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The Roaring Twenties


“Bounce up and down to the rhythm of the drums – keep going, don’t stop. Stick out your bottom, in a way that a tray wouldn’t fall off of it, while the belly helps to sustain your posture. Turn your feet in and out with every step, alternate between knock knees and bow legs, and keep in mind to move your knees in accordance with your feet.

Now move your arms easily to the rhythm or, depending on the figure, twist them and your legs in opposite directions. Then give your hands a good shake. And don’t forget to keep bouncing up and down! Twist your feet also when you crouch. Add a little more ecstasy – let your body swing!”

After the first song, I’m already all out of breath, beads of sweat run down my body, less than ladylike, and I’m miles away from being a true flapper. If only I’d known how hard it is to dance a Charleston! This dance, bursting with energy and extremely fast-paced with 50 to 75 beats per minute, originated on Broadway in the early 1920s. In Europe, it was popularized by the one and only Josephine Baker, and paved the way for every subsequent dance from Lindy Hop, to Swing or Rock’n’Roll.

I feel like a real clumsy chick, tripping over my own legs while dancing, so I set out to do some research on this dance – or rather: the spirit of the time – and discover many similarities with the present. However, the difference was that the ladies of the 1920s were much more cheeky, open-minded and courageous. After all, the entire emancipation of today is based on this part of history.


But let’s start with the parallels, and thus the ending of the 1920s:

The exuberance of the Roaring Twenties – the (r)evolutionary and explosive decade between the two World Wars – was like dancing on the volcano. Due to the Wall Street Crash and the resulting global economic crisis, the golden era came to a sudden end in 1929. What followed was the Great Depression.

Almost 80 years later on September 15th, 2008, a rumble was heard on the global financial market. One week later, the first fashion collection of the “Depression Chic” was showcased on the catwalks of Milan.

This serves as an explanation for clothes with a certain “chic”, the fringed dresses, glitter and boas on the hangers of our fashion shops. The graver the crisis, the stronger the longing for a nostalgic touch of glamour? Even rock veteran Iggy Pop sings to the sounds of Dixieland Jazz on his latest record.


Technical progress was booming: At first, people were drawn to the movie theatres by silent movies – for example with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Louise Brooks –, and already in 1926, Warner Brothers produced the first sound film. The movies became a mass medium and an affordable treat for Joe Average. Cinemas with up to 1800 seats were built in Berlin, in New York they had as many as 3000, and the biggest one even contained 6000 people. Between 1925 and 1928, John Logie Baird invented the first mechanically working television system and shortly afterwards the first colour TV set! The radio was invented, the first broadcasts were made (in Pittsburgh, USA, on November 2nd, 1920 and in Europe during the following year). A true revolution! In 1926, the phone was refined and further developed to mobile systems, while the first cheap compact cameras, for example from Minolta, came onto the market.

Let’s zoom to the present day: What would become of the “modern man” without internet, computers, mobile phones, TV, radio, cinemas, iPods or digital cameras? Hard to tell, but he would probably be very helpless.


The first mass productions in the automobile industry also began: 15 million vehicles of the Ford Model T, also known as affordable “Tin Lizzy”, were built between 1913 and 1927. In 1928, BMW promoted “my little Dixi”, the first women-friendly compact car. Already in 1921, the first motorway-like road in the world, the AVUS (Automobil-Verkehrs- und Übungs-Straße, “automobile traffic and training street”), was opened in Berlin.

Moreover, the aviation industry rapidly grew. In 1924, the first airport Tempelhof was inaugurated in Berlin and on May 20th, 1927, Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic Ocean (New York – Paris) flying solo. Thanks to the motorized locomotion, tourism came into being: cruises (Titanic & co.), train journeys (Orient Express), air travel (Zeppelin etc.) and car journeys – not everyone was able to afford such luxurious ways of travelling.

A look at the here and now: without cars, busses, subways, airplanes or other means of transportation, our lives would be unimaginable. And almost everyone can treat themselves to a little mass tourism.


Between 1918 and 1920, the Spanish Flu claimed more lives than World War 1. Worldwide, an estimated 20 to 70 million people fell victim to the pandemic!

Thank God that the momentarily raging Swine Flu doesn’t prognosticate such fearful rates. Achoo!


In 1921/1922, Charles H. Best and Frederick Grant Banting discovered  insulin. Shortly after, in 1928, penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming. Two milestones in medicine! No further elaboration needed.


The Lost Generation is depicted by masters like F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Ernest Hemingway, or D.H. Lawrence; the latter causes a scandal with his explicit sex description in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Art reinvented itself from Picasso to Miró and Dalí, Art Deco dominated the new design and architecture.

And the “art works” of these times keep influencing our lives.


Drugs were “trendy“: cocaine, heroin, opium, alcohol – the hard kind -, and cigarettes. The phenomenon of “drinking in order to get drunk” emerged – similar to the current adolescent binge drinking. In other words, nothing new there. Smoking bans today, and back then the prohibition, the ban on alcohol in the USA of the 1920s. Another similarity.


