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Fashion and Gender Identity in the 1920s

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Caitlin Ritchey

on 19 April 2011

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Transcript of Fashion and Gender Identity in the 1920s

Fashion and Gender Identity in the 1920s Women in the 1920s began exploring their identities as “modern women” using fashion and appearance in a whole new way. After the Great War, gender roles and sexual identity were more fluid and in flux Women began to dress in a more androgynous way, adopting masculine clothing, and short hair. In some cases, such as that of the flapper, clothing wasn’t necessarily masculine, but it was shapeless and no longer emphasized their feminine shape to the same extent. The Modern Woman The cultural ideal of a curvaceous woman was going out the window, and being replaced with a “sinuous, smooth, simplified” one. The women after 1922 and their style were described as being all about the “young, sexy, independent ‘garconne’ or ‘femme modern’. Sarah Brand, a British journalist in 1894, coined the term. Brand used it in order to “describe the rise of a new class of women who were actively changing and challenging traditional notions of femininity." Introduction Sexuality and Cross- Dressing Social Status and Influence The Men Conclusions Clothing after World War I had a different meaning than it does now. We cannot assume that associations regarding clothing and same-sex desire exist, or we may misunderstand the masculine style of women in the 1920s. Primarily, research on the topic of gender identity and fashion in the 1920s discusses straight women who dressed as men without changing their sexuality, but it should be noted that a minority of women during this time were adopting masculine clothing and a lesbian lifestyle. Doan (1998) powerfully discusses our perceptions and the complex concept of cross-dressing when quoting, “Cross-dressing is about gender confusion. Cross-dressing is about the phallus as constitutively veiled. Cross-dressing is about the power of women. Cross-dressing is about the emergence of gay identity. Cross-dressing is about the anxiety of economic or cultural dislocation, the anticipation or recognition of "otherness" as loss. All true, all partial truths, all powerful metaphors” (p. 667). The majority of the women who initially embraced the androgynous movement were straight, however, and were of a certain class and country. They originated from England and America, in the context of feminist activism but also in conjunction with bohemian artistic circles and the rise of women's colleges and were most likely to belong to an elite social group. In fact, the role of social class played into the whole issue of having the freedom to express gender identity on many levels. We cannot eliminate the power that socially influential women had in easing this dramatic transition in fashion and self-expression. Especially in the beginning, these educated women were able to have their voices heard using theater and other media. This movement created extreme friction between some couples and families, as the men struggled to understand why the women in their lives were breaking away from everything known, and safe. In some cases men felt like their own place in society was being threatened and were angry, while in other cases, men embraced this new, boyish woman. There was even evidence that homosexual men at this time were, in a sense, relieved, because they were able to enjoy their fantasies of being with young men, while being in a socially accepted relationship with a woman. There are other documented cases of men locking up their daughters, sisters, or wives, when they dared to espouse this new lifestyle, particularly when they chose to cut their hair shockingly short. Women in the western world in the years surrounding World War I sought to create an identity for themselves using fashion that “respond[ed] to [their] personal aesthetic or [their] need for convenience” (Roberts, 1993, p. 662). These women wished to use fashion and appearance as a visible demonstration of female liberation, and to them, “gender fluidity was the name of the game, and masculine dress was one way to ‘usurp male privilege’” (Doan, 1999, p. 668). In some cases, sexuality played into a woman’s desire to appear more masculine, making lesbianism the root of a woman’s choice regarding appearance, but more often than not, the cross-dressing that occurred was an act of self-emancipation from the rigid constraints of what was considered appropriate attire for their gender, not an expression of sexual confusion. Women in the 1920s, in an unprecedented way, decided to break societal norms and dress to express, setting trends for androgyny and fashion expression that we still see today. "Once, Delilah emasculated Samson by cutting his hair. Today, she believes she can make herself virile by cutting hers." (Victor Marguerrite, 1922)
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