Culturel Projet personnel

The Roaring Twenties: A Decade Unlike Any Other

Collaboration spéciale, Mont Notre-Dame 29 novembre 2018

Collaboration spéciale de June Shin, élève de 5e secondaire

Avant de commencer, j’aimerais vous expliquer ce qu’est cet article. Ce dernier est le résultat final de mon projet personnel. Comme vous le savez, en secondaire 5, on entreprend un projet qui nous intéresse et on le voit jusqu’à la fin. Moi, j’ai décidé de faire une recherche historique sur les années 1920, les « années folles ». Je vous donne une explication courte en français, car cet article est écrit en anglais, la langue que j’ai choisie pour faire ma recherche. J’ai décidé de faire mon projet personnel entièrement en anglais, car pour le cégep et l’université, j’aimerais aller dans des écoles anglophones. Donc, j’ai pensé pratiquer et élargir mon vocabulaire dans cette matière (l’histoire) pour pouvoir déjà m’adapter au lexique qui sera utilisé durant mes futurs cours d’histoire au collégial. Bonne lecture!

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby (2013)

In our past, there have been many conflicts affiliated with how people used to live and how they coped with the terrors that they were subjected to day by day. However, each marking event that we learn about in school simply turns out to be an amplified repetition of the past, except for one that seems to stand out from the rest. Never had there been a remotely similar situation before, a time where wealth, carefreeness and freedom had a strong hold on a very large scale of people; it was the Roaring Twenties. Everyone has heard of this time period. “The Jazz Age”, some call it, or translated from the French term, the “Crazy Years”. But what do you really know about the 1920s?

The Politics behind the Roaring Twenties

Armistice Day (1918)

To fully understand the Twenties, it is important to know how it became the phenomenon it was, namely its politics. To start off, WWI was a major contributor into shaping this vivacious era, beginning in 1914 and ending in 1918. Indeed, this war greatly fed the United States’ economy. Great Britain had invested unimaginable sums of money to buy weapons, cotton, food, and raw material from the States in order to assure their victory, as this particular war was very dependant on the productivity and wealth of the country. On top of that, as they had to pay interest with every purchase, America only gained more wealth from this trade while from a financial point of view, Great Britain lost from it. This is why after the war, while European countries were struggling in poverty and grief, the States surged to the top with not only money, but an abundance of it.  

America had also participated in WWI, though they only joined in late 1917. Then, when it ended, they found themselves on the winning side of the war, causing an important sentiment of nationalism (borderline chauvinism) to take over the country. This left Americans to believe that centuries of dispute between these European powers were finally concluded due to their bravado, and this pride for their country lasted well into the Twenties and the present day.

Alphonse Gabriel Capone, a.k.a. Al Capone (1899-1947)

Two years later, from 1920 to 1933, there was the Prohibition. Supported by the right-winged traditionalists of the time period, this act banned the consumption, the sale, and the purchase of alcohol. However, it had not functioned as intended. Everybody drank despite the newly instilled law, even the ones who had put it into place, and this caused the mafia, notably the black market, to gain control over alcohol trafficking. It was then that the birth of bootleggers, clandestin bars, and speakeasies took place. This greatly nurtured the lively nightlife which characterized this era along with jazz music. Some even tried to make homemade alcohol, but those experiments usually did not succeed.

The Birth of a Consumer Society and an Age of Cultural Rebellion

Paramount Theatre, first opened in 1928

As anyone knows, the Roaring Twenties were named as such for a reason. It was an age of grandness, flamboyance, abundance, and luxury. WWI brought along America’s patriotism and its wealth, while the Prohibition gave life to the dynamic nightlife that the Twenties were very much known for. Speakeasies, as mentioned earlier, clubs, dancing, drinking, and jazz music were all the rage. Everyone was in a mood for happiness because the war had ended. They celebrated without a single care in the world, because money was no longer a matter of worry. Everybody was careless, and they remained as such throughout the entire decade. The sky was the limit as the boundaries that money, or lack thereof, didn’t exist to restrain them anymore.

