Whether you’re discussing the American “Flapper”, the French “Garconne”, the Japanese “Moga” or the German “Neue Frau”, the new woman of the 1920s has become a fixed, international symbol of her time. With her bobbed hair, heavily made-up face and slim figure, the new woman met your gaze from the magazine covers, print ads, movie posters and satire drawings of any major city.

A cover of Life magazine featuring a modern woman applying makeup in public, 1927

The most conspicuous and – in the eyes of men – often very controversial sign of the new woman was her appearance. From the rich waterfall of curls, tightly-laced corsets and long skirts that both concealed and exaggerated her figure the new woman took scissors in hand to cut both hair, hemline, and corset laces. Necklines deepened, colours intensified and silhouettes streamlined. In stark contrast with the soft and gentle beauty ideal of the turn of the century, the woman of the Jazz age was sharp, bold and blunt in both appearance and character. The time of child-bearing hips and ample bosoms was past. The new body (which, as always, was shaped by clothing and not vice versa) was to-the-point, just like the interior decor, literature and architecture in the new, rational world.

As radical as the change in body and clothing was the transformation of a woman’s face. Colour cosmetics were now an accessible fashion item, no longer limited to fallen women and morally questionable actresses. Powder, rouge and lipstick was delivered in new, practical and fashionable packaging that could easily be kept in a handbag for daily touch-ups. By nightfall, a cake of rouge or a miniature lipstick could just as simply pop into a fashionable bracelet or be attached to a stocking welt to be accessed at the bar counter or even on the dance floor. To apply makeup in public was no longer frowned upon in the way it had before, when beauty products had been limited to your bedroom vanity. This private sphere was invading the masculine public sphere – women powdered their noses on the tram, the dance floor, and at the café. In addition, an elegant powder compact was a symbol of feminine status, a sought-after fashion item. 

A cover of PHOTOPLAY magazine from the 1920s showing a girl applying lipstick

Here, in contrast to previous ideals, natural beauty had no place – brightly-coloured rouge and lipstick was liberally applied in imitation of the glamorous and exotic faces of movie stars. Makeup, which during this time period would enhance eyes with mascara and kohl, became a method of expression in direct defiance of past idealized womanhood.

Like most modernities, the new woman was not an uncontroversial figure. Criticism often originated with several political ideas, such as the conservative voice that criticised the New Woman’s masculine qualities. Men in particular were distressed by the boyish silhouette and short hair of their female contemporaries, claiming it as unflattering and downright ridiculous. The androgynous nature of fashion in this era gave inspiration to many a caricature and satirical cartoon that made fun of women’s appearances, often printed in the same magazines using said woman’s likeness in advertising and fashion spreads.

A German satirical cartoon making fun of women’s “masculine” appearance

These negative responses show us a form of male anxiety about the destabilization of patriarchal gender roles and the uncomfortable questions posed by the meshing of male and female gender expression. If a woman can look like a man and move somewhat freely in male territories, what place does the man have, what rights are he entitled to? And consequently: Can men compete with these new, modern women – for work, status, or female romantic partners?

Through revolutionary new technologies like film, more sophisticated photography and effective print methods, images had the ability to spread like they never could before. Culture became increasingly visual, and in the cityscape there were countless surfaces, in home as well as public environments, covered with images. Magazine covers, film posters and adverts all utilized photographs or illustrations to entice the gaze of prospective customers.

A shiseido advert from 1925.

A perfect motif, the new woman was used to sell everything from newspapers and amateur cameras to shoes and movie tickets. She was fashionable and desirable to both male and female consumers, and much like the advertising of today, her likeness sold not only products – but a lifestyle. She offered women not only the figure and fashion of the day, but an exciting new world where women were independent, urbane and sexually liberated – if only you purchased the right brand of soap, the right cold cream and right magazine, you could be as modern and attractive as the woman in the ad.

Like any ideal, that of the new woman was difficult to achieve. To be as glamorous as a film star or advert model meant hard work and to no small extent hard cash. Hair grew and needed to be cut, lipstick ran out and needed to be replenished, and clothes went out of style and needed to be replaced. Despite her relative economic independence, most self-sufficient women in the 1920s didn’t live on a generous budget. Not to mention the fact that being fashionable was often expected of female employees – making it necessary to spend money to make money.

A 1929 Vogue cover showing a fashionably-dressed lady at the wheel of a car.

Thereby, the new woman was not only a form of liberation but imposed a plethora of new expectations and demands to achieve. To many women, this meant living beyond your means to maintain work and social status. Even without being laced into a physically constricting corset, this new woman had a whole new set of restrictive ideals to achieve through consumption. We have more than we think in common with her – seeing her echo back at us from tube adverts, shop windows and to no small extent the internet of conspicuous consumption. Just like her, we must buy the dream as advertised.