on March 14, 2006
Flapper is a rare treat for history buffs: a thoroughly accessible piece of history that both sheds new light on familiar topics and uncovers new facts most readers might otherwise not have encountered. Zeitz wisely chooses to tell the story of the flapper by focusing on four women who helped launch the phenomenon: writer and socialite Zelda Fitzgerald (nee Sayres), designer Coco Chanel, columnist Lois Long, and actress Louise Brooks. Zeitz tells these stories well, deftly sifting through the piles of extant material on Fitzgerald and Chanel, and generating an impressive amount of biographical information on the lesser-known Long and Brooks. Zeitz is equally adept when discussing the larger trends that shaped (and were shaped by) the flapper. In particular, his description of how dating arose in the United States showcases his talents at their strongest, and reads like the better parts of a Garry Wills book. Sound research, clear argument, interesting subject matter, and writing that, sentence by sentence, puts the reader right in the mood of the times make this great reading for historians and general readers alike. Social history should always be this good.
on September 26, 2007
I found this book extremely fascinating. I often read literature about feminism and women, but hadn't ever read much about the 1920s. Although this book does center on F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first one-third or so, most of it deals with women of the so-called "flapper" era.
Something that took me by surprise was the detail the author goes into regarding fashion of the day. The surprising part was that I found it fascinating! I'm not a big fashion buff, but think the idea of cultural critique via fashion is a very interesting one.
The book is divided into thirds, with the first one-third being about, as I said, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, the "quintessential flapper couple," as well as various prominent figures of this era, including Lois Long, a writer for the fledgling "New Yorker"--which, interestingly, was not always as highbrow as it is now. These people had lives which could (and probably do) all fill books individually, so some of the mini-biographies feel a bit superficial, but I'm sure a book that was exhaustive would be several hundred pages long. The second portion of the book is devoted to fashion, and the final one-third of the book is dedicated to the films of the era. An epilogue describes the eventual fates of each of the book's main players.
This is definitely a book well worth reading, but it has a couple of flaws. It does get dry in some portions, and you have to just "power through" to get back to the interesting parts. Obviously, these will vary from reader to reader, as I'm sure not all people would be as interested in the fashion portion as I was. One other fundamental problem, though, is that this could be subtitled "A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the WHITE Women Who Made America Modern." The author alludes to the fact that the flappers looked down on black women as not being "true" flappers--indeed, he derisively describes an article in which Lois Long mentions that black women in Harlem were doing the Charleston, and doing it not as well as white women, although African-Americans invented the Charleston themselves. He also includes a picture of an Asian-American actress who, according to the caption, "challenged the notion that flappers had to be white and native-born." That is as much of a mention as other cultures get in the book. It seems strange to touch on this subject of non-white flappers and then never say another word about it. If he was going to focus on whites, that's fine, but to bring up other races and not delve into those cultures seems strange. Better to leave it out entirely.
This book is rarely dull and I learned a great deal about an era which has always had a degree of fascination for me, but about which I had never read. You will be entertained and you will learn something--what a great combination!
on September 5, 2006
I bought this book after reading the reviews of several books covering the Roaring 20s. I needed not just facts and figures, but the feel of the era, since I was researching for a short fiction story set then. Joshua Zeitz did it all, covering both individual experiences as well as the essence of the time.
Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern is well worth the price. It's packed with solid research as is also highly entertaining.
Get a wiggle on and go buy it!
I loved this book! The author apparently immersed himself in the subject -- and eloquently communicates what he learned. It's a fascinating topic, and the author uses quotes, interviews, and other research to make it come alive. It will almost make you an instant expert on flappers in the 1920s as it covers literature, fashion, advertising, sociology, psychology, film, and much more. The author also focuses on iconic men and women, including Zelda Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel, Colleen Moore, Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Lois Long, John Held, and Gordon Conway, and effectively profiles their lives and careers.
on September 17, 2006
This book is absolutely fabulous and was hard to put down. More than just another book about the flappers, it tells a thorough comprehensive story about American culture and society in the 1920s, from so many angles, pertinent to both women and society as a whole--clothing, advertising, cars, smoking, dating, sex, drinking, the movies, literature, feminism, higher education, racism, the haves and have-nots, and illustrators. Along the way we also read about vivid personalities of the era, such as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Clara Bow, Lois Long, Colleen Moore, Louise Brooks, John Held, Jr., Bruce Barton, Coco Chanel, and Gordon Conway (a woman, in spite of the masculine name). It also chronicles the events and social forces in the decades prior to the Twenties, showing how all of these things came together and ultimately led up to the first truly modern era, an era that actually began around the time of WWI, not when the Twenties began, as many people might think. Things such as women wearing more comfortable and revealing clothing, young people going on dates and even having premarital sex instead of having closely-chaperoned "courtships," and pop culture and advertisements assuming great importance in how people saw and created their sense of reality just intensified and became more prominent as the Twenties began. These changes in society and women didn't take place in a vacuum or happen overnight.
