How the ‘Roaring Twenties’ myth obscures the making of modern Britain

We have lost sight of what made Britain’s experience of the 1920s unique, argues Matt Houlbrook. From Peaky Blinders to gangsters’ molls, popular images of the ‘jazz age’ can trick us into forgetting the radical importance of this period. Here, he explains why the decade was much more than a time of flappers and frivolity

Four women dressed in the perceived fashion of the roaring twenties in a 1954 musical called ‘The Boy Friend’. (Photo by Getty Images)

These are interesting times to be a historian of 1920s Britain. At the start of a new decade, the instinct to look back,rather than forward, has been striking. As we move into the 2020s, traces of our distant past seem everywhere. Conservative political commentators herald Boris Johnson’s election victory as the start of a new ‘Roaring Twenties’; the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra invited us to “party like it’s 1929”; Great Gatsby themed parties marked the New Year’s arrival, and the ‘jazzing flapper’ and peak-capped Peaky Blinder are the fancy dress costumes du jour. A century after the decade began, the 1920s are back in fashion.

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The 1920s might be everywhere, but so too are the myths that govern how we think about the decade. Lazy clichés of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ or ‘Jazz Age’ make it impossible for us to see how this period was a far-reaching moment in the making of modern Britain. A century on, the vagaries of popular memory mean we have lost sight of the postwar decade’s character and significance.

A long weekend?

The 1920s is usually treated as part of the longer period ‘between the wars’, famously described as “The Long Week-End” by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge in their classic social history. Graves and Hodge’s book was first published in 1940, but their way of dividing up 20th-century British history has endured – and ultimately limits our ability to understand the period. Rather than seeking to understand the 1920s and 1930s in their own right, there is a tendency to define them by what precedes and follows – by what they were not, rather than what they were. The idea of a ‘weekend’ suggests this decade was a brief pause before the more serious business of war was inevitably resumed. Shaped by hindsight unavailable at the time, such assumptions draw attention away from the period itself. Emphasising the similarities between the 1920s and 1930s also means we lose sight of what made each decade unique. The tensions between the legacies of war and the accelerating pace of peacetime change meant the aftermath was a distinctive historical period. Ingrained habits of thinking about that period ‘between the wars’ efface the significance of the 1920s.

Alluring as the sound of jazz and sight of the Charleston might be, these powerful images conceal more complex realities

Ideas of the ‘long weekend’ give the 1920s that enticing mood of frivolity, fun and escape that make the period so popular right now. Alluring as the sound of jazz and sight of the Charleston might be, these powerful images conceal more complex realities. Ideas of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ evoke the spectacle of the decadent and aristocratic high society of London and the English country house: the glamorous yet doomed Elizabeth Ponsonby; Noël Coward singing “dance, dance, dance little lady”; satirical novels of the ‘bright young people’ like Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930). It might be clear that the world of Waugh and Ponsonby was far removed from that of ordinary Britons, but their reputation exerts enduring influence on how we think about the decade as a whole. Downton Abbey has much to answer for.

A festive party scene from an early silent movie, Hollywood, California, c1920s. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
A festive party scene from an early silent movie, Hollywood, California, c1920s. “How we think about 1920s Britain has been remarkably dominated by images that are distinctly American,” writes Matt Houlbrook. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

A distinctly American flavour

As the ubiquity of the ‘Great Gatsby’ party suggests, how we think about 1920s Britain has also been remarkably dominated by images taken from elsewhere. ‘Roaring Twenties’ Britain takes colour and form from vignettes, characters and motifs that are distinctly American: F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; Prohibition and speakeasies; gangsters’ molls and Al Capone — the images have merged and made it difficult to disentangle British realities from American mythologies. It is true that the growing pace of global communications meant everyday life underwent a very real process of Americanisation. US corporations dominated British consumer culture, while US films, music, dances, fashions and chain stores like Woolworths were popular among ordinary men and women: a young working-class woman might want to be “as glorious as [American actress] Theda Bara”. Focusing on these stereotypical images, however, means we have lost sight of what made Britain’s experience of the 1920s unique.

The toiletries department in a Woolworths store, c1928. (Photo by General Photographic AgencyHulton Archive/Getty Images)
The toiletries department in a Woolworths store, c1928. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The myth of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, then, is symptomatic of a bigger problem in how we understand the period. After the Great War, just as Britons tried to come to terms with the loss of a generation, rapid and often unnerving social and cultural and economic changes marked what the journalist Thomas Burke called “our welcome to the new century”. It was in the 1920s that modern Britain came into being.

What changed? After the Representation of the People Act of 1918 Britain became a modern mass democracy. Extending the vote to working-class men and women had political effects: it made public opinion of pressing importance and prompted politicians, bureaucrats and scientists to seek new ways of ensuring the wellbeing of ordinary Britons. Often unsuccessful at the time, these impulses nonetheless established the conditions for the development of the welfare state after 1945. Political reform also had cultural consequences. The extension of the franchise prompted anxious reflection on the influence of the media and consumer culture that anticipated recent scandals over the power of the press. Those debates mattered because the 1920s also witnessed the spectacular growth of a commercial culture that still looks remarkably familiar: the cinema, bestselling romantic novel, personal journalism and a new celebrity culture all reflected the affluence enjoyed by at least some Britons.

A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Dulwich, south London, during the UK general election, 6 December 1923. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Dulwich, south London, during the UK general election, 6 December 1923. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The ‘sex appeal’ of the Hollywood star, moreover, was just the most visible aspect of a striking liberalisation of sexual attitudes and behaviour that reflected both young women’s changing horizons and progressive challenges to conventional moral codes. In the 1920s women gained more personal freedom; rising real wages for those in work reinvigorated consumer culture and provided new leisure opportunities; the world of chain stores, cinemas and dance halls expanded. The flapper dominates our image of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ because she was of vital importance to contemporary culture, and because new technologies of photography, cinema and newsreels ensured she remains visible today.

