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"Shorts, Outtakes and Rants"

Most weeks I write a column for my paper; occasionally my daughter writes one. Usually they're focused at local issues, but every now and then I come up with one that I think Spearfish Lake Tales readers would find interesting, so I post them on the Spearfish Lake Tales Message Board. Since I've been neglecting "Shorts, Outtakes and Rants" recently, I decided to repost a few of them here, like this one. I hope you enjoy it! -- Wes

Flapper centennial

June 2016

A hundred years ago the nation, and to a lesser extent, the world, was in the midst of a revolution the likes of which had never been seen before. It was unexpected, it was shocking, it came quickly, and it planted the seeds for what we see today.

No, I'm not talking about World War I, which was in full swing at the time. Nor am I talking about the presidential election, in which Woodrow Wilson won re-election on the platform of "he kept us out of war," and then got us into the war within a month of his inauguration.

I'm talking about women's clothing. As far back as anyone can tell, though styles changed often, women wore skirts that were floor-length or nearly so, usually in pretty full skirts and layers of them. I sometimes wonder how they could survive being that dressed up in hot weather, but I guess they did it because they had to -- as did men; in the better classes, they were still wearing suits, vests, ties, and such when the thermometer hit triple digits.

Actually, I wonder about the wisdom of wearing floor-length skirts considering the mud and horse exhaust that was prevalent on streets of the time. Over the weekend I noticed a picture of women marching in Washington for the right to vote. Their skirts weren't street length but ankle length, and they wore heavy boots, which probably helped save the hemlines but showed that some things haven't changed; Washington is just as full of horse manure as it ever was. That photo was dated, if I recall correctly, around 1916.

But somewhere around that time, things changed.

A few weeks ago I happened to read of a woman, who, in 1908, spurned all the corsets and heavy clothes women were "supposed" to wear, and on a bet, wore a French "sheath" dress out and around in New York. This dress was still full length, buttoned up to her neck, and had full-length sleeves, but it was snug and form-fitting. She almost caused a riot. Preachers pontificated, newspapers viewed with alarm, proper women swore they would never wear anything like that, and so on. The gal won the bet, but didn't wear the dress again.

Flash forward to 1920, when the "flapper" era was going great guns. It had been going for a while by that point but I can't find a definitive answer as to when it started. It had to have been before or during World War I. F. Scott Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre in 1918, and she pretty well fit the description of a flapper although the term apparently wasn't in common use yet.

Many will have no idea of what I'm talking about, but will be familiar with the cartoon character, "Betty Boop." The original Betty was a flapper, and although the term may not be in use any longer, the character hasn't changed much.

But somewhere around that era women's fashions shed about twenty pounds of fabric and restrictive corsets, and hemlines went up a foot or more; the fashionable body became a lot more slender in the process. The whys and wherefores are debated, with people pointing at automobiles, movies, national magazines, Paris fashion, the lack of available men during World War I, disdain for Prohibition, women getting the vote, and dozens of other reasons, and probably they all had something to do with the wide and fast liberation of women from their traditional roles.

Though the concept of the flapper disappeared quickly with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Hemlines went down a lot, the traditional values common before World War I never returned. However, the age of the flapper set the stage for another revolution forty years in the future.

It's hard to believe that was a hundred years ago. Things have changed an awful lot in that time, and when you make a superficial look back at the dress and life of the flapper era, it all seems pretty silly, but even though they didn't know it those young women in short skirts and cloche hats were breaking trail for the women of today.

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