The history of jazz is entwined with that of the New Woman.. They were in great part about the same things: freedom of expression, discovery and exploration. No surprise that many flappers were also ‘jazz babies’.
When jazz exploded, more or less when Prohibition took effect, flappers were ready to meet it.
In so many ways, jazz and flapperism express the same concepts. They were both about freedom of expression, an unashamed urge to give voice to people’s desires, even the ones that had been hushed up not so long before. They were about the fast life, the exploration of life, even in unexpected ways. They were both about modernity and leaving the past behind to embrace a new reality.
Although jazz was born inside the African American community, by the 1920s, it exploded in the society at large, fueled by the underground culture of the speakeasy.
Speakeasies were technically outlawed places since the Prohibition law was egregiously broken every second there. And yet, people of all walks of life visited and enjoyed speakeasies.
For flappers, the speakeasy was a totally new environment where she could do totally new things. Before Prohibition, women and men would not enjoy the same establishment. Bars and saloons were male places. Only disreputable women would frequent them.
But the speakeasy became a place where rules didn’t matter, and so men and women mixed on the dancefloor as well as among the tables. Women danced wildly, flirted, smoked – all things that were unthinkable before Prohibition. In the smoky atmosphere of the speakeasy, filled with jazz music, the New woman could at last express herself fully, if only for a night.
Jazz gave space to a surprising number of women.
Some blueswomen became exceptionally popular, and many of them embodied the ideals of the New Women.
These women lived their lives freely, in both action and words. Their song often spoke of female emancipation and freedom of expression. Blues song often spoke of free love, in all its expression. And maybe more than the average New Woman, blueswomen understood the boundaries around them and found a way to make them work for them. Just like flappers, blueswomen were harshly criticised. Their independence passed for something else, and they were almost always objectified. In short, their power was cheapened for fear they could gain even more.
Most blueswomen were true activists. They didn’t just buy into the looks of the New Woman.
But not all women involved with jazz and blues were singers. Many were musicians or songwriters. A good number were band leaders. These were women that, like true New Women, stepped into a male space and made it their own, finding success in it.
Jazz Babies and the mass culture
The New Woman was, from the beginning, an object of attention for the market. She became very early a magazine image (in fact, the Gibson Girl was born on magazines) and all through her historical arc, advertising gave her special attention.
The 1920s flapper became ubiquitous in all the media of the time. Magazines published articles specifically for her. Newspapers debated about her meaning, her strength and her flaws. And both carried advertisements where the image of the flapper was prominent. Films and novels often featured flapper girls.
There was no shortage of representation of the flapper anywhere.
This image was used to sell goods and items to flappers themselves, and most of these items related to jazz. Evening frocks, makeup, dancing shoes: All of these weere ‘necessary’ for a night at the club. Like all youths, flappers would also buy records and the equipment to listen to them.
In so many ways, jazz and flappers followed the same trajectory – and had the same destiny. As the Roaring Twenties faded into the Great Depression, jazz and flappers faded too.
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
Chapman, Erin D., Prove It on Me. New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 2012
The Influence of Jazz on Women’s Fashion and Society in the 1920s by Nicolas H. (PDF)
The Bee – Women’s liberation, and the music of the Roaring 1920’s
CovalentLogic – The Flapper’s Rebellion: Jazz and Women’s Liberation
Students of History – Flappers and Jazz During the Roaring 20’s
University of Minnesota Duluth – Jazz and Women’s Liberation