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Flapper Fashion Ready to Roar at Mob Museum Exhibit

Five flapper myths to bust your notion of Roaring Twenties fashion as the UNLV Public History Project prepares to invade the Mob Museum.

Arts & Culture  |  Nov 7, 2016  |  By UNLV News Center
Alice Joyce

Alice Joyce was a silent-era film star and an icon of flapper fashion.

Editor's Note: 

"Ready to Roar: Women's Eveningwear in the Prohibition Era," a project curated and installed by UNLV Public History Program students runs through Jan 6 at the Mob Museum. On Nov. 18, the Mob Museum will host a special exhibit viewing and reception from 6 to 9 p.m. This story, by Evan Casey, originally appeared in modified form on the Ready to Roar website

Cloche hats, beaded dresses, fur wraps, or jeweled compacts — a woman need not qualify as a “flapper” to have such fashionable, widely produced items during Prohibition.

Ready to Roar, which features evening fashions of the Prohibition era, is a collaboration between the Mob Museum and the Public History program of the UNLV History Department. This project also brings together several regional museums including the Clark County Museum, the Nevada State Museum, and Death Valley National Park.

Ready to Roar is a temporary exhibition at The Mob Museum running through Jan. 6. Ready to Roar features clothing, cosmetics, accessories and other artifacts of fashion from the years 1919 to 1933 to illustrate the culture of Prohibition-era America.

The common image of the flapper in popular culture —fringe, beads and a bob haircut — is widespread, but also an oversimplification. However, our misconceptions can illuminate realities of the past while exposing the subjectivities of the present. Here are a few common myths to help separate fact from flapper fiction:

Myth 1: The flapper came from the 1920s.  

In retrospect, it is easy to imagine the flapper springing from the booze poured into the gutter in January 1920, but the historical record shows she was a long time coming. Many hallmarks of the flapper silhouette predate the 1920s. Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, American culture saw an increase in the importance of health. The sports and youth culture that developed from this shift dramatically changed society, as well as the way women dressed. The S-shape corset was discarded, and changes in hemlines and tailoring increased range of motion as the 20th century matured. By the time speakeasies became the social hotspot, women’s attire had accommodated their ability, and desire, to kick up their heels.

Myth 2: Her skirts were short.

Not by our standards. "Short" needs to be understood relatively. Hemlines rose to under the knee in the mid-1920s, but returned to the floor by the '30s. War rationing in the late-'30s and '40s had more of an effect on exposing women’s knees than the liberated era in which they earned suffrage. There was substantially higher body exposure — or the implication of it. Legs, arms, cleavage, and backs became more publicly visible. Sheer fabrics that implied flesh, and layers that allowed multiple levels of modesty became common. (Both of which are staples in modern fashion.)

Myth 3: Her morals were loose.

Don’t talk about your great-grandmother like that. It’s unkind.

We cannot prove that flappers had more sex than their predecessors. What we do know is that they had more opportunity for pre-marital sex, as well as an increasing knowledge of contraceptive practices. The chaperone died at the hands of dating as heterosocializing changed the way the sexes interacted during Prohibition. Automobiles carried young adults away from parental eyes to socials, petting parties, sporting events, and theaters, while Hollywood productions portrayed, and simultaneously manufactured, this modern courting culture.

Myth 4: She was monolithic.

As in today’s world, the experiences of women in the early 20th century were diverse. From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional enigma Daisy Buchanan, to Parisian stage sensation Josephine Baker, and biting social commentator Dorothy Parker, the flapper is the culmination of them all. The flapper was the result of 80-plus years of women’s increasing involvement in the social sphere — politically, economically, and academically. Thinking about the flapper as a person erases her nuance; she is a style, a state of mind.

Myth 5: She was a flash in the pan.

Hardly. Baz Luhrmann’s reboot of "The Great Gatsby," HBO’s "Boardwalk Empire," BBC’s "Downton Abbey" — our taste in television and movies alone demonstrates this is a fallacy. As during the Prohibition, screen fashion is simultaneously shaping and being shaped by current trends. Elements of flapper style has cropped up throughout the 20th Century — '50s A-line, '60s mod, most of the '70s, Kate Moss’s career — as fashion is cyclical. So what is the most enduring element of flapper fashion? I would argue it is the most ubiquitous: stylish pants on women.