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Let’s Party Like’s the Twenties!

It’s the Twenties again!!!!
OMG!!!! I’m so excited!!!

When I first fell in love with the Twenties some ten years ago, it never occurred to me that in only a few years they would be back. I mean, I knew they were coming, but I never realised. 

It is such a strange sensation to think that yes, it’s the Twenties again. 

It isn’t always easy to say why a historical writer favours an era over all others. I like a lot of other eras, but none of them ever inspired me to research in-depth like the Twenties did. Ten years ago, I actually started off thinking I would set Ghost Trilogy in the Thirties. It was while I researched that my interest shifted. 

I think that at first, what attracted me was the change. I’ve always been interested in stories of change and discovery, both as author and reader, and the Twenties were undoubtedly times of significant change, whether it persisted or not. I was (and am still) fascinated with the duality, the way old lifestyles and new coexisted, which was already not true anymore a decade later. It was the potential. So many things might have gone differently in the 1920s.

And I love the complexity. So much of what people think of the Twenties is imprecise, I’ve come to realise. There are more complexity and nuances under the surface than many people credit this decade for, and which I think many authors who write in this era don’t really look into. The Twenties is not just Prohibition, jazz and flappers. It isn’t just the end of the war and the rise of nationalisms. Yes, these are part of the Twenties, but there is so much more behind it.

THE GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY (US 1929)

One thing that struck me from the very beginning was how much the Twenties sound like us. So much of what those people were going through are mirrored in the challenges we are facing today. A century might have passed, but – beyond the superficial differences – a lot of the essence still remains.

Change

When I think of the defining characteristic of the Twenties, that is ‘change’. Of course, change happens all the time, but there are moments in history when it is particularly prominent. I think the Twenties were such time. 

Change during the Twenties didn’t just happen. It happened shockingly. The changes that occurred in the lives of people and in the behaviour of society were dramatic. Entire lifestyles and social practices were erased and replaced by entirely new attitudes, some of which might have been considered unacceptable only a decade earlier.
I think this is were so much of the excitement of the Twenties comes from. So much was new and up for discovery, so much was ‘surprising’. But I also think this is where the anxiety and the fears of this time also come from. Changes of that scale required a huge adjustment and not always people managed it successfully. 

Much of it involved the questioning of identity. The abandonment of the countryside for the city, the movement of people across countries and nations, the adjustment to a new world that was totally new and partially unexpected by all the generations who had come of age before WWI. All of these required a rethinking of a person’s place, role and values in the new world. But while they knew what they left behind, seeing what was ahead was far more difficult and certainly scary.

A totally new section of society emerged: youth. It brought about a widening in the generational gap as role models and values shifted. Children hardly spoke the same language as their parents anymore. Communication evolved in ways that the older generations had a hard time grasping. Role models were not found inside the family anymore, but outside, in the peer group, or even among famous people. The way men and women interacted evolved to the point that it became incomprehensible, when not downright worrying to the older generation. 

We generally consider these changes as good things today. They gave more freedom of expression to everyone. The horizon of expectation and the means to achieve them was expanded, especially for younger people. But all through the decade, many – and not just older people – looked onto these changes with a very preoccupied glance. There was a general feeling that the world as it had always been was dying and disappearing. What was replacing it wasn’t nearly as wholesome or comforting.

Photo of eagle with workers 1920s - North of England Civic Trust

Employment changed. Although real advancement would be achieved in the 1930s, the 1920s was the time when for the first time after the Industrial Revolution, people started to feel that work should be different. That there should be a limit to the hour one worked. That children shouldn’t be exploited in factories. Women had started to work in ‘men’s places’ during WWI, and in the 1920s it became more and more common and acceptable that they would work outside the house and could achieve a measure of independence.
The way people earned and spent money changed. For many layers of society, the 1920s were prosperous times. Therefore people were more inclined to spend, even on the new things that were created at this time. Comfort entered many houses. 

The Twenties was such a magmatic time that it’s no surprise that excitement and fear went hand-in-hand.

To a great extent, I think this is what’s happening to us today. It’s not always easy to grasp a change while it’s happening, but there’s no doubt that our society is changing at a pace that we have a hard time keeping. People are moving. Ideas are moving. Values and attitudes are shifting.
A part of us is still in the 1900s, but another is already in a future that we see only blurrily. And I do believe this is where so much of our excitement and our fears mingle together.

Women

One of the most apparent aspects of the Twenties is the changing role of women. In the 1920s, women not only changed their role, they changed everything about them: their looks, their behaviour, their language, their expectations. Women entered social spaces that were once reserved only for men.
This created a social imbalance that greatly preoccupied large sections of society. Not just the older generations, but also the young men who seemed to be so appreciative of this New Woman. It was all good and fun that these women were able to take part in men’s lives – as long as in the end they went back to housekeeping and childrearing. 

Newspapers and social commentators appreciated the women’s new freedom but were also quite preoccupied. Such a free woman had higher expectations and wanted to find her own fulfilment in life. She might end up abandoning her traditional role, which would, in turn, ruin the social and cultural fabric. There was a strong feeling that because women were allowed larger freedom, they would concentrate on themselves and their own desires more than on creating and caring about a family.

