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Living the Twenties: D,E,F

By Sarah Zama

Sarah Zama, @jazzfeathers on twitter and a writer of historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, did 26 blog posts in 2020 as an A-Z challenge on the cultural and political aspects of the 1920s over on her blog The Old Shelter. We're reposting these here as they talk about an area of History ripe for AH. Today we have the entries for D, E and F.

It is worth noting that an extended version of this series is available to buy.

Although Art Deco wasn’t a true style of Avant Garde art, it has many of the same characteristics. It was an innovative language, apt to describe the new world and the new lifestyle. It was very different from any artistic movements of the past, and it adopted the new language of mass production and industry. It also expresses a revolutionary idea: that art was for everyone, and it should be useful.

Art Deco was born in the years immediately following WWI, and it emerged from movements – especially Art Nouveau – already active before the beginning of the 20th century. It had its most prolific time in Europe in the 1920s then, as nationalistic movements opposed to all new forms of arts rose in the continent, Art Deco crossed the ocean and became the most popular form of creativity in America in the 1930s and 1940s.

At the base of Art Deco was the idea that art should be married to life. The artistic object should not just be beautiful to look at, it should also be useful. It should bring beauty to the life of the people who possess it.

To do so, it should be affordable.

While art in the past was accessible only to the wealthy and the upper classes, Art Deco artists taught that everybody should have a chance at acquiring art.

So they went about producing their art in a more modern way. These artists sought new materials that could be easier to get and delve into the new men-produced material (like bakelite, cement, glass) so to make art to a more accessible cost. For the same reason, they studied and applied the factory and industry processes to producing their objects.

The goal was to create objects that the creative mind imagined, the new market could produce and reproduce, and that would be useful in the actual life of the possessors.

It was a revolutionary concept of art, one that in a time where everything seemed possible and experimentation breathed into all fields of life, became incredibly popular and filtered into all aspect of arts and of life.

How Art Deco was similar to the Avant Garde

Art Deco sought a new language. Leaving behind the naturalistic representation of life, it embraced a stylisation of forms and colours and sought a very simple, streamlined look. It also broke with the past in its conception of art itself. Not a thing for the elite, but something for everyone. Art should be useful, then, because it should be used by true people who work and live.

In this sense, Art Deco was similar to the true Avant Gardes because it intentionally broke with the past to seek a new language, a new way to understand and to actually produce arts.

How Art Deco was different from the Avant Garde

In spite of these similarities, Art Deco was not really Avant Garde.

Firstly, Art Deco never had the social aspiration that vanguard movements had. Although it did seek to bring a renovation and an advancement in the life of people, that change didn’t necessarily involve social life, and therefore, it never became a political push and expression.

Secondly, Art Deco sough beauty in any created object. Avant Garde movements were more prone to deforming natural forms. Some of these movements, such as German Expressionism, were fascinated with illness and deformation. Almost all of the vanguard movements sought to shock the public with the use of strange, unusual forms or colours. Harmony, which was the goal of Art Deco, was only the least interest of the Avant Garde.

WWI was the great divide of the beginning of the last century. We often don’t appreciate what kind of caesura it was, especially in contrast with the century before. Life changed widely for all sections of society. The language changed too, trying to describe this new reality. All forms of expressions changed greatly.

But for some groups of people, this was truer than for others. In the magma of the post-war years, some social groups found a totally new possibility of expression.


All the arts went through a time of innovation and experimentation. Even the way arts were understood changed completely. No more necessarily the realm of all that is beautiful and harmonic, the arts became a workshop for the language and expression. It became maybe the most important, more accessible field where the new reality was discussed and dissected.

Through the arts, it was possible to discuss subjects that were normally considered taboo, like the changing sexual mores, the effect of the war on the human mind and soul, new political stances.

Because the arts approached these subjects inside a society that was actually trying to ignore them (because they were fearful), almost all the new arts adopted an extreme language. And the new language sometimes spilt into the new media of cinema and even advertisement.


Women might have been a new race, so different was their roles as they emerged from WWI.

Many women served in WWI. They were nurses and ambulance drivers. Although they did not take part in the actual battles, they often experienced the same physical and mental stress than any soldier. They, who had been considered too gentle and delicate for any hard job in the Victorian times, endure – like men – the industrial destruction of WWI.

On the home front, it wasn’t different. While men were away at war, women took up men’s jobs and not only endured them but perfectly managed them and sometimes even excelled in them.

Upsetting as it might have been, there was no going back from this experience. Women might have been forced to leave the workforce and give back their jobs to men, they might have been pushed into their old housekeeper role, but they now knew what they could do, because they have done it.

