Yep, the Roaring Twenties roared in urban China as well as in the Western world. I was browsing through a really nice antiques store in Williamsburg, VA, recently and came across these restored furniture pieces. For some reason, they screamed “Shanghai” to me, so I asked the owner what they were and I was right! (That doesn’t happen very often.) These came from Shanghai and they date from the 1920s. The buyer thinks they are hotel furniture from that period. Aren’t they cool?
On July 21, 1925, the same day as the St. Petersburg, FL, newspaper headlines featured the John Scopes trial (he was found guilty of teaching evolution in a Kentucky science class), there was also an article on the latest flapper fad: painted knees.
“What is more appealing to the eye than a hand-painted knee? The answer, of course, is two hand-painted knees. And the world may expect from now on to see Flapperia’s dimpled knees exhibiting a painted pansy or a bleeding heart, or any other design of their choice.
This painting of the epidermis in the region of milady’s knees is predicted and advocated by Mrs. Ruth J. Maurer, beauty culture expert who has brought the question up for the approval of 500 beauty specialists meeting in Chicago. ‘It is an odd and beautiful fashion,’ Mrs. Maurer declares. ‘Hand-painted pictures on the knees are intriguing. Some of the designs are simple, some elaborate. Some girls prefer a flower or a group of blossoms of startling colors. Others like a portrait or a little landscape.”
I have my doubts as to how popular this was . . . I found only one image online that showed painted knees (and these, as you can see, are actually painted shins). Still, I think I’ll make a brief mention of this in the mystery I’m currently writing. Nothing big, maybe just a line where Jessie notices someone in New York with painted knees. If it happened anywhere, it would have happened in New York!
Here are some photos readers submitted:
I use photos of people and places taken in the 1920s to help me describe clothing, hairstyles, and locations, indoors and out. One thing I’ve noticed is how much our ideas of beauty have changed in the past hundred years. These pictures of the first few young women to be named Miss America illustrate my point. The first thing I noticed is that these girls are not stick-thin and top-heavy; they are, well . . . rather normal in shape. Check out the following photos of Miss Americas in the Roaring Twenties. These are all attractive women, but I doubt any of them would win a beauty pageant today.
Here’s the first group of contestants for the Miss America title in 1919:
I noticed the early Miss Americas didn’t bob their hair. Probably seemed too flapperish, too risqué, not enough Girl Next Door wholesome.
Miss America 1925
I was in Florida this week on a mini-vacation to Captiva, an island off the Gulf Coast near Naples and Fort Myers. While there, we visited the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island–kayaked through the mangroves with a guide full of information, hiked a couple of short trails, and rode the scenic, 4-mile road through the preserve. At their information center, they have an excellent, small exhibit and that is where I learned something I can use in my Roaring Twenties books.
By the early 1900s, demand for plumes for ladies’ hats had almost wiped out rookeries along Florida’s coasts (not to mention other areas of the country). Birds were slaughtered by the millions for their feathers which were used to decorate ladies’ hats all over the world. One example: “In 1902, the London market sold 1,608 packets of plumes which required killing 190,000 egrets.” Then came the Roaring Twenties and a sea change. What happened?
The bob. That new, shocking, short haircut that swept through America (and much of the Western world) in the late 1910s and 1920s created a demand for cloche hats. Heavily plumed hats were no longer the fashion, and the demand for birds’ plumes plummeted. The bob contributed mightily to the preservation of birds all over the world.
Check out these “before and after” illustrations from Sears catalogues from the 1910s and 1924.
I recently got this short (48 minutes) movie from Netflix, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” filmed in 1976 and starring Shelly Duvall. It is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and, like much of this other work, concerns rich people in the 1920s. Bernice is visiting her cousin Marjorie for the social summer. Bernice is an old-fashioned girl–dull–all she can talk about is the weather. The boys don’t want to dance with her at parties. Marjorie complains to her mother that Bernice is ruining her summer. Bernice overhears and asks Marjorie to help her become popular.
“I could do it in 2 days,” says Marjorie, and she starts with conversation skills. Primed to be more outgoing, Bernice announces at a party that she is going to bob her hair. This is a shocking idea. No one thinks she’s serious. But when she is goaded into it by Marjorie, who has become jealous of her cousin’s newfound popularity. Everyone troupes down to the barber shop to see if she will do something this daring.
The barber is shocked at the request, saying he’s never cut a woman’s hair. No surprise there–no one back then has been trained to cut a woman’s hair. Women didn’t cut their hair. But he does it, rather badly. And the consequences backfire on Marjorie. Reminds me of “Mean Girls.”
