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Expression (Living the Twenties #AtoZChallenge 2020)

WWI was the great divide of the beginning of the last century. We often don’t appreciate what kind of caesura it was, especially in contrast with the century before. Life changed widely for all sections of society. The language changed too, trying to describe this new reality. All forms of expressions changed greatly. 

But for some groups of people, this was truer than for others. In the magma of the post-war years, some social groups found a totally new possibility of expression.


Weimar Berlin (Otto Dix)
Weimar Berlin (Otto Dix)

All the arts went through a time of innovation and experimentation. Even the way arts were understood changed completely. No more necessarily the realm of all that is beautiful and harmonic, the arts became a workshop for the language and expression. It became maybe the most important, more accessible field where the new reality was discussed and dissected. 

Through the arts, it was possible to discuss subjects that were normally considered taboo, like the changing sexual mores, the effect of the war on the human mind and soul, new political stances. 

Because the arts approached these subjects inside a society that was actually trying to ignore them (because they were fearful), almost all the new arts adopted an extreme language. And the new language sometimes spilt into the new media of cinema and even advertisement.


Women might have been a new race, so different they emerged from WWI.

Many women served in WWI. They were nurses and ambulance drivers. Although they did not take part in the actual battles, they often experienced the same physical and mental stress than any soldier. They, who had been considered too gentle and delicate for any hard job in the Victorian times, endure – like men – the industrial destruction of WWI.

In the 1920s, life changed widely for all sections of society. Language changed too, trying to describe this new reality. All forms of expressions changed #history #diversity Share on X
Three female Scottish rope workers,
November 1918. Copyright: © IWM.

On the home front, it wasn’t different. While men were away at war, women took up men’s jobs and not only endured them but perfectly managed them and sometimes even excelled in them.

Upsetting as it might have been, there was no going back from this experience. Women might have been forced to leave the workforce and give back their jobs to men, they might have been pushed into their old housekeeper role, but they now knew what they could do, because they have done it. 

In the dark years of WWI, women have found a different voice, a different vocabulary, therefore a different way to express themselves. After the war, that vocabulary didn’t disappear. Women found a new way to express themselves through their look, their sensuality, their aspirations, and yes, also their political demands. 

And slowly, society started to listen.


Among the new ways women expressed themselves, the most upsetting for society was their new sensuality.

Doris Zinkeisen, 1929 (Harold Pierce Cazneaux)
Doris Zinkeisen, 1929 (Harold Pierce Cazneaux)

Thanks to the development of contraception methods, to the new familiar expectations, and to a new companionate relation with their man (if not real equality yet), the position of women inside a couple changed very much. Alarmingly so, for many sections of society. 

The new women wanted to explore their sensuality and their desires, just like men. They wanted to have control of their bodies, and they wanted to decide about the steps in their life. Though marriage was still the final goal for many women (as well as for many men) the way to get there changed radically when the companionate couple became the norm, at least among young people.

Young men and women started to choose their partner, trying to attract the partner they sought by using their looks, which for women was a huge revolution. They started to share what they did in their spare time. They wanted to have fun together. 


The unbalance created by WWI actually proved to be a great opportunity for many minorities through the Western World. Maybe the more apparent examples were the African American community in the US and the Jewish community in Europe. 

The specific reasons why this happened are very different, but still in part resided in the same opening that a time of great destruction created. It also resided in the prosperity that for some time seemed to be enjoyed.

It was not going to last long. But the activity of these people would have a lasting influence on everyone who came after them. 


Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977

Kyvig, David E., Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940. How Americans Lived Through the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the Great Depression. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, 2002

Perrish, Michael E., Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1992


  • Kristin
    Posted April 6, 2020 at 05:43

    Art seems to have been a very important interpretor of a certain mood of the times. And some of the pieces are disturbing to me now 100 years later.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2020 at 11:19

      Yes, arts were extremely important in expressing the interwar year times, especially in Central Europe, I’d say. German art was particularly shocking, the tool of activist. And yes, most of it was distrubing in a way that still touches us today. It says somethign abtouthe way in which thos eartist touch the human soul, I suppose.

