Jazz: Dictator of Fashion


The influence of jazz upon popular culture is perhaps the most apparent when looking at the developments in the fashion industry during the 1920s. This whole industry targeted a society that revolved around a certain kind of music. The flapper fashions ostensibly illustrate the importance of jazz to the consumer market of the Jazz Age. Because of the post-was economic boom, the consumer market was enormous, and the fashion industry followed the demands of the new and rising American youth culture. Jazz music was the propelling force of this new culture. By 1925, The wild and primitive sound of jazz music filled the streets of every major city in the United States. The popularity of jazz music with the general populous was unprecedented. Part of the popularity of jazz music was due to the fact that it was incredible dance music. The Charleston quickly became the most popular dance in the dance halls across the United States. The Victorian clothing of the pre-war era was clearly unsuitable jazz apparel. The evolution in jazz music throughout the 1920s was accompanied by reflective changes in the fashion industry.


While women's fashion has always been an important part of the consumer target market, it did not become a craze in the United States until the 1920s. This is illustrated by the drastic increase in the number of fashion magazines sold in the 1920s. In "Ladies Fashions of the 1920s," Nolan states, "The 1920s saw the emergence of three major women's fashion magazines: Vogue, The Queen, and Harper's Bazaar" (Vintage Fashions, p.1). Nolan goes on to state that even thought Vogue was first published in 1892, it did not begin to influence the consumer market until the 1920s (Vintage Fashions, p.1). In fact, there were very few fashion magazines that did not sell merchandise until the Roaring Twenties. Jazz music was so wildly popular in the twenties, that the fashion industry was barely able to satisfy the needs of its youthful consumers. Like the evolution of jazz music, jazz or "flapper" fashions evolved in stages. The first notable change in fashion came in 1921. "Drop-waist" dresses were introduced, and long strings of glass beads and pearls became very fashionable, due to Coco Chanel. The low-waisted dress was not yet popular, but neither was jazz music. The first mass marketed jazz recordings were made in 1923, and the popularity of jazz soared. Consequently, women's dresses became loosely fitted, and waistlines dropped to the hips. Upper and lower body freedom was essential when dancing the Charleston, so dresses were cut to reflect the ability to move freely while dancing.

The Flapper
by Dorothy Parker

The playful flapper here we see,
The fairest of the fair.
She's not what Grandma used to be,--
You might say au contraire.
Her girlish ways make a stir,
Her manners cause a scene,
But there is no more harm in her
Than in a submarine.

She nightly knocks for many a goal
The usual dancing men.
Her speed is great, but her control
Is something else again.
All spotlights focus on her pranks.
All tongues her prowess herald.
For which she well may render thanks
To God or Scott Fitzgerald.

Her golden rule is plain enough-
Just get them young and treat them

In an article published in the New York Times on March 21,1926, one man stated that "The mannish look that women strive for today is ridiculous!" (New York Times, March 21, 1926). This was not quite correct. By "mannish" the man was referring to the trend of binding the torso and cutting hair short. These "mannish" fashion trends served a purpose. The fragile and precarious hairstyles of the pre-war era were unsuitable for jazz dancing. The "bobbed" hairstyle of the 1920s was not only a mark of rebellion, it was a practical style for the popular dance music. The Charleston was a very vigorous dance, and chest binding, while appearing "mannish" to some people, would have been a functional practice for many women.

In 1925 dresses began to resemble "shifts," which had been undergarments for hundreds of years. These dresses had no waistline and were loose, which allowed complete freedom of movement. Arms were cut loosely and skirts approached knee length. The period of 1925-1927 was the period that jazz enthusiasts often refer to as the "classic years" of early jazz recordings. It was during this time that Armstrong recorded his hot fives and sevens. Count Bassie, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington also made some famous recordings during this period. The jazz music of this time was still wild and exciting dance music, which was reflected in the fashions of the day. In the Fashion Source book of the 1920s, Peacock states that an average ensemble for evening wear in 1927 would consist of: "A sleeveless mesh dress embroidered all over with gold sequins, a low V-shaped neckline, a loosely fitted bodice, and a flared short skirt. Gold kid shoes and matching handbag, along with a long string of pearls" (p.58).

It would be a mistake to assume that flapper fashion only appealed to the youth of the 1920s. While the older generation of people often disparaged the wild new jazz culture, they very much adhered to the dictated clothing fashions of that culture. In an article published in The New Republic on September 9, 1925, Bilven wrote that "Flapper Janes" (young flappers) were not alone in their clothing styles. He stated that "These clothes are being worn by all of Jane's sisters and her cousins and her aunts. They are being worn by ladies who are three times Jane's age...Their use is universal" (The New Republic, p.12). The flapper fashions were also widespread because they were easy to mass produce. The simple lines, loose bodice, and short skirts were easy to market, because they would fit almost any women (in various sizes). Sears Roebuck's mail order catalog was filled with flapper fashions, and they shipped these clothes to large and small towns across the United States. As jazz music evolved into Big Band music, which was slower paced more refined, women's fashions followed suit. In "1920s Haute Couture," Silvren states, "By the end of the decade, feminine curves, lower hemlines, and uncovered foreheads- all to return uncompromisingly in the Thirties-had already begun to reappear"(p.21).