It used to be that I was incapable of appreciating the 1920s. It wasn’t just that the fashion wasn’t my jam, it was that it seemed like such a decadent time for no reason, that people were just intent on getting drunk and having a good time.
I think my ideas of the 1920s have undergone a bit of a transformation in the last year. Books like Villa America, and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald have opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the era.
Especially where women are concerned.
Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell provided me with an opportunity to read some non-fiction about badass women of the 1920s with my new attitude.
And I loved it.
Flappers looks at the lives and loves of Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald and Tamara de Lempicka.
What’s unique about this book is that it’s as much a historical account of the time as it is a biography of these women. We only get to see these women during the decade that would make them all famous. Once it’s 1930, Mackrell more or less walks away. She lets us know what happens to all of them, of course, but only their lives from 1920-1929 are scrutinized and laid bare.
Mackrell shows us how these women chose to live lives that were bigger than what they had all known. Josephine Baker was destined to be a young mother, trapped in the ghetto she was born in, hated by her mother for her beauty. Instead, she learned how to dance and lived a life in public in Paris, adored by thousands. Tamara de Lempicka’s family left Russia after the Revolution made it impossible for her class to stay. Finding herself in Paris with a husband who did not want to work, she decided to paint. Her work (a self-portrait is featured on the cover of the book) became incredibly fashionable, a bulwark of the Art Deco style.
Lady Diana Cooper, born and bred English nobility, became a nurse in the First World War and continued to throw off the mantle of the expectations of her class when she became an actress. Tallulah Bankhead also found fame on the silver screen – known to be an outrageous personality, she was unapologetic about her sex life.
Nancy Cunard, the Cunard Line shipping heiress, devoted her life to fighting racism and fascism, became the muse of some of the 20th century’s most distinguished writers and artists (Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and James Joyce to name a few), and became a style icon. And of course Zelda struggled to step out of the shadow of her more famous husband, pushing herself with her own writing and eventually finding a kind of peace in her dancing before a nervous breakdown relegated her to hospitals.
These women were complete and total badasses before it was even possible for women to be badasses. They fought for their independence with whatever means they had, and demanded a spot in the history books. These women paved the way for others to come and demand more from this world. They were visionaries and trailblazers and I’m grateful to Judith Mackrell for putting the spotlight on them.