The 1920s was an era like no other. With the start of the 19th century dominated by the First World War and topped off by a deadly pandemic, it was not until the '20s that society was finally able to unbuckle the shackles of the more stuffy Victorian era. So began an epoch of great change and innovation, but what was the legacy of the decade that roared? Let us take you on a whistlestop tour of the 1920s with 10 of the era’s most definitive features...
In 1920 just 6% of British homes were powered by electricity, but by the end of the decade pylons dotted the landscape. Life-changing technological advancements such as motor cars granted new freedoms, while the first transatlantic flight in 1927, the birth of radio, and the formation of the BBC in 1922 signalled an ever more connected world.
THE SILVER SCREEN
New forms of media such as film began to take hold on the public imagination, introducing the stars of the big screen and the influence of advertising. In cinema, focus was put on extravagant feature length artworks rather than short reels, and 1927 saw the release of the first ‘talkie’ The Jazz Singer. While studios created their empires in Hollywood, the influence of German Expressionism and Soviet cinema held sway stylistically with films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Battleship Potemkin (1926), and Metropolis (1927). All of which are available on YouTube to watch for free and come highly recommended for late night vintage viewing!
THE MODERN METROPOLIS
A similar innovative rampancy was taking place in cities as high rates of employment drew young people into the cultural melting pot of the metropolis. Here, where the impressionable could mingle, the desire to embrace modernity was increasingly visible and widespread in architecture, fashion, and entertainment. In 1930, New York's Chrysler Building became the world’s tallest structure, symbolising the aspirations of the chic and modern city. Jazz made its way from America to Europe. Nightclubs, cocktail bars and jazz joints flourished, and new dance crazes such as foxtrot, charleston and lindy hop gave expression to the more liberal youth.
With its linear, geometric glamour, Art Deco became the dominant commercial style, influencing everything from architecture and furniture to fashion and jewellery. In painting, more avant-garde artistic movements such as Cubism and Surrealism emerged providing layered commentary on the cultural zeitgeist, while the Dada and Bauhaus movements blurred the boundaries between art and life.
THE BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS
After a childhood of disruption and turmoil, a new generation emerged armed with a desire for hedonism and a fierce intent to discard the stifling hangover of Victorian England. Many were too young to have fought in the Great War, but grew up acutely aware of their own mortality having lost loved ones in the battlefield and to the Spanish Flu pandemic. The Bright Young Things, an exuberant assortment of wealthy aristocrats, avant-garde artists and bon vivants dominated the tabloids. The term ‘The Lost Generation’ was coined by influential salon hostess and art collector Gertrude Stein and referred to expatriate writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but was broadened to describe the restlessness and decadence of the 1920s youth.
Fashion became looser and more comfortable, mirroring the desires of the younger, more liberal generation. Corsets were discarded and women bobbed their hair, began wearing make-up, and adopted ‘scandalous’ behaviour such as drinking, smoking and swearing in public. The fun-loving, free-living flapper became the style icon of the decade, and a boyish ‘garconne’ silhouette was coveted.
Women over 30 had won the right to vote in 1918, yet still a third of women in the UK were prohibited from voting, and it was only after continued activism through the 1920s that men and women finally achieved the same voting rights in 1928. In Britain, the first birth control clinic was opened in 1921 and by 1930 several clinics together formed the National Birth Control Council. Due to the industrial upheaval of WWI, support grew for women to gain employment in certain fields, ultimately providing the opportunity for greater independence outside of marriage.
THE VERGE OF A GREAT DEPRESSION
Laissez-faire economics throughout the 20s generated a boom in the number of millionaires and credit became widely available to the average person, inevitably causing the economic crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Between this time and 1933 the stock market lost 90% of its value, over 11,000 banks closed and household incomes were reduced by a third.
Interest in childhood development grew rapidly. The Behaviourist Movement gradually gained popularity due to works by psychologist John Watson, who emphasised the effect of outward actions, learning, and external factors on development. In contrast, Sigmund Freud’s influential 1923 paper The Ego & The Id, delved deeper into the psychic apparatus of the mind.
THE CONTINUED FIGHT
Much like today, the 1920s saw a cultural climate battling with opposition and disparity. Education for children became compulsory and free, while the Education Act 1921 created schooling for disabled children. Ireland became an independent country in 1922, yet the British still ruled around a quarter of the Earth. Rising xenophobia saw the KKK reach 5 million members in the USA, while the Nazi Party gained popularity in Germany, ultimately providing a fertile ground for the nationalism that aided Second World War.