The legacy of the Great War

There were more troubling tensions behind this glossy veneer, however. Throughout the 1920s, the legacies of the Great War were inescapable. The war’s ongoing demands were partly about the process of remembering and memorialising the dead, providing for the physical and psychological needs of the traumatised living, and understanding the war through novels and autobiographies. Yet the rituals of Armistice Day were only the most visible traces of a conflict whose impress was everywhere. Pervasive and insistent, war lived on in anxious discussions of what it meant to be British and modern, and in powerful images of the 1920s as a traumatised and unnerved world.

Not all Britons shared in the profits and possibilities of peace. Despite a brief boom after the Armistice, the costs of war and the vagaries of a competitive global economy were soon felt across the ‘old’ industrial regions of south Wales, northern England and Scotland. As early as autumn 1922 a social survey identified The Third Winter of Employment. This report proved a prescient recognition of the enduring social problems that defined the period for many. The conditions it described also underpinned the bitter industrial conflicts that coalesced in the General Strike in 1926, and the emergence of a radical politics that demanded the profits of peace be shared among the many, not the few. A growing regional divide coalesced in the idea of the ‘two nations’ – a declining industrial north set in sharp contrast to the burgeoning consumerism of London and the south-east.

The 1920s saw the emergence of a radical politics that demanded the profits of peace be shared among the many, not the few

Fixating on the United States, finally, draws attention away from other – equally vital and important – global influences on 1920s British culture. Europe mattered, of course. Perhaps most significant was Britain’s global empire. Far from distant or marginal, empire was intrinsic to everyday life. It was studied at school, read about in newspapers, seen in newsreels and films and witnessed in the packets of tea sold in shops. It created an increasingly cosmopolitan population, particularly in ports like Liverpool, Cardiff and Glasgow. It shaped how Britons understood the world and their nation’s place in it. Empire also had a darker side: racial tensions and violence would be a recurrent feature of the 1920s, as the ideas of white superiority on which Britain’s power rested fuelled the popular racism and political interventions that made life so difficult for black or Asian Britons. All of this meant that it required – and still requires – remarkable cultural amnesia to portray 1920s Britain as stable, let alone characterised by hedonism and frivolity.

From cocktails to crashes

Let’s take the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s “sounds of the 1920s”. This was: “the decade of flappers, cocktails, and the Charleston, when the whole world danced to the wild new rhythms of jazz. And on Tin Pan Alley, songwriters from Gershwin to Irving Berlin created some of the most intoxicating songs of the new century. Fascinatin’ Rhythm, The Man I Love, Let’s Do It, Mack the Knife… they’re all here, so kick up your heels and let’s party like it’s 1929.”

American songs and American songwriters – here is the myth of the hedonistic ‘Roaring Twenties’ writ small. The nod to Prince is a neat touch, but we would do well to remember that 1929 was also the year of the Wall Street crash, and an economic crisis that rippled across the world.

An unidentified woman wearing a ‘flapper’- style skirt dances at a party in a still from the film, ‘The Great Gatsby,’ directed by Elliott Nugent, 1949. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)

In Britain, that same year, Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government came to power after the first election in which the ‘flapper vote’ became a feature of political life. Women over 30 had gained the vote in 1918. It was only in July 1928, however, that women were enfranchised on the same terms as men and could vote from the age of 21. The Equal Franchise Act drew a line under the progressive advances in women’s social and political position triggered by the Great War. In January 1929, finally, RC Sherriff’s most famous play Journey’s End (which was adapted as a film in 2018) began its sell-out public run in London’s West End. Set in an officer’s dugout in France in the days leading up to a raid on the German trenches, Journey’s End encapsulates what we now think of as the literature of the Great War. It is an uncompromising study of the war’s futility, horror and psychological stresses. The transfer of Sherriff’s play in the same year as Erich Remarque’s classic antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front was first published in English marked the point at which a new literature of disillusionment began to take hold in the public imagination. The ways in which Britons thought about the Great War slowly began to change.

There is little sign that the ‘Roaring Twenties’, ’Bright Young Things’, and United States are losing their hold on the public imagination – far from it. Only in the past two years has one of the largest online fancy dress shops added a recognisably British costume to its section on the 1920s. The ‘peaked cap gangster’ costume is striking evidence of how the remarkable success of Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, and Peaky Blinders has transformed how we think about postwar Britain. It remains only a partial version of the 1920s, however, and the depressing spectacle of fedoras, ‘Gangster’s Molls’, and ‘Charleston Red flapper dress’ dominates.

Another absence: the range of costumes touted by the same online shop covers every decade from the 1920s through to the 1990s with one notable exception. It seems partygoers don’t find the ‘Hungry Thirties’ the most appealing theme for fancy dress, and the Jarrow marcher ‘look’ still isn’t back in fashion.

Our obsession with glamour and hedonism distracts from equally compelling experiences of austerity, trauma and conflict

Are these the grumblings of a curmudgeonly historian? Perhaps. But it’s important to think critically about the shorthand labels we fall back on when trying to understand the past. Charleston parties and flapper costumes seem like harmless fun – but they carry the most powerful myths about Britain after the Great War. The resilience of these myths mean that we misunderstand 1920s society and culture, and the decade’s significance in the making of modern Britain. Our obsession with glamour and hedonism distracts from equally compelling experiences of austerity, trauma and conflict; the blaring jazz saxophone drowns out the emergence of radical new ideas for living and for organising society and politics. The spectacle of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ turns our attention from the decade’s importance as the moment when modern Britain came into being.

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Matt Houlbrook is a professor of cultural history at the University of Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @TricksterPrince