  • Shweta Suresh
    Posted April 6, 2020 at 10:13

    I have been watching The Downton Abbey series, and they have depicted how much life had changed for women post WWI. Though it came at a cost, things had taken a turn for the better.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2020 at 11:24

      You know? In spite of my love for the periode and in spite having heard only good things about the show, I still have to watch it. I really need to do something about it!

  • Debbie
    Posted April 6, 2020 at 10:41

    Again, an informative look into the post WW1 era.
    I’ve just watched an Amazon Prime series about Australian and New Zealander nurses who served in WW1, based on true stories, and yes they did suffer the same trauma as the men did. It’s called Anzac Girls.

    Debs from Everyday Delights with Dabelle’s Lockdown Adventures

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2020 at 11:25

      I haven’t seen the documentary, but I’ve heard about it, and only good things.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 6, 2020 at 13:27

    Such huge changes in so little time…makes me wonder if we are going through something similar right now. We are int eh twenties again, after all…

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2020 at 11:28

      Personally, I do think we are. This is the main similarity between 1920s and 2020s for me. The fact that things are changing so fast that we hardly have time and mind to adjust.
      It’s scary. But then I think, it was the same in the 1920s. People cried out that the end of the world was coming, that all values and traditions were lost. But it wasn’t like that. It was actually a time of great evolution, which became apparent only in the following decades.
      Maybe it will be the same for us.

  • Nilanjana Bose
    Posted April 6, 2020 at 14:34

    WWII let quite a few genies out of the bottle and never have they gone back in again…

  • Keith's Ramblings
    Posted April 6, 2020 at 14:37

    A time of change in more than just the arts. Another informative and interesting chapter.

    E is for..!

  • Anagha Yatin
    Posted April 6, 2020 at 17:03

    Its always heartening to see the women progress in every walk of life, shattering the glass ceilings they face. What is more interesting to see is that it all started a century back. I can feel the vibes of the women of that era when they realized their ability to do tasks that otherwise were done by men or dominated by men.
    I would be interested in knowing about the rise of African American and Jews post WWI. I hope that it will be covered in the posts to come.
    Great going Sarah!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2020 at 11:31

      The advancement of women is really one of the most interesting events of the 1920s. It was a sudden flame that then needed to be rekindled in the decades that followed, but it was all the same illuminating, in my opinion.

      I’ve wrote about African Americans and Jews before, especially on my Jazz Age Jazz series and the two Weimar series. I will touch on it later in this series, but not as extensively as I’ve done in the past. In case you want to have a look 😉

  • Frédérique
    Posted April 6, 2020 at 19:25

    Big events can provoque a lot of changes, a war, a virus attack…

  • msjadeli
    Posted April 7, 2020 at 02:37

    The painting you used, of the legless soldier, is haunting. Interesting post.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2020 at 11:33

      Otto Dix is an incredibly upsetting artist. Which is exactly what makes him great.

  • Birgit
    Posted April 7, 2020 at 06:10

    Otto Dix showed the ugliness of the people often in their exaggerated features and colours used. I like th use of the dog which almost always represented loyalty. I couldn’t help but think of Downton Abbey who did show this form of expression quite well. Yes, it is a popular tv show but a good one

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2020 at 11:35

      I still haven’t watch Downton Abby and so many of you have mentioned it. I really need to watch it.

      Otto Dix is an incredible artist. There s something special about him even in the environment of Expressionims and of the Avant Gardes. Cant’ say what it is, but his paintings and drawings alwasy move me.

  • Tasha Duncan-Drake
    Posted April 7, 2020 at 10:03

    It is amazing how turmoil brings with it some amazing things. Such a shame so much death was needed to bring about such insights into the expression of art and people.
    Virginia’s Parlour – The Manor (Adult concepts – nothing explicit in posts)
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Vampire Drabbles
    P.S. Apologies for being tardy in commenting, it was a bit mental yesterday running around trying to make sure everything was perfect for the podcast launch.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 7, 2020 at 11:36

      But then again, death is what forces us to face what really counts.
      Hey, how did the podcast go? 🙂

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 7, 2020 at 11:47

    Very informative!

    An A-Z of Faerie: Vila

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