Well then, we have finally arrived at the topic that is of tremendous interest to me: the “new woman”. Women and prohibition, how so? At the beginning of the 20thcentury, women were fighting for equal rights and their right to vote. Mainly in Great Britain, but also in the US, the so-called organised suffragettes became more and more ruthless to achieve their aim and be enfranchised. Women took to the streets, protested, smashed windows and threw themselves in front of cars, if necessary. Were they to be detained for their vandalism, they continued to fight for their rights on hunger strike. Due to the lack of men during World War I, women assumed new responsibilities in society and the working world. In short: they became employed.


It was only logical that they should go back to the kitchen sink and vanish from public life as soon as the soldiers returned home after the end of war in 1918 – well, logical from a male point of view. However, it wasn’t that easy to banish the ladies from the newly conquered working world. They were rebellious, longed for a change, wanted more and at last equal rights. So smart American politicians introduced The Noble Experiment. The law on country-wide prohibition of alcohol came into effect on January 16th, 1920, and occurred almost at the same time as the commencement of women’s suffrage. On a related note, Sigmund Freud wrote beautifully about “The future of an Illusion” in 1927:


“The one who has taken sleep-inducing drugs over decades, naturally cannot find sleep when stripped from the medicine. That the effect of religious consolation may be likened to that of a narcotic is nicely explained by means of a process in America. There, they – apparently under the influence of women rule -  want to divest the people of all stimulants and intoxicants and oversaturate them in compensation with godliness. One does not have to be curious about the outcome of this experiment.”


All good for a moment, but women’s suffrage and the newly claimed political exertion of influence did not change common law, which continued to apply, still putting women under tutelage and pressuring them to comply with their husbands’ wishes after the wedding. For young women, there was nothing left but to force their way into the male domain: with shorter hair, a “pixie cut” or a “bob”, pimped with a feathered headband, expensive jewellery, pearls and a boa around the neck. They took off the corsets (responsible was fashion designer Coco Chanel, who also invented the “little black dress”) and squeezed their boobs flat with bras, wore short skirts and hanging dresses that set arms and legs free (comfort was essential) and underlined every little provocative movement of the female curves by means of fringes and sequins. They rode bikes and drove cars, possibly had a job and exercised. Fencing, boxing, javelin throwing and swimming (apropos: the first swimsuit was woollen and the still worn sneaker All Star was put on the market by Converse as early as in 1923. After all, the “new woman” needed adequate footwear for protest marches and sports!) were popular. They paid nightly visits to jazz clubs, put make-up on and kiss-proof lipstick like the movie stars, smoked with cigarette holders, provoked with wild dances, consumed alcohol illegally and dated men (and even went to petting parties!). These “new young women” were called flapper (just like a bird on his first attempt at flying or an agitated chicken). The flappers were rebellious, they no longer wanted to be “good girls”, they disregarded good behaviour, were cheeky, sassy and confident. In short: the prohibition caused the total opposite of what it was supposed to be. It was common to drink on the QT and the illegal alcohol was transported in hot-water bottles, false books and even caskets; ladies wore the flask in their garter. In the speakeasies, people came together to enjoy a high alcohol percentage drink, listen to the hottest jazz tunes and party in great profusion. Thus, the prohibition paved the way for criminal organisations. Agents were appointed to control the illegal smuggling of alcoholic drinks. The opposite was the case, though: The Mafia controlled the market, with Al Capone leading the way. (By the by: Al Capone was the first one to invest his illegal income in laundrettes, successfully evading taxes – thus the term “money laundering”!)


Thanks to the new means of communication, the fashion and spirit of the flappers and their "garçonne style” (Marlene Dietrich in a pants suit), jazz and the numerous inventions overflowed  in every big city, from New York to London, Paris and Berlin.


After having taken in all this information, I put to find myself in front of the mirror again, trying to feel the spirit of the 1920s flowing through my body. Thoughts are racing in my head: “A lot of things have changed for women in the last 80 years: They can have a job and go to college, some even become heads of state, they have birth control, more rights and sexual freedom…?

Yet, those women who decide to have children, mothers, whose work is the basis for the existence of our society, are still neglected. The lack of appreciation, too few rights and too little backup are responsible for the fact that more and more young women decide to have a career instead of children. For mothers (and housewives) very few things have changed within the last 80 years, they still draw the shortest straw in our society …  and don’t even bother to take to the streets in order to change that!”

I get angry. I put on the music and let off steam with all my might. My body trembles, my legs twist willingly to the rhythm of the Charleston, very sassy, I move my butt through the room, along the lines of “eat me, mommies can dance, too!”, and suddenly there it is, the spirit of the 1920s, and I’m feeling good.

Wicked – that’s the bees knees!