This short post originally appeared on the now defunct Irish history blog, Pue’s Occurrences. At the time, I was prompted to write it after an episode of Strictly Come Dancing. Odd, I know, but then inspiration can come from the strangest of places. That night, viewers were transported back to the 1920s through fast-paced dancing, flapper dresses and the sounds of ragtime jazz. More recently, with so much discussion of the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, I was reminded of the post once more, and I decided to dig it out from the Pue’s archives. If you’re fascinated by the Charleston, flappers and the general loosening of morals in 1920s America, read on.
The Charleston was the dance that launched Ginger Rogers’ career after she won the Texas State Charleston contest at the age of fourteen. It took American popular culture by storm, and a new generation and mentality emerged.
When the First World War ended in November 1918, it was hoped that the post-war era would bring with it better times. The pattern of life in America did change: the working week was not as demanding, there was more disposable income for things like entertainment, and in general the standard of living increased. Women of the wartime generation had generally not dated, waiting instead to marry a suitable partner. However, almost an entire generation of young men had lost their lives in the Great War. The next generation of women wanted to enjoy life and had what was considered a casual attitude towards men. Gaiety and youth became the themes of the new decade, and the Charleston epitomised the roaring twenties. Named after a city in South Carolina, it also lent its name to a song performed by ‘Ruth Little’ in the Broadway show Runnin’ Wild, which opened in October 1923.
Identified by hip swaying, leg swinging, and the crossing and uncrossing of hands against moving knees, the Charleston was about having fun. Most importantly, it wasn’t the preserve of professionals, everybody could dance it. The appeal of the Charleston was its simplicity: the basic technique involves stepping backwards on the right foot and kicking back with the left, and then repeating the sequence moving forwards. Moreover, while it could be performed in a group, there was also a solo version so a partner wasn’t required.
The women who danced the Charleston were known as flappers, because of the style of the arm movements. Defined by the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald as vivacious nineteen year olds, this new generation of young women were at the forefront of a social revolution. They rebelled against convention: women smoked freely in public, they drank alcohol, they wore lipstick and rouge, and those over thirty had won the right to vote in 1920. All of this had previously been unthinkable. The flappers also revolted against the ‘Gibson girl’ style. The feminine ideal at the turn of the century had been characterised by long hair and tiny waists. Women rejected long skirts and high-collared shirts in favour of shorter, shapeless shift dresses; when they danced, flashes of their knees could be seen. The bob became the fashionable trend in hairstyle and a symbol of modernity; Coco Chanel was among those who cut their hair short. Off the dance floor, flappers favoured the form-fitting, bell-shapped cloche hats, as worn by Angelina Jolie in The Changeling. Although considered scandalous by the more conservative, these hats also came to symbolise feminism and modernity.
The frenetic excesses of the jazz age, as they were seen, contrasted with the conservatism of the prohibition movement. The provocative Charleston and its accompanying style of music were seen as threatening the moral fabric of society. Writing in Ladies Home Journalin 1921, Anne Shaw Faulkner posed the question, ‘does jazz put the sin in syncopation?’ Many of those leading the moral crusade wondered if jazz and its corrupting influence should also be legislated against.
Although the Charleston was temporarily overtaken in 1926 by a new craze, the ‘Black Bottom’, its popularity endured and it influenced other styles. The Lindy Hop – originally called the ‘Breakaway’, but re-named after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 ‘hop’ across the Atlantic – had its roots in the Charleston, and was adapted for the swing music of the 1930s. Today the spirit of the Charleston is recaptured annually at the Swingers and Flappers Ball, held on 30 December in New York.