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In 1958, Marilyn Monroe appeared in a lavish Life magazine spread to pay homage to five sex symbols of the screen who came before her. As Marlene Dietrich, she’s a lofty ice queen; as Jean Harlow, a smoldering temptress. But as silent film siren Clara Bow, she’s a kinetic force: Under a canopy of pink and red balloons, she pops champagne and vamps flirtatiously, flinging her arms out and her knees in, the long rows of fringe on her short red dress caught midswing by Richard Avedon’s lens. Thanks to that dress, it’s clear immediately that Bow, who had faded into obscurity by the time of the shoot and is a virtual unknown now, was at her peak a Jazz Age vixen of the highest order — a flapper.
Almost 60 years later, from Halloween to New Year’s Eve to your cousin’s bridal shower, the same standard still applies: the quickest way to pull together a look everyone will read as “1920s” is a short, tight, scoop-neck dress, probably in a solid red or black, dripping with fringe or at least with a long fringe hemline. On Amazon, options start at just $20. Customers who bought this item also bought: Long Cigarette Holder, Feather Boa 60”, Roaring 20s Sequined Showgirl Flapper Headband w/Feather Plume. A fun, flirty, familiar flapper, all for under $100. And, for the most part, wrong.
“Fringe [was] not the most common thing you saw in the 1920s. That would be beadwork or embroidery,” says Beverley Birks, a vintage dealer and exhibition curator who’s worked with 1920s clothing for nearly 50 years. “The garçon look was in, so while the ’20s showed a lot of body, the emphasis was not on the bust or the hips. The skirts were short, but they only rose to knee-length. They didn’t rise beyond there.” So much for Marilyn’s flirty hemline.
It turns out that what we think about flappers says more about what we like now than what women actually wore then. This relationship existed well before Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby ignited the current wave of Roaring ’20s mania. It predates the 1973 film, too, and the 1960s revival of ’20s silhouettes. It started, like many of pop culture’s most cherished ideas about the past, with the golden age of film.
“Hollywood began mining the 1920s in the 1950s, and order to make it work, they adapted the costuming of the period to look more like what people were actually wearing in the ’50s,” explains Jeanine Basinger, a film historian and the chair of Wesleyan University’s film department. The period setting, Basinger says, was less about what the ’20s were and more about what they weren’t: post-WWII. “The war was a shadow over film at the time, and to take the ’20s as a setting lifted that burden off.”
A Jazz Age parade soon streamed through theaters: classics like Singin’ In the Rain and Some Like It Hot, but many more less beloved, like Party Girl, Has Anybody Seen My Gal, and You’re My Everything. The costume designers tasked with outfitting these films were bound by studio contracts and in many cases had worked in Hollywood since the ’20s. They knew what those clothes looked like. But accurate period costumes would have seemed old-fashioned to 1950s viewers, who didn’t have the ability to watch old movies the way we do now. “The average person didn’t have their eye trained to older styles and didn’t want to see them, and the business was concerned with that,” Basinger says.
So straight-cut chemise dresses, which would hide even Monroe’s bombshell figure, got nipped waists and thinner straps, with hemlines adjusted to hit just below the knee. Solid bright colors exploited the possibilities of Technicolor, erasing a refined ’20s palette that included nuanced shades like burnt sienna, grass green, muted lilac, and dusty rose. Most of these films were musicals, making movement paramount in costuming, and nothing from the ’20s moves better than fringe. Just look at the frenetic “Broadway Melody” sequence from Singin’ In the Rain: Gene Kelly waltzes around a series of New York tableaux, surrounded by dozens of beaming women wearing spaghetti-strap dresses in vivid pink, yellow, orange, and blue, their every wiggle amplified by rows of long fringe. The energy is infectious.
But making enough full-fringe dresses to outfit a chorus line was only recently possible at the time, says Patricia Mears, the deputy director of the Museum at FIT. “Fringe today” — which is functionally the same as what was available by the 1950s — “is mass-produced and only a few inches long; it’s a lightweight synthetic, and the knit that’s used is not very dense, so that you can apply several layers without it becoming heavy.”
Twenties fringe, in contrast, was woven into a dense knit from innumerable silk fibers. Multiplied across enough rows to cover a dress, it quickly surpassed 25 pounds and tangled easily — hardly ideal for a Charleston. When it did appear, it tended to be in moderation, Mears says. “Designers, particularly Madame Vionnet, used fringe as a decorative element to help a garment drape correctly.” Aesthetics were secondary to the structural function that fringe offered, of weighting the grain of fabric in a particular direction.
“The full-fringe dresses did exist, but they were very different from what we have now,” Mears says. “While the kinetic quality was important, and that heavy fringe did move, the weight added a sense of gracefulness.” Chanel, Vionnet, and Molyneux all made a version of the fully fringed dress, although in many cases the fringe was really strands of gelatin sequins, which were just as delicate to attach. Whatever the material, it was stitched on by hand, adding to the cost of an already expensive textile. It wasn’t a coincidence that these styles came from the highest tiers of European design — the average flapper wouldn’t have been able to swing what we think of as a flapper dress.
The 1930s emergence of synthetic fibers like nylon changed all that. By the time MGM charged Walter Plunkett with designing the costumes for Singin’ In the Rain in 1952, lightweight fringe was available everywhere. In a perfect inversion of historical accuracy, it would have been much more expensive for him, or any other Hollywood costumer, to mass-manufacture the embroidery and beadwork that actually dominated the ’20s. “Think about how hard it would be to make a pattern like that,” says Birks, the vintage dealer. “To design it, and then reproduce something like beadwork, when you could instead just buy fringe yardage and stick it on.”
Hollywood’s obsession primed Americans for the 1960s fashion revival of the same period, when designers cast off waist-cinching ’50s tailoring with as much glee as ’20s designers had cast off corsets. Basinger, who was born in 1938, remembers attending innumerable Jazz Age parties at the time. “People would haul their mothers’ old dresses out of the attic, and we were all surprised to see what the clothes were really like.” They were much more boyish than Hollywood had led them to believe, she says.
Things haven’t changed much since then, including the fact that popular conception of the ’20s continues to morph to match whatever’s in fashion at the moment. “Today, clothing is very body-conscious, meaning it’s meant to show off the body,” Mears explains. “A mini fringe dress suits that style better, but it is corrupting the original designs. It’s not emancipation the way it was in the ’20s,” when American women cut their dresses scandalously short not to flaunt their legs but to flaunt a newfound freedom of movement, both on the dance floor and in the world at large.
That freedom, which applied similarly to social class and race, is the spirit that draws 21st-century partygoers to everything Gatsby. And while fringe wasn’t so popular the first time around, it embodies our ideas about the ’20s — the dancing, the excess — more effectively than intricate beading or complicated embroidery. What it can’t capture in its cheap, lightweight current form is the elegance that made designers want to use it in the first place, or the unfettered feeling that only an untailored shift dress can provide. That’s what the flappers loved best about their outfits. To really party like them, consider giving something simply liberating a try.