Looking back at the glamorous decade of the 1920s and the hardship that followed by Khaled Bazzi
In January of this year, Martin Sandbu wrote an article in the Financial Times drawing parallels between the post-pandemic world of 100 years ago and our current situation. “As the year turns, can we expect our century, too, to produce a Roaring Twenties?” he asked. Many pundits have explored this question. Like Sandbu, their answers reveal complexities about an era that still captures our imagination.
F Scott Fitzgerald is said to have called the 1920s “The most expensive orgy in history. His novel The Great Gatsby, a tale of wealthy, martini-guzzling characters, glitzy parties, ill-fated lovers, and the darker side of hedonistic excess, captured the decade perfectly. It was the time of Josephine Baker, the Charleston, flappers, speakeasies, jazz, bootleggers, rum runners and bathtub gin.
It was the era of Art Deco, a timeless decorative arts and architectural movement still influential today, and when fashion underwent a revolution: women traded boned corsets for sleek, embellished knee-skimming dresses with dropped waistlines, pleated skirts and cloche hats. Cinema star Louise Brooks popularised the bob haircut, Greta Garbo became the first androgynous style icon, and Coco Chanel invented the little black dress and the garçonne look.
Fitzgerald’s Gatsby has twice been adapted for the screen: first in 1974 with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford, then in 2013 starring Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio. Each film reignited a Jazz Age fashion craze. Award-winning stage musical Chicago, with its sexy dance routines, rousing Dixieland jazz, and storyline of murder and rivalry based on real events, has been riveting global audiences non-stop since 1996. Our love affair with the Jazz Age stands the test of time.
So what lies beneath the period’s glittery surface? A closer look reveals that what made the Twenties “roar” wasn’t just the ending of World War I and the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic – which took the lives of nine million, then 50-100 million people, respectively. While the close of these devastating events led to a renewed joie de vivre, credit goes to a more profound change: the dawn of our modern lifestyle. Some of the factors that contributed to the decade’s buoyancy include the growing use of electricity and automobiles. New technologies like telephones, radio and electrical appliances became more widely available thanks to the expansion of consumer credit. Meanwhile, killer diseases like tuberculosis, measles, and syphilis could finally be treated, and Marie Stopes’ campaign for sex education and birth control helped free women and shaped the modern idea of sex being for pleasure, not just procreation.
In the 2020s, beyond major progress in AI, we’re not yet on the cusp of such dramatic societal shifts, so it would be unwise to extrapolate a Twenties reboot based simply on the end of a pandemic. There is however one undeniable similarity with the 1920s: inequality. It wasn’t all feather boas and strings of pearls. Then, as now, disadvantaged communities were worst hit by the pandemic. In 1925 unemployment in Britain stood at two million, reaching 2.75 million by 1932. Despite some pessimistic forecasts of a rise in unemployment post furlough, let’s hope the Great Depression of the 1930s never makes a comeback.
A desire for a Roaring Twenties revival is understandable. If we’re going to project a vision of the future, shouldn’t it be an optimistic one filled with wild abandon and frivolity? Those of us who didn’t participate in Covid’s answer to the speakeasies – the illegal raves during lockdown – have been waiting patiently to lose our masks, possibly our pants too, and craving to let our hair down in ways we might never have imagined, had it not been for more than a year of restrictions.
We don’t need pundits to predict the certainty of parties galore once the pandemic ends. And whenever that longawaited time comes, I for one will be taking my cue from Chicago’s opening number, All That Jazz: “I’m gonna rouge my knees and roll my stockings down”. I mean that metaphorically, of course. For now, at least.