Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style and Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 September, 2006, 12:00am

Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style and Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern

by Joshua Zeitz

Crown, HK$195

There are two decades of the 20th century the US harks back to with nostalgia, again and again: the 1960s, and the 20s. The 60s, with their social upheavals, are still a bone of contention for many. But to liberal, educated America, the 20s are a time of pure joy.

The Roaring 20s (or, more precisely, the time between the end of the first world war and the stock-market crash of 1929) were when the US became an international cultural and economic power. Its new might and the changing times were, Joshua Zeitz argues in Flapper, largely the result of the work and daring of women.

The images linger: Coco Chanel's short frocks, Louise Brooks as the ultimate vamp. It was the first time in history that images had such power, Zeitz writes. People who came of age then were the 'first generation of Americans ... raised on advertisements', trained from birth to respond to images rather than interaction. Technology allowed new freedoms. The electric light meant men and women could meet and court on the town. The automobile gave the young the means to date outside their parents' parlours.

Flapper brings all this together and reminds us that leading figures of the time such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, long before Bob Dylan, gained their cachet from being forever young. There was Anna May Wong, a Chinese American actress-cum-flapper, and Clara Bow the 'it' girl, a woman with that certain something that came through on screen. 'No wonder the girls of older days before the movies were so modest and bashful ... They never saw a Clara Bow,' a female college student wrote in a fan letter.

Celebrity as we know it was invented in the US right after the first world war. That unqualifiable thing that makes someone stare. 'Miss Bow, when you add it all up, what is 'it'?' someone asked her late in life. 'I ain't real sure,' she shrugged. But it was, and still is, worth millions.

Although Bow, Brooks, Colleen Moore, the Fitzgeralds and Chanel symbolised the time, prosperity and social change came from the millions of women who went to work. They moved in droves from outlying towns and farms to take factory jobs in cities. The US gross national product skyrocketed, and the rich flaunted their wealth, particularly the Hollywood rich.

It was the working woman who made the difference. She had money of her own and she dated. Changes in sexual mores had to follow, as did women's rights. Women, more than governments, were the agents of social change. In saying so, Zeitz provides an outline of the era, and an explanation for why the 20s are to this day a cultural powerhouse.




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