As a woman and a feminist, I'm eternally grateful to these women for what they did, and for the struggles and sacrifices of the generations that came before them. Yes, many older feminists of the era were dismayed at how so many young women were more concerned with things like fashion, the movies, and attracting men than in being political or social activists, but in their own way, they were helping to change society for the better. And by today's standards, the flappers seem relatively tame; today no one bats an eye at a woman who cuts her hair short, wears a skirt showing her knees, smokes in public, goes on dates with multiple guys before getting married, or works and lives alone. It was also interesting to read about how women's freedom went up and down a bit in the eras that came before the flapper generation came of age; for example, about half of the women who went to college between the 1870s and the 1920s never married, in comparison to about a tenth of the general female population. The book also shows how the Victorian ideals of morality were always tenuous at best, not a realistic portrayal of how most people lived their lives. Apparently people in the Twenties were romanticising the past as much as the neo-Puritans of today, lamenting a world that never really existed at best and that was repressive and oppressive at worst, particularly for women and the have-nots. The chapter "An Athletic Kind of Girl" in particular was heartbreaking, reading about how for over a century, women were kept imprisoned and socially controlled in bone- and organ-crushing corset strings and pounds upon pounds of clothing that made it hard for them to walk in anything but dainty little steps.
This book should be required reading for anyone interested in the 1920s and all of the fascinating personalities and the sweeping social and cultural changes of the era. It also covers the era with an even hand; even though there were a lot of good things going for it, there were also ugly things such as racism, the old sexual double standard, and the majority of the nation's wealth concentrated in a small privileged group of people instead of evenly distributed among the masses. Like all historical eras, this one too was neither all sunshine and roses nor all gloom and doom.
on May 19, 2006
American born Joshua Zeitz is a lecturer on American History and Fellow of Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge and is a contributing editor at AMERICAN HERITAGE. His book is an impressive mix of history, social commentary and some intriguing storytelling on America's first excursion into sexual liberation, mass-celebrity and the marketing of youth rebellion.
Before gangstas and their wannabe wankstas, punks and metalheads, hippies, bikers, beatniks and greasy cornerboys in leather jackets, before even the outlandish zootsuiters of the 1940s, the first identifiable countercultural figure was female: the flapper. These were the young women iconic of the era we call the "Roaring Twenties."
Bobbing their hair, discarding the long skirts and high collar blouses and the confining undergarments that went with them, the flapper outfitted herself in sleeveless dresses which stopped at the knees, long pearl necklaces dangling. She showed more bare arms and legs than previously most wives allowed their husbands to see. Freedom of limb and movement was the flapper's goal.
From the country clubs of Alabama to Indiana, from the speakeasies of Chicago to New York, whether on the arm of Al Capone or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or going solo, the flapper represented the classless modernity of America. Jazz, accused by the moral and cultural establishment of the time to be the biggest corrupter of young whites, was her soundtrack. The "Charleston," which flaunted her naked legs all the more, was her dance.
The flapper smoked and she drank. She could be silly and she was definitely self-indulgent. She was also a wonderfully crazy distraction for a generation returning from the First World War, traumatized by the gas, guns and bayonets of the trenches.
on August 10, 2007
I picked up the hardcover of this as a fun, quick, summer read. I wasn't disappointed; it's very much like _Only Yesterday_despite the 75-year difference in publishing dates.
I think that, overall, this is a good book, and I think that it makes many valid and interesting points about what made the 1920's so "revolutionary" and why the decade marked the beginnings of modern American culture.
My two minor complaints were that--and this is mostly a matter of taste--I wanted a little more in-depth information, and I was disappointed that the section describing women's clothing of the preceding century was either carelessly researched or carelessly generalized. The description of the layers was inaccurate and, at best, reflected only that of the closing decades of the century. There was quite a lot of variation in dress between 1800 and 1910 and it was both unfair and misleading to lump the relatively comfortable clothing of the Regency era in with the extremely restrictive clothing of the second half of the century and the early 20th century. Regency women did wear corsets but they were not the waist-crushing monstrosities to which later generations were subjected; many were not even boned and served to smooth out the body beneath the dress rather than torque it into an entirely new shape, not unlike the Spandex foundation garments many women wear today. Regency clothing and undergarments in many respects had more in common with 1920's clothing than with that of any other era in recent history.
It does make you want to run out and bob your hair, though!
on March 14, 2006
J.M. Zeitz, an American who holds a chair at Cambridge University in England, brings the 20s to life through his story of these "madcap" women. His research into and writing about Lois Long are particularly excellent, but the entire book is stellar. "Flapper" is a must for Dorothy Parker fans and 1920s buffs, but it's also an excellent gift for that feminist in your life. Better yet -- buy one for yourself, and revel in Zeitz's prose and humor.
on June 2, 2006
Flapper is a wonderfully interesting book to read, from the start you are interested in the complex wild women portrayed. Zeitz doesn't simply stop with an interesting story however, he uses primary sources to explain how the movement rose out of the times and the public reaction to it. He also explains how flappers were often thought to be frivalous (okay so maybe a bit frivalous) misguided youths who betrayed their mother's feminism, though by living a lifestyle they chose and enjoyed they were actually representing feminism by their freedoms. Highly reccomended!
on April 1, 2006
Fascinating read about the changing mores of American society. Zeitz doesn't shrink away from presenting both the good and the bad, what was gained and its price. And any good drama has conflict of course. Information is presented as an integral part of human stories and so never suffers from the dry tone of many historical books. A must for anyone interested in American history and especially that of the Jazz Age!