The '20s actually were
just like this.
"There seemed little doubt about what was going to happen. America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it."
An "era of wonderful nonsense", as conservative newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler later termed it. A dizzy, giddy time of petting parties, bootleg gin, jazz
. Where coffee cost a dime.
The setting of many an Agatha Christie
mystery, this is one era that absolutely lives up to the stereotypes and then some. The Great War
was over, (most of) the Western world had never been so prosperous - time to par-tay
Style is almost exclusively Art Deco moderne
, all minimalist lines and coolly fluid shapes. (Side point- Art Deco's fascination with streamlining household objects whose actual wind resistance is irrelevant proved popular because leveling incomes led for the first time to a group of people who could afford good design but not household servants. It seems that a streamlined Art Deco lamp is easier to dust
than a frilly Victorian one...)
Dresses are short and so is ladies' hair. Bobbed hair had actually emerged earlier, around 1915, and was popularized during the late 1910s out of convenience during the war
, as well as through the earlier 1920s. Hemlines gradually rose from ankle to calf-length during the First World War
and to knee-length by 1925. Despite those costumes you buy these days, most dresses were not fringed or figure-hugging, and above-the-knee hemlines were nonexistent for grown women at any time. Dresses had boxy and boyish silhouettes, dropped waists and were minimally or highly decorated depending on the occasion.
Characters include gangsters and G-men, flappers and their sheiks (sort of proto-metrosexual
young males), languid white movie idols and jolly black jazz singers and dancers, and lots of cheery collegiate types who wear huge fur coats and wide Oxford bags and play ukuleles while dancing the Charleston
and shouting "23
skidoo!" The basic idea was to shock, amaze and amuse at all costs; there were apparently some women of the era who would greet their guests in the bath
The fun and excitement is only heightened by the fact that much of it is totally illegal, at least in the USA. There Prohibition is in full swing, so gin is made in bathtubs, smuggled by the likes of Al Capone
and served only in 'speakeasies', hole-in-the-wall bars highly prone to raids by stolid, humourless cops, or an ambush by the eccentric Izzy And Moe
prohibition agent team in disguise. Unless you're Treasury Agent Eliot Ness or one of his elite team of incorruptible agents, The Untouchables
, be extra cautious to never insult a tough-looking Italian in a sharp suit, or you'll find yourself looking down the barrel of a Tommy Gun.
However, this growth of the influence of modern life in urbanized northern states ran headlong into more conservative communities, especially in the south which tried to keep modern influences like the theory of evolution out from their schools. The state of Tennessee tried to do so with the Butler Act, which banned evolution from school curriculums. The small town of Dayton, suffering from an economic slump, took advantage of this and persuaded the local teacher, John Scopes, to be indicted under this law in order to have a big publicity trial to bring in the tourists. The plan worked perfectly, and the resulting "Monkey Trial" (as journalist and satirist H. L. Mencken
famously dubbed it) proved to be one of the most dramatic and publicized of the century, with the confrontation between the noted populist leader and religious conservative William Jennings Bryan and the famed defense lawyer and noted agnostic Clarence Darrow being the highlight of the event. As it happens, the prosecution's win was never seriously in doubt, but the victory was a Pyrrhic one for religious fundamentalists, with Bryan being publicly embarrassed by Darrow's questioning that forced him to concede that a literal interpretation of the Bible was indefensible; Bryan died less than a week later. (The trial would later be immortalized, albeit with certain dramatic liberties taken,
by the classic play Inherit the Wind
and its subsequent film adaptations.)
Meanwhile, the African American community started to finally gain its voice in American culture. Many black Southerners moved to Northern cities during the 1910's and the early part of this decade. Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City, was the most famous African American community, and so many of the most famous African American writers, artists, and musicians were based there that many historians call this period the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other famous authors wrote stories that captured the African American experience and were read by millions, and Jazz
started to spread throughout the country when white people realized that Louis Armstrong
and Duke Ellington
and the others sounded really awesome. This trend would continue in the 1930s, leading to Big Band and Swing music. An Afro-American woman, Josephine Baker
, became a big star in Paris. Meanwhile, intellectuals of the community, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, planted the seeds of what would eventually become the Civil Rights Movement
As for entertainment, silent films
became an art medium of their own with classic films like The Wind
setting new heights for screen drama and the great silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin
, Harold Lloyd
and Buster Keaton
gaining enormous popularity. The fact that they didn't have sound meant that movies still hadn't killed off Vaudeville
or Minstrel Shows
just yet, but the advent of talkies late in the decade finished the job, however. Radio progressed quickly through the last of its experimental phases and was firmly established as a mass-market medium by the end of the decade, also changing the meaning of "popular music" and establishing the "pop idol" (Al Jolson, Ted Lewis, Rudy Vallee) in the process. Meanwhile, ultra-low-def mechanical television had brief success with early adopters (essentially beta-testing it) before The Great Depression
and the advent of (relatively) high-definition all-electronic TV killed it off by the mid-'30s.