Good, short flick. Fitzgerald skewers the manners of the idle rich, feminine competition, and gives us a surprise ending. It was published in 1920, when bobbed hair was really quite scandalous. Long hair, a woman’s “crowning glory,” represented virtue and respectability; bobbed hair was synonymous with sin and immorality. By 1925, enough women had bobbed their hair so that it wasn’t quite as horrifying, but at the time this story takes place, Bernice was doing something few women dared. Interestingly, Fitzgerald seems to disapprove as well, because Bernice turns out much less attractive after she bobs her hair and the boys all lose interest.
If you’d rather read the short story than watch it, click here.
On Nov. 14, I gave this talk at the Virginia Historical Society as part of their Downton Abbey exhibit, “Dressing Downton.” My presentation was titled Weird-but-True Things Most People Don’t Know about the Roaring Twenties. The VHS always records its speakers, so if you’d like to hear/see it, just click on the title. It’s a light, but serious, lecture that lasts 40 minutes (plus a Q&A). In it, I share some of the surprising things I learned during my research for my Roaring Twenties mystery series, things I have incorporated into my novels.
I have several fashion books that help me when I need to describe a male character’s clothing, the best of which, in my opinion, is American Costume 1915-1970. I don’t aspire to give long descriptions, because I think such things detract from the action, but whenever I can use clothing to give a sense of the era (1926), I do.
When my male characters are working, they wear suits: sack suits with straight lines, wide lapels and wide padded shoulders. That alone should give a dated image. For variety, I use double-breasted jackets, which were popular. Trousers were full, even floppy, and often pleated. The width of the bottom could be as much as 24 inches!
For casual, sporty dressing, young men liked pullover sweaters and knickers were popular. In one scene in Silent Murders, Douglas Fairbanks is playing tennis with Charlie Chaplin at Pickfair, and I have the men dressed accordingly. Pictures like this one help a lot! (Douglas is holding the tennis racket; Charlie is clowning around, as usual. Here’s what I wrote:
A shout from below signaled the end of the tennis match, and fifteen minutes later, Douglas Fairbanks and his best friend, Charlie Chaplin, sauntered up to the patio, no longer dressed in tennis whites but sporting linen knickers, trim V-neck sweater vests, and matching bow ties, and still arguing amiably about the score. (from Silent Murders)
I don’t go into men’s hairstyles much in my mysteries, because the subject is such a turn-off to today’s reader. Why? Because men usually parted their hair or combed it back in a pompadour, or both, and to hold this look, they used liberal amounts of hair oil, Brilliantine, or Vaseline. Yuck!
Here are some examples:
If you are interested in the Roaring Twenties, you are probably enjoying Downton Abbey now, as am I. I’ve been asked on several occasions if I am inspired by the magnificent costumes that they wear. While I admire the costumes very much, the answer is “no.” There are too many differences between my fictional characters and the fictional characters in Downton Abbey.
My Roaring Twenties series is based in 1925 in the United States; Downton Abbey is, obviously, in England and moves from 1912 through the 1920s. However, time and geography aren’t the problem. High fashion styles and fabrics crossed the Atlantic quite easily, as they had since the colonial era. The problem is that the women of Downton Abbey are wealthy and titled; my female characters are lower middle class at best and could never have afforded–or even seen–the sort of clothing the Crawley family wears.
One of my real characters, movie star Mary Pickford, could conceivably afford such clothing and no doubt did dress in European-designed clothes similar to the Crawley women, so for her, I guess I can consider the program a good source of information. Not for the others.
Back in 2010 I visited the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum where I went to the gems and minerals hall to see the Hope diamond. I was surprised to see in a nearby exhibit the Star of Bombay, an enormous blue star sapphire that was given to Mary Pickford by her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. It came to the Smithsonian in 1981 after Miss Pickford’s death. (She died in 1979 at the age of 87.) The gem was discovered in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), which made me wonder why it isn’t called the Star of Ceylon . . . but never mind. It consists of 182 carats. Unbelievably, when Mary Pickford owned it, the stone was set in a ring. I cannot imagine how tiny Miss Pickford could have worn such a thing and still lifted her hand.
I was remembering this last weekend while ruminating over possible plots for the fifth in my Roaring Twenties series. I needed a subplot to work alongside the main story and was thinking about jewel theft, something I haven’t touched on in previous books. All at once, I remembered the Star of Bombay at the Smithsonian and decided this would work beautifully. The story takes place in New York while Douglas and Mary are visiting on business, and I think I’ll have someone steal Mary’s huge ring. I am not 100% positive she owned it in 1926–nothing I could find tells me when Douglas gave her the jewel–but I’m going to assume she had it by 1926. After all, by 1930 their fairytale romance had lost its magic and they divorced a few years later.