In the dark years of WWI, women found a different voice, a different vocabulary, therefore a different way to express themselves. After the war, that vocabulary didn’t disappear. Women found a new way to express themselves through their look, their sensuality, their aspirations, and yes, also their political demands.

And slowly, society started to listen.


Among the new ways women expressed themselves, the most upsetting for society was their new sensuality.

Thanks to the development of contraception methods, to the new familiar expectations, and to a new companionate relation with their man (if still short of real equality), the position of women changed very much inside a couple of years. Alarmingly so, for many sections of society.

The new women wanted to explore their sensuality and their desires, just like men. They wanted to have control of their bodies, and they wanted to decide about the steps in their life. Though marriage was still the final goal for many women (as well as for many men) the way to get there changed radically when the companionate couple became the norm, at least among young people.

Young men and women started to choose their partner, trying to attract the partner they sought by using their looks, which for women was a huge revolution. They started to share what they did in their spare time. They wanted to have fun together.


The unbalance created by WWI actually proved to be a great opportunity for many minorities through the Western World. Maybe the more apparent examples were the African American community in the US and the Jewish community in Europe.

The specific reasons why this happened are very different, but to an extent both can be attributed to the opportunities that a time of great destruction created and the new found confidence of people who had been able to act as soldiers for their country. It also resided in the general prosperity that for some time seemed to be enjoyed.

It was not going to last long, and it did not come unchallenged, violent reactionary repression would target both communities. But the activity of these people would have a lasting influence on everyone who came after them.

The fashion of the 1920s is one of the most recognizable elements of that decade. Women’s fashion changed most drastically but men's styles also changed.

The most apparent characteristic of 1920s fashion was the trend towards making movement easier.

In the case of women, Dresses became lighter and layers of the clothing were lost, to make space for a far more essential cut. But even in the case of men, the cut of the clothes became more comfortable and allowed freer movements.

The ideal of the young woman in the 1920s was the flapper, who dressed scantily with skirts above knee level and short sleeves thus uncovering vast (as was perceived at the time) parts of her body. She also cut her hair like men’s. In Europe, especially in Germany, the New Woman didn’t shy away from actually dressing in what had previously being viewed as men's clothes.

The ideal of the young men, especially in the US and UK, was the collegiate. The young man that went to college in numbers never seen before had their own style, clean-cut and comfortable, which, was then adopted, even by young men who never went to college.

Industrial fashion

The new ideal of fashion spread because young people practiced it, but also because the emerging film stars and the many magazines that became widely available popularised it.

Being a fashionable person, a flapper or a college boy, was expensive both in terms of time and money. Not everybody could afford it.

Still, everybody aspired to it, and many achieved it – or a very close version – because of the new mass market.

The mass production had allowed the prices to go down. Although there was, of course, a great difference in quality between the high production and the mass production, the last could produce at reasonable prices pieces of clothing that met the demands of the people who wanted to look like their ideals.

Adhering to a fashionable trend also meant to adhere to a way of life, to a philosophy. The way people looked in the 1920s became, less of a status symbol and more of a declaration of intents.


Makeup was maybe the great discovery of the 1920s fashion, and it was both a social and production innovation.

All through the 1800s, makeup was extremely unpopular. That was for a social stance, of course (everyone expected women to be clean, angelic and pure), but it had its root in a very practical reason: makeup was extremely harmful to the health. Up to the beginning of the 20th century, the production of makeup involved poisonous materials. The only women who were willing to use it were those who employed it for their profession, namely actresses and prostitutes.

But scientific advancement allowed companies to produce makeup that was safer to use. By the 1920s those producing processes became economical enough to offer products sellable to most layers of society.

The New Woman – but men too, who also used makeup – were quick to appropriate this new opportunity to express themselves in a new, adequately shocking way.

A global experience

While all of these changes chiefly happened in the Western World, they soon spread into many different cultures.

Several Asian cultures who had contacts and commercial exchanges with the Western World, adopted Western fashions, at least in their younger, wealthier sections. The Western look became quite popular in India, China and especially in Japan. This often went hand-in-hand with social criticism and a desire to change the society these youths lived in.

This attitude often led to accusations of a lack of patriotism and it represented a genuine difference in mindset. When Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian philosopher and anti-colonist, toured Chinese Universities in 1924 he lectured about the need to reclaim and revive the ancient traditions of Asia that had been lost to European colonisation. The reception he got was almost universally hostile from young Chinese students in western clothes who wanted modernisation and a Western type government in China and viewed ancient traditions with suspicion and as the reason for their country's weakness. Both Tagore and the students were patriots who wanted their own and other Asian countries to be stronger and free from western pressure, but they had very different ideas as to what that meant.


Sarah Zama writes historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s and blogs about the culture of that time period at The Old Shelter. An extended version of this series can be bought here.


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