Kim Jenkins talks clothes, culture in the 1920s and today

Mary Ann Rush (1902-1933) is pictured dressed in a long, drop waist dress and feather boa in the 1920s. Via virginia.edu.

Content warning: This article includes mentions of racial violence.

Thinking of similarities between the 1920s and today, fashion may not be the first thing to come to mind. However, the seemingly superficial changes in clothing both then and now speak to similar moments of social upheaval, dually framed by pandemics, changing gender norms and body positivity and changing race dynamics and discourse. Earlier this month, WGBH’s “Curiosity Desk” hosted “BostonTalks: The 1920s and Now,” which explored these ideas through a virtual interview with Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor, social scientist and physician at Yale University and Kim Jenkins, a professor at Ryerson University and founder of the Fashion and Race Database. 

One of the first topics Jenkins discussed was the iconic flapper dress of the 1920s. With a loose tubular silhouette, it marked a sharp turn from traditional corsets. Jenkins also observed that many young women wore their hair in short bobs to accompany the more androgynous look. The overall style both allowed women more physical movement and showed their rejection of the traditional female attire and form in favor of more gender fluidity. These shifting aesthetics mirrored historical changes for women with suffrage and increasing presence in the workplace since the beginning of World War I.  

Furthermore, although the dresses were simpler in shape than their corseted precedents and likely less ornate than those shown in movies and costumes today, designers certainly did not hesitate to play with detail or opulence either. The new outfits and lifestyles of many young women embraced and reflected an increasing consumer culture, aligning with their growing purchasing power and independence. 

Despite the current strain on the fashion industry due to COVID-19, Jenkins’ comments also prompted thoughts of today’s consumer culture adapting in a similar manner with alternating simplicity and glitz. In some sense, dressing in sweats at home resembles the more relaxed, casual trend of the roaring ‘20s drop waist dresses. 

On the other end of the spectrum, some high fashion brands are responding to the harsh realities of our time with even gaudier outfits, as could be seen in the designs starting off the year at the most recent Paris Haute Couture Week. The Instagram account Diet Prada — whose practice of calling out copied pieces has earned it 2.5 million followers as well as begrudging respect within the fashion critic community — wondered if Valentino’s humongous platform heels added this haute couture season to a trend of using over-the-top fashion statements as escapism after periods of recession and hardship. In this light, one wonders if the whimsical ornamentation of flapper dresses was also, at least partly, in response to the austerity of World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic.

In another connection to the 1920s, Jenkins noted her fashion students’ increasingly pushing the boundaries of binary gender norms and body positivity in recent years. In general, the increasing fame of more curvaceous Black female celebrities has shifted standards of female beauty. Brands like Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lingerie line have explicitly worked to expand representation within the fashion industry

However, the historical demonization of Black female bodies, which Jenkins described (citing the text “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia” (2019) by Sabrina Strings), suggests that Black women faced more barriers to embracing flapper style than others during the 1920s. In fact, some fashion critics of the time expressed their frustration with white women breaking tradition, bemoaning flappers adopting “savage styles from Africa. 

As awful as this is, even worse is the fact that some flappers did truly appropriate African and African American history in painfully insensitive ways. According to Jenkins, some women wore collars and cuffs meant to look like those of enslaved people as fashion statements, and the discovery of King Tut’s tomb spurred the popularization of a stereotyped Egyptian Cleopatra look. 

More broadly across both the United States and Europe, there was an othering obsession with African culture, from so-called “primitive” art to jazz music. Jenkins recommended looking at “Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s” (2000) by Petrine Archer-Straw for more information on this topic. As futile as any attempts to characterize this as appreciation rather than appropriation would already be, the violent race riots during the Red Summer of 1919 undeniably prove the racist fervor of this period. 

Conversely, protests against racial violence took the streets again this past summer, led by the Black Lives Matter movement. People took action and spoke out across the country, but the question of intent versus impact is yet again a central issue with social media’s tendency toward performative activism. It’s still hard to say whether this year will bring lasting change, but a piece of breaking news from Jenkins that was shared during the interview is a slight glimmer of hope. 

The very day of the event, she finalized a partnership with Tommy Hilfiger, whose brand committed to integrating the Fashion and Race Database’s educational resources into its designs and mission. While she admits this is only a starting point, it’s also a “first-of-its-kind engagement [—] a global fashion brand linking with a fashion education platform.” As explored in the interview, fashion has contributed to and evidenced changes in social attitudes throughout time. While hindsight shows 1920s fashion as progressive in a very limited scope, perhaps this recent development suggests we’ll emerge from the 2020s for the better.


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