The role of women has changed again a few times over the past century, and I believe it’s changing once more now, with no less anxiety and even fear. And if it’s true that on the one hand, we shout, ‘At last!’, on the other it seems to me that a subterranean vein of worry, when not actual fear, still exists. 

It’s only in the last few years that ‘feminicide’ has emerged as a recognised crime. It happens when a man kills his woman, most of the times because he can’t handle her to decide about a life without him, or because he can’t handle her refusal, in any way when a woman asserts herself. When a phenomenon becomes so common that a new name needs to be coined for it, something very serious is going on, in my opinion. 

Technology

1920s telephonist
1920s telephonist

Technology advanced shockingly in the 1920s, radically changing the lives of everyone who could afford to get it. And it wasn’t just a change in house appliance or transportations, it was a change in the social behaviour of people. The change that cars brought about in courtship is one of the most well-known. While it may seem quite superficial, after all, it actually morphed what was acceptable in the relationship between a man and a woman. Quite an intimate shift, I daresay. 

Distances became shorter. Not just thanks to the car, but also to the telephone, which allowed people far away to talk to each other in real-time. Intercontinental travel became reasonably affordable, in terms of time investment as least. Films allowed sights of places that the viewer might never see in their life otherwise.
It was a huge widening of view.

Fashions and styles became global. 

The world shrunk considerably.

It is undeniable that this is happening once more and we might be handling this more poorly than our ancestors of one hundred years ago did. Technology is opening up so many new possibilities, but at the same time is taking away our identity and our ability to communicate, especially face-to-face. Sometimes I think that technology is evolving so fast that nobody can really keep up, not even the young people who have been born in this digital world. 

Let's Party Like's the Twenties! The Twenties Are Back! And there are so many similarities btween us and the Twenties of one hundred years ago #history Share on X

Diversity

Lupe Velez, Circa 1920s by Everett
Lupe Velez, Circa 1920s by Everett

The 1920s was a good time to be different. It was at this time that many minorities gained visibility and a bigger space of manoeuvring. Culture was often the ground where this happened. Music, with the revolution jazz brought about in America, was probably one of the more fertile meeting ground. Jews were among the most prominent creators of shows and literature of the time. And this just to make only two most obvious examples. 

Everyone who was different, especially culturally, became fascinating. There was a real craze about everything from Asia. Art Deco itself owns a lot to Japanese aesthetics and arts. Jazz was considered primitive and liberating and was as popular everywhere, it was listened to and played by everyone, although it was African Americans who created it. 

Yet this all needed to happen in a very stylised way. Inclusion was good, it was inspiring, liberating, but only when it was controlled. Today, we consider Primitivism, Orientalism, and other such attitudes to be negative, when not outright offensive, but they were deemed to be positive, even liberal back then. They were considered a way of inclusion.

But as minorities became more visible, they also became more dangerous. Taming through stylisation was not always possible. Diversity could also be a cause of contamination when it could not be controlled. 

So, if on the one hand, diversity was praised, on the other, it was feared. 

And isn’t it what is happening once more today? We praise diversity, but we tend to decide what diversity is and when it occurs in an acceptable way. When someone ‘different’ comes along uninvited, they immediately become ‘the others’. 

What about the 2020s?

The 1920s were difficult times in so many ways, but they were also exciting, groundbreaking times. They were brilliant times and also they were scary. 

They were contradicting times. In many ways, people who lived thought it felt that something was dying out forever, that life was not going to be the same again. Which not always was considered a good thing. And still, there were glimpses of a future that could be so much better for everyone. There were ideas and new inspirations that could make the world ahead better than the world behind.

I’m hard-pressed to describe our own times in a different way.

But you know, in spite of all the anxieties and the fears and the predictions of decadence and destruction, they came out of it alive. It was actually a pivotal time in so many ways. 

I expect the 2020s to live up to that expectation. 


RESOURCES

Inktank – Disruptive Decades: Technologies that revolutionised the 1920s
History – Flappers
Met Museum – Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress
Entrepreneur Europe – Which Job Would You Have Had in the 1920s? (Infographic)


Let's Party Like's the Twenties! - The Twenties are back! For a Twenties enthusiast like myself, this is the best of New Year promises. I love the Twenties, and this is why.

4 Comments

  • Kristin
    Posted January 1, 2020 at 14:53

    My grandparents were starting/raising families when 1920 rolled around. My parents and their siblings were too young to participate in anyway but as children. After reading your post, I am going to go look and see what was happening in my family that relates to the larger 1920s.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 23:53

      So happy you found the post inspiring, Kristin.
      I don’t have any of my grantparents left, but they woudl have been quite young in the 1920s. I remember that my granddad used to tell me how he saw The Jazz Singer, the first talky, when he was a young actor in Rome, but I think that was probably in the 1930s.

  • Birgit
    Posted January 2, 2020 at 22:28

    i enjoyed reading this post and you mentioned many revolutionary events that happened, positively, for women like getting the vote. No longer were corsets the way to dress and we could finally wear clothing that could breathe. Colleen Moore, Louise Brooks and Gloria Swanson all helped in fashion from the famous bob to the loose fitting dresses that you couldn’t wear a mere 10 years earlier. I think we will do just fine because we all have a voice.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted January 5, 2020 at 23:54

      I think the 1920s were revolutionary times for women, more than we tend to give them credit for.

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