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Billy Marino - November 14, 2016

The opening of the 1967 Thoroughly Modern Millie was accompanied by antique 1920s cars and patrons attending in full flapper fashion.

How do we remember history? How does that memory reflect our present?

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

As F. Scott Fitzgerald penned these final lines of his classicThe Great Gatsby, he captured the nostalgia that was pervasive throughout the 1920s. Much of popular fashion and culture was the result of the appropriation of global cultures. From Orientalism and Egyptian Revival, to the “Charleston,” many American trends looked backwards for the cues to move forward. While the “Jazz Age” took steps to break some cultural barriers, such as the newfound sexual freedom for women, it also looked back and romanticized previous decades for their seemingly ideal forms of culture. The historian Lynn Dumenil wrote, “many Americans of the 1920s embraced both enthusiasm for progress and nostalgia for a perceived simpler past.”

Since that now famous decade marked by prosperity and cultural barrier breaking, Americans have looked back fondly as the age of the “flapper” became a nostalgic memory. It is often described as “strange, fantastic, and appealing,” and even the “era of nonsense.” This cultural representation is especially seen in film, where some portrayals attempt to achieve historical accuracy while others focus on the social atmosphere. Films such as Some Like It Hot (1959) played on the gender-bending roles of some flapper actresses, such as Clara Bow, while portraying a crossdressing male flapper. Thoroughly Modern Mille (1967), also touched on gender roles, but the film largely turns its attention toward the other common theme of the 1920s: organized crime. Many movies and shows, such as Bugsy Malone(1976), The Cotton Club (1984), Chicago (2002), and Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014) portray the flapper through the lens of the mob. These examples alternate between showing the flapper as a damsel in distress or as a strong, independent woman. Such depictions exemplify the difficulty of portraying a complex cultural trend in a neat, nostalgic package.

Recent examples provide the most interesting iterations of the flapper. I may be biased, but I am a product of my time, and that is the point. The most recent creation, The Great Gatsby(2013), prioritizes the cultural atmosphere of the era over historical accuracy and in the process modernizes the look of the flapper. The outfits often display the wrong hemlines or cuts, but they capture the feeling that defines the era, and help the film to resonate with modern audiences. This same reinterpretation of the flapper’s look can be seen in a recent episode of Doctor Who, “Mummy on the Orient Express” (2014), where the Doctor’s companion Clara wears a fitted low-cut dress complete with a cropped coif as opposed to the boxy dresses that exemplified the era.

Midnight in Paris (2011) best captures the fond way we regard the Jazz Age. Though it is set in Paris, it focuses on transplant American literary figures of the period, from Hemingway to the Fitzgeralds, and more importantly, it captures the feeling of our conceptualization of the decade. Similar to the way The Great Gatsby displays the era’s freedom of expression by modernizing the clothing, Midnight embodies the simplified essence of what is referred to as the “golden age,” while also challenging our interpretation of it as so ideal. The main point of the movie is how “golden age nostalgia” romanticizes the past, often at the cost of the present, and by the end, we realize that the characters of the 1920s looked back with fondness to their own simplified past. The lesson here is not that we should not regard our own shared past with fondness, but it is important to remember that the past is as complex as our present.


Clemente, Deirdre. “The Great Gatsby’s Fabulous Betrayal of 1920’s Fashion,” The Atlantichttp://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/05/-i-the-great-gatsby-i-s-fabulous-betrayal-of-1920s-fashion/275664/

Dumenil, Lynn. “Foreword: Reinterpreting the 1920’s,” OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 21, No. 3, Reinterpreting the 1920s (Jul., 2007), pp. 5-6.

May, Henry. “Shifting Perspectives on the 1920’s,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Dec., 1956), pp. 405-427.