The New Woman and her counterpart, the New Man, were post-war products of a decade of many names. The 1920s were The Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, and Les Années folles, the crazy years. Each name has a slightly different connotation: the Jazz Age is obviously about the international debut of American music, imported to Paris via the African-American soldiers during the Great War; the Roaring Twenties often had the connotation of the stock market and economic prosperity, particularly in America, and the crazy years applied to Paris where the world of genders and norms were turned upside down. There was, of course, another melancholy term floating around these ten years, the “Lost Generation,” which broadly refers mainly to men who “lost” their place in society after they returned from the war. Their “place seemed to be taken by women, liberated by the war, relishing the newly discovered freedoms in absence of men, who were at the Western Front and the Eastern Front, on the high seas and in the hostile air, risking their lives. Having been heroes, these men found it difficult to reenter civilian life and the novels of Ernest Hemingway, for example, told tales of their struggles with readjustment to a world that had simply left them behind. 

For those who were younger or less harmed, the 1920s were a time to celebrate simply being alive. As Mary McAuliffe explained in her book, When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends: “Yet whether viewed as crazy, foolish, savage, or frenzied, these years flaunted a particularly unabashed rawness and boldness that formed the essence of the postwar modern movement that Parisians already were calling l’esprit nouveau. This “what the hell” attitude that underlay so much of the postwar decade, whether in Paris or elsewhere, was a distinctly urban and upper-class phenomenon. Farmers trying to resurrect their war-torn fields, or small-town tradesmen trying to reestablish their occupations and their lives, did not have the time, money, or inclination for such foolishness. Demobilized soldiers had families to support and work to do. Fortunate were the ones who were not wounded, or who did not carry the psychic scars of war. But for those fortunate enough to have money and leisure, it became the height of fashion to be witty, decadent, and bored. Looking for distraction, everyone who could— whether rich Americans, exiled Russian aristocrats, or millionaires from any number of locations— came to Paris. There they could mingle in endless parties and late-night jazz clubs, indulging in a heady mix of booze, drugs, and sex. The British journalist Sisley Huddleston, who witnessed a good share of these chic encounters, called it the “Cocktail Epoch,” 1 and indeed, the free flow of liquor was a definite attraction, especially for those Americans escaping Prohibition back home. But the absence of puritanical constraints covered far more than simply alcohol. Couples could uncouple and recouple without concern for what Aunt Madge might say, since Aunt Madge was far away in Dubuque, and their Parisian friends and neighbors simply did not care.”

Certainly there was, in some capitals, such as Paris and Berlin, a great tolerance for homosexuals and lesbians, ethnic and color differences, an open mind for new forms of music, dress, dance, and art, there was also widespread negative reactions to the overwhelming surge of social change, especially when it came to women. As this chapter will discuss, after the Great War, a new kind of woman was created, with an appearance and demeanor that was unfamiliar and, in many quarters, unwelcome. Conservatives in all nations reacted strongly to this New Woman, the Flapper, the Garçonne–she went, like the decade–by many names. This defiant and difficult to control woman who drove cars, smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, danced vigorous dances in scantly costumes, flashing her legs and bearing her arms were a scandal to the keepers of cultural law and order. Histories tell of this new female as if she were inevitable but, in reality, becoming this liberated woman required many personal acts of bravery. Women went against the wishes (or orders) of parents and husbands to remake themselves and were, more often than not, met with resistance. Their attempts to become “modern,” to redesign themselves as women of the twentieth century were viewed as moral failings that merited punishment. The famous short story, “Berenice Bods Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald is not an uplifting tale of freedom found but a moralizing tale of the dangers following fashion. The story is deeply ironic, given that Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were the “it” couple of the Jazz Age and she was the ultimate Flapper. This excerpt from “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” by Fitzgerald, was published in Saturday Evening Post (1920) and was included in Flappers and Philosophers of the same year, his first book of stories. In this story, hoping to be popular, a young woman is dared to cut her hair. The only available place to cut women’s hair was the local barber shop. At this time, barbers were not only hostile to women in their domaine but were also inexperienced in cutting their long hair. As the disastrous end of the tale illustrates, even if well-intentioned, the barbers would have no idea of how to style a woman’s hair.

With her chin in the air she crossed the sidewalk, pushed open the swinging screen-door, and giving not a glance to the uproarious, riotous row that occupied the waiting bench, went up to the first barber. 

“I want you to bob my hair.” 

The first barber’s mouth slid somewhat open. His cigarette dropped to the floor. 

“My hair–bob it!” 

Refusing further preliminaries, Bernice took her seat on high. A man in the chair next to her turned on his side and gave her a glance, half lather, half amazement. One barber started and spoiled little Willy Schuneman’s monthly haircut. Mr. O’Reilly in the last chair grunted and swore musically in ancient Gaelic as a razor bit into his cheek. Two bootblacks became wide-eyed and rushed for her feet. No, Bernice didn’t care for a shine. 

Outside a passer-by stopped and stared; a couple joined him; half a dozen small boys’ noses sprang into life, flattened against the glass; and snatches of conversation borne on the summer breeze drifted in through the screen-door. 

“Lookada long hair on a kid!” 

“Where’d yuh get ‘at stuff? ‘At’s a bearded lady he just finished shavin’.” 

But Bernice saw nothing, heard nothing. Her only living sense told her that this man in the white coat had removed one tortoise-shell comb and then another; that his fingers were fumbling clumsily with unfamiliar hairpins; that this hair, this wonderful hair of hers, was going–she would never again feel its long voluptuous pull as it hung in a dark-brown glory down her back. For a second she was near breaking down, and then the picture before her swam mechanically into her vision–Marjorie’s mouth curling in a faint ironic smile as if to say: 

“Give up and get down! You tried to buck me and I called your bluff. You see you haven’t got a prayer.” 

And some last energy rose up in Bernice, for she clinched her hands under the white cloth, and there was a curious narrowing of her eyes that Marjorie remarked on to some one long afterward. 

Twenty minutes later the barber swung her round to face the mirror, and she flinched at the full extent of the damage that had been wrought. Her hair was not curly, and now it lay in lank lifeless blocks on both sides of her suddenly pale face. It was ugly as sin–she had known it would be ugly as sin. Her face’s chief charm had been a Madonna-like simplicity. Now that was gone and she was–well, frightfully mediocre–not stagy; only ridiculous, like a Greenwich Villager who had left her spectacles at home..”

In America, Bernice and the young women like her would have been called a “Flapper,” in England, she would have been a “Bright Young Thing,” in Germany “die neue Frau.” Bernice would have many names but one definition: she was not her mother.  

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

11 + 7 =