Back then, salaries greatly outweighed the cost of living, hence the birth of a consumer society. A consumer society is a society in which selling and buying goods or services is the most important social and economical activity. With the invention of radios, movie theatres, record players, and electrical refrigerators, the economy boomed, attracting more consumers. Moreover, everyone had quicker access to money with the arrival of credit cards. Thus, it was a very materialistic age, so the more things were bought by someone, the better their quality of life was deemed.

 

 

The Twenties were an age of cultural rebellion in every aspect, whether it was through music, dancing or even fashion. Jazz was harshly disapproved by the older demographic. They believed that it subjected the younger generation’s minds to “impure” thoughts and activities. In addition, dance routines were much more vulgar, comprised of inelegant moves and “risky” twirls. In comparison to traditional dances like the waltz, Twenties dancing required partners to be more “ditzy”, jumpy, and less graceful. It required them to also hold themselves much closer to one another, if it was a two partner routine, to the point where their bodies would have to be completely touching. Known routines at the time include the Charleston, the Black Bottom Stomp, the Shimmy, the Foxtrot, and the Tango. This was not much accepted by the older generation as they believed it was disgraceful and unsophisticated.

Fashion also had its own role to play in the cultural rebellion that were the Twenties. For example, women of that age dressed very differently than they had at any point in the past. Firstly, they accessorised with pearl necklaces, which were indeed more of a traditional item, but instead of adorning them as they were expected to, they tied knots into them or looped them several times around their neck. Makeup also became more of a statement, evolving into an accentuated and a less gentle look, hence the birth of smokey eyes, scarlet red lips, and bright pink cheeks.

Different Head Garments (1920s)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Additionally, with Chanel, the clothing brand, paving its way into feminine wear, women styled their hair very differently compared to traditional methods. They kept it short, “à la garçonne”, with interesting waves woven into them in the style of “Art Deco”, a term used to designate the artistic period of the Twenties. Furthermore, to add flare, they typically accessorised their looks with headpieces or beads, and for casual days, they would opt for small, round-fitting hats instead. In contrast, though short hairstyles were indeed fashionable, they actually originate from a simple reason of practicality.

Cate Blanchett in The Aviator (2004)

When the men were off to war in the 1910s, women were left behind with no income, so they had no choice but to start working. However, working with bothersome long hair was not very efficient or beneficial to them, so the solution was  to wear it shorter. It was the same issue for their clothes as well. Historically, they had to cover themselves, whether it was with longer dresses, drapes or several layers of clothing. Pants were never an option, but then Chanel began designing them for women. Conclusively, not only were pants and shorter hair a statement and a step towards feminism in the Twenties, but they also made it easier and more efficient for them to work.

 

Chanel Flapper Dress (1926)

Another item of clothing that women often wore were flapper dresses. They were usually knee-length, though some could be shorter or longer, and decorated with rhinestones or anything that captured the light. However, their designs usually varied in order to accommodate different occasions. Some were rather avant-garde for special outings, others were casual for day-to-day wear, and women could also find more proper ones for the workplace.

 

 

A New Progressive Wave and Jazz Music

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (1923)

What says the Roaring Twenties spells the Jazz Age. It was called as such because jazz music had an enormous societal and cultural impact, notably in America. It was important because it influenced dances, youth culture, society’s moral standards, and their fashion, as mentioned earlier. It is also called the Roaring Twenties for the reason that dramatic social and political changes took place in this era. There were more Americans living in big cities than farms, the country’s total wealth having more than doubled from 1920 to 1929. In this generation, there were also nationwide advertisement and chain stores. Countrywide, if not worldwide, everyone listened to the same music and bought the same products. They used the same dances, and even the same slang.

In contrast, a lot of people saw this new progressive wave in a negative light, and for most, it brought more social conflict than celebration. Segregation was very present in clubs, and some radio stations refused to play black band music. However, this is where racial relations met a little change, as it was mostly in the 1920’s that the black community, and even women, started building the foundation to what would be their unique place in society.

