How flapper fashion freed woman

PARIS, Oct 18, 2007 (AFP) - From hair cropped short, to smoking cigarettes and making-up in public, the Roaring 20s revolutionised women's wear and lifestyles like no other era before, according to a show kicking off in Paris this weekend.


It was the decade that saw the rise of the fashion magazine, the mass production of shoes and cosmetics, the baring of the body and the birth of rayon stockings -- at first so shiny that women had to powder their legs.

As suffragettes cried out for the right to vote, a new androgynous silhouette surfaced on the fashion scene, turned out in mannish suits by day or flat-chested shifts by night, to dance the Charleston or listen to jazz.

"The spirit of the times was the emancipation of women and the female body," Sophie Grossiord, chief curator at Paris' Galliera fashion museum, told AFP ahead of Saturday's opening of "The Roaring Twenties, 1919-1929".

"They were exciting dynamic times," she said. "They set the stage for wear today."

As Picasso, Leger or Max Jacob took in the new Afro-jazz beat in their favourite Paris haunt and Gertrude Stein hung out with literary giants Ernest Hemingway or Ezra Pound, equally momentous creative change was afoot in the world of women's wear.

The exhibition, which runs until February 29, features 170 models and scores of accessories dished up by ground-breaking legacy-leaving designers of the time -- Paul Poiret, Jean Patou, Jeanne Lanvin, Perugia, Suzanne Talbot and Madeleine Vionnet.

With women in the post-war era shoving aside restrictive corsets and precision-moulded couture in the hopes of winning body freedom, the designers knocked out waists, brought up hemlines and all but suppressed the bust.

The result, in the cabaret heyday of Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier, was the loose dropped-waist shift worn to dance the Charleston, Fox-Trot or Blackbottom.

With the new straight flapper-style came short sleek hair -- a revolution after centuries in which a women's hair was supposed to be her crowning glory -- often crammed under a "cloche" hat pulled down over the eyes, meaning women had to to look up to see where they were going.

As hems went up, shoes became important. And as cosmetics took on, Chanel launched its No 5 in 1921 while in 1925 Guerlain produced Shalimar and Lanvin retailed My Sin.

The flappers smoked cigarettes, adopted pyjamas for lounging around at home, wore make-up, formerly associated with prostitutes, and at their most mannish and sexually unclear wore ties, suits, bowler hats and sported monocles.

The decade also marked the triumph of iconic 20s designer, Coco Chanel, whose easy-to-wear fluid jersey outfits in simple shapes and neutral tones were made for the comfort and ease of the new 20th century woman.

"The jersey outfits became a basic for women though jerseys until the previous decade had been used for sportswear," said Grossiord. "Women would wear these until 4 or 5 in the afternoon when they'd change for the evening."

Like today's big-name designers, the exhibition also highlights the influences of the age on fashion -- Art Deco prints and Egyptian and Asian touches following the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 or an exhibit on Angkor Wat.

A Poiret jacket was even made out of a Russian embroidered table-cloth picked up by the couturier during a journey.

To top off the show, the Roaring 20s are also to be the theme of a series of other cultural events in Paris this autumn and winter, including film, song and even a display of crystal from the times at the Baccarat museum.

by Claire Rosemberg

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