulgences began to crumble under the weight of a coming reality that portended conflict on a grand scale, sexually empowered females, and intercourse outside of marriage.

At the fore of this movement was famed French fashion designer, Coco Chanel, who, in 1913, launched a line of women’s clothing that, unlike her predecessors, notably unleashed, rather than constrained the female form. “I gave women a sense of freedom,” she said. “I gave them back their bodies: bodies that were drenched in sweat, due to fashion’s finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding.”

Chanel’s liberating styles blew the lid off of a long-simmering Pandora’s box, opening a floodgate that altered a whole lot more than fashion. Freed for the first time after decades of imprisonment in complex garments that denied even simple pleasures—like breathing—women went a little wild. Okay, a lot wild (but still not to be confused with today’s Girls Gone Wild video empire).

The new look engendered a sea change in the paradigm of beauty, as well. While Chanel maintained that you must “look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress,” the truth was that in order to appear attractive in the new deconstructed styles, the exaggerated voluptuousness of a 19th Century Lillian Russell (who weighed in at in impressive 200-plus pounds in her heyday) must be thrown over in favor of a new boyish ideal. A streamlined figure, featuring a flat chest, narrow hips, and long coltish legs was in. Portly pulchritude was out, and pleasingly plump was officially no longer sexy.

The new sleek fashions, with their sheer, clinging fabrics, drop waists, plunging backs and daring décolletage, put the Darwin on undergarments, as well. Whalebone corsets were not merely uncomfortable, they were bulky and they stuck out in all the wrong places (kinda like wearing a thong over long johns). Evolution was essential. Enter New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob, who, unwilling to compromise the lines of a fashionable evening frock, with the aid of two silk hankies and some ribbon, came up with the design (which she patented in 1913) for the modern brassiere as we know it today.

  Speakeasy (Im)morals

In 1919, the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act slammed the lid on the legal sale of liquor in the U.S., but rather than quash the nation’s thirst for fast times, the taboo of Prohibition promulgated a counter-culture of reckless abandon. Less than 10 years after Chanel debuted her figure-freeing garments, the flapper era was in full swing.

In addition to bravery and patriotism, World War I had spawned a generation of fatalistic, devil-may-care youth. The specter of death loomed on the horizon, and for many, there was no greater aphrodisiac than the realization that one might not be here tomorrow. Knee-flashing hotsy-totsies guzzled bathtub gin in soignée speakeasies and Charlestoned ’til dawn. Some of them even smoked, and—GASP!—enjoyed the odd sexual romp with a stout-hearted suitor or two with whom she had no intention of marching down the aisle.

Many beauties of the Roaring Twenties took their fashion cues from “the first American Flapper,” Zelda, the wife of celebrated novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The Flapper awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into the battle,” wrote Zelda in an article for Metropolitan magazine. “She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure ... she was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim and most of all, to heart.”

Though Scott and Zelda were the media darlings of their day, Zelda Fitzgerald’s notoriety predated her famous marriage. Her father, a justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama, and her uncle, a longtime senator notwithstanding, from the time she attended high school, this Jazz-Age muse forged a reputation for rebellion. She drank, smoked and was often in the company of boys—without benefit of a chaperone (unheard of, at the time). Zelda’s interest in ballet, and subsequent exposure to dance attire, may have been the impetus for one particularly infamous rumor: “Miss Sayre (her maiden name) swims in the nude.” Although the story was a materially untrue, the fabrication was fabric related: at the core of the ruse was a skintight, flesh-colored bathing suit, but Zelda basked in the notoriety.

  The Dark Star and the Hour Before Dawn

With the rise of Hollywood and the resulting burgeoning cult of celebrity, movie stars became—and have remained—avatars of beauty and role models for countless emulators and admirers. While no one embodied the mainstream flapper image more than “It Girl,” Clara Bow, with her itsy-bitsy-boobies, bee-stung mouth, and perpetually twinkling eyes, it was another, less well-known star, Louise Brooks, who truly epitomized the darker, more earthy zeitgeist of her day.

When the flapper craze debuted, another casualty to the cult of spare beauty was hair. Waist-length, teased-up, tortured ’dos that complimented the hourglass figure got the axe… literally. Brooks, whose eponymous Dutch-boy hairstyle, “The Louise Brooks Bob,” trademarked the look, and made her instantly recognizable as the emblem of her entire generation.

But more than the sum of her hairstyle, Brooks, a former dancer and Ziegfeld Follies Girl, channeled the extremes of lurid and esoteric sexual energy the flapper ethos had given rise to. Possessed of a simmering sensuality that lacked the coy appeal of a Clara Bow, Brooks was indeed more hardboiled than the majority of her peers. Her upbringing by a distant father and a bohemian mother who maintained that any “squalling brats I produce can take care of themselves,” certainly played a role in the persona she projected. However, Brooks herself credited the sexual abuse she suffered at an early age with forging the image she is most often associated: a sybarite who sought out sexual adventure using a love ’em and leave ’em construct normally associated with the male of the species.

In transforming herself from prey to predator, from blossom to bumblebee, Brooks took control of the reigns to her own sexuality. The idea that a woman might have a voice in her destiny; that she could have the liberty to seek pleasure—in and out of the bedroom—was intoxicating. It was a lesson that was not lost on a legion of women fed up with being relegated to the kitchen and the nursery.

Brooks is best known for her portrayal of the libertine, Lulu, in a 1925 German film, aptly titled, Pandora’s Box. The film’s plot, as summed up by Wikipedia: “Lulu, a young and impulsive vaudeville performer whose raw sexuality and uninhibited nature bring about the downfall of almost everyone she meets. She marries a respectable newspaper publisher, but soon drives him into insanity, climaxing in an incident in which she accidentally shoots him to death. Found guilty of manslaughter, she escapes from justice with the help of her former pimp (whom she considers her father) and the son of her dead husband, who is also in love with her. After spending several months hiding in an illegal gambling den in France, where Lulu is nearly sold into slavery, Lulu and her friends end up living in squalor in a London garret. On Christmas Eve, driven into prostitution by poverty, Lulu meets her doom at the hands of Jack the Ripper,” does not address the deeper perversions that are the character’s most cherished and driving obsessions.

In a 1979 New Yorker article, “The Girl in the Black Helmet,” celebrated bisexual British film critic Kenneth Tynan (who once described as Brooks as “the only star actress I can imagine either being enslaved by or wanting to enslave,” and was himself so besotted with her that he sought her out and the pair carried on an infamous affair, even though he was married at the time and she was in her seventies) explained: “Of the climactic sequence, so decorously understated, Louise Brooks once wrote, in Sight & Sound, ‘It is Christmas Eve, and she is about to receive the gift which has been her dream since childhood—death by a sexual maniac.’ ”

“My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, It gives a lovely light,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay, in 1920. Though fueled by a furious frenetic verve that they thought would never end, unbeknownst to the flappers and their consorts, they were dancing in a ballroom in a mansion built of cards. In the smoldering ruins of America’s economy following the infamous October 1929 stock market crash, raven-haired divas with smoky eyes and whisky voices lost their appeal—but sex did not. As the country girded its loins for the dark, sobering times of the Great Depression, a new standard of beauty was poised to emerge: the platinum standard. And the Lord said, “Let there be light.”


Great series of articles!



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