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)

For African-Americans, music was the ultimate outlet. Louis Armstrong, the “Father of Jazz”, for example, was revered by many white people despite his skin colour, one of his hits being “What a Wonderful World”. Later on, in the Sixties, the same thing will be said about a singer and musician named Ray Charles, the original “Hit The Road Jack” performer. For women, it was through their dancing and their position in the workplace after the men left for war. While the men were gone, women didn’t fail to keep themselves entertained as they adapted dancing to their temporary solo lifestyle. In hindsight, when the men did come back from the war, they did not want to retreat back to their homes and return to being a simple housewife. Therefore, they kept working, slowly placing the bricks to a better and fairer future.

In the Twenties, jazz music was the genre of the decade. It originated in New Orleans in the early 1900’s. Later on, Chicago and the Midwest opened up with more job opportunities for artists, and when a certain district in New Orleans closed down, many entertainers from that district moved out to those cities. Both black and white musicians migrated there from almost all over the country as well, and more opportunities were open to them, partly due to the Prohibition as it catalyzed the apparition of speakeasies, illicit clubs, etc. This helped spread jazz music on a bigger scale, and soon, it became popular. Furthermore, this genre was one of the firsts to be culturally appropriated by White Americans, though jazz scholars back then preferred to separate “Jazz” to “White Jazz”, wanting to create a margin of difference between the style and meaning of original African American Jazz to popularised White Jazz.

Many different styles developed into the Twentieth century as this specific type of music branched out into several subgenres. The two original and classic ways to play jazz in the Twenties, however, were the New Orleans style and the Chicago style Dixieland. For the New Orleans style, artists like Sidney Bechet and Joe “King” Oliver are accurate representatives. For the Chicago style, great artists include Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, and Jelly Roll Morton. Of course, many other styles were also quite popular in this era, such as ragtime, and blues, as there were several other loved artists at the time.

Ma Rainey (1886-1939)

Scott Joplin, for example,  held the title of “King of Ragtime”. He composed many hit songs like “the Entertainer” and “the Maple Leaf Rag”. Then, we have W. C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues”, the man who set the standard “blues” form that we now know today by having applied it to folk songs while travelling around Mississippi back when he was still alive. A last artist would be the “Mother of Blues”, Ma Rainey. She was one of the first professional blues recording artists from the Twenties, and was known to have a remarkably “powerful” voice. The reason why she would be an important artist to remember is that she was strongly suspected by many to be bisexual or a lesbian, even rumoured to be in a relationship with another female singer named Bessie Smith, an African-American jazz artist who had one of the highest paying salaries of the decade. Today, Ma Rainey is thought of as an important icon of the LGBTQ+ community as many of her songs openly referenced lesbianism, one of them being “Prove It On Me Blues”.

In Conclusion…

Typical Twenties Party

The 1920s were roaring indeed, and unfortunately, the many events that happened during this decade could not all be mentioned in this article. Briefly speaking, America used what they gained from WWI and Europe’s eventual ruin, and turned it into a historical and national phenomenon in which several social and cultural topics clashed, whether it was the rise of African-Americans and their growing influence on society, or women’s liberation from all the traditions that were imposed on them for centuries from the beginning of time. The birth of jazz left an everlasting impression in many people’s lives and the present day, proving that music is an incredibly effective and influential medium.

The Roaring Twenties truly marked its place as a unique event in our history as it differed from any past circumstance. Such an abundance of money and luxury on the scale of an entire nation is something that had never happened before and could never have been predicted, nor can I personally imagine it ever taking place again. This is a strong reason as to why this decade fills me with passion, and I find it very important that other people know about it too, for the simple belief that culture is what makes an intelligent, functioning, and lively society. History should be common knowledge for everybody as it reminds us of who we are, where we come from, what we are capable of, and what not to repeat.

Additional note

To get a better visual grasp of the Twenties, there are a few movies that represent this decade in an accurate fashion. One of them is called “The Untouchables (1987)”. It is based on a true story about how the infamous Al Capone, a great figure of the mafia in Chicago, got taken down during the Prohibition, starring Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Andy García. Two other films would be “The Aviator (2004)” and “The Great Gatsby (2013)”. These movies perfectly capture the essence of the Twenties’ artistic period, Art Deco, and the excess and flamboyance of this decade.

Collaboration spéciale Mont Notre-Dame