During all this, of course, the relics of The Gay Nineties
, now doughty dowagers and grumpy old Colonels, look on disapprovingly, from short skirts
, to make-up
and swimming wear
One should also note that while things were just swell in America, Britain and much of Western Europe (where it was dubbed The Golden Twenties
across The Pond
), if you were in an area hard hit by World War I
, Russia, Turkey or the entire Caucasus Mountains region before the Soviets annexed it) this was not
a fun time. However, it doesn't mean that they didn't try, once they were able to pull themselves together again. But in Germany, there are rightwing paramilitary groups who have some very grand ambitions and there will be a few people who get a chilling feeling that one loudmouth Austrian with a toothbrush mustache
is going to be very big trouble.
America's booming wealth and newfound geopolitical importance meant that lots of American writers and intellectuals (many of them disaffected by what they saw as the country's political complacency, puritanical moralism, and empty materialism) spent time in Europe during this period, soaking up Europe's old culture even as European thinkers dreamed of wiping it all clean and starting over. The contrast between "naive" Americans and "decadent" Europe set a fictional pattern which has endured nearly a century.
(called USSR since 1922), after a devastating civil war, experienced a short period of economic growth thanks to the NEP (new economic policy), a series of reforms that allowed free enterprise and private property. A new Soviet bourgeoisie was born, with a penchant for over-the-top parties and a slavish fascination with American fashion, music and dance. The Soviet Nouveau Riche
(typically called a nepman
) was a stock character in 20's Russian satire. Rather funny, they left behind the most durable heritage in Soviet arts and design, as most Soviet architecture and industrial design from the 1920s
to the 1970s was ludicrously similar to period American design
This period lasted sometime after World War I
till the Crash of 1929 or just before the New Deal of 1933
, or the entire Prohibition era (1920-1933). Understandably, there was much nostalgia for this period as soon as it ended, with a lot of 1930's movies (especially the gangster ones) being set during this decade, and it was often a nostalgic setting during The Forties
, The Fifties
, The Sixties
, and well into The Seventies
For the 1939 movie of the same name, click here.
Also see: The Gay Nineties
, The Edwardian Era
, The Great Depression
, The Forties
, The Fifties
, The Sixties
, The Seventies
, The Eighties
, The Nineties
, Turn of the Millennium
, and The New Tens
for more decade nostalgia.
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This ain't baloney, this is Serious Beeswax, as most words and phrases we use nowadays originated from this decade, so here are some examples, see?:
- "And How!" - I agree!
- "Applesauce" - Nonsense!
- "Attaboy!/Attagirl!" - well done, son/lad/lass/boy/girl/kid.
- "Baby" - sweetheart, also a respectable word.
- "Bank's closed" - No Hugging, No Kissing
- "Baloney" - Blatant Lies or just nonsense
- "Bear cat" - Tsundere
- "Beat it" or "23 skidoo" - get lost or GTFO!
- "Bee's knees" or "Cat's meow" - an extraordinarily splendid person, idea or thing.
- "Big cheese" - an important person.
- "Big six" - The Big Guy
- "Blind date" - dating a stranger
- "Bootleg", "hooch" or "giggle water" - alcoholic beverage
- "Bump off" - to kill
- "Butt me" - I'll take a cigarette, please.
- "Cheaters" - eyeglasses
- "Crush" - infatuation
- "Dick" - no, not that dick, a private investigator
- "Doll" or "Dame" - sexy lady
- "Double cross" - backstabbing
- "Dogs" - shoes
- "Drug-store cowboy" - Ladies' man
- "Dumb-bell" - stupid person
- "Earful" - enough
- "Egg" - Big cheese living the big life.
- "Fall Guy" - frame victim
- "A flapper" and her "Dapper" - 20s girl and her dad.
- "Fire extinguisher" - cock blocker or chaperone
- "Fish" - first timer in college or in prison.
- "Fly boy" - aviator
- "For crying out loud!" - the period's Big "OMG!"
- "Gams" - a lady's legs
- "Gin mill" - illegal liquor joint
- "Gold Digger" - woman who marries a man for his wealth.
- "Goofy" - in love.
- "Hard-boiled" or "bimbo" - tough guy. Overlaps with big six.
- "Hit on a sixes" - to perform 100 percent
- "Hoofer" - dancer
- "Hotsy-totsy" - pleasing
- "I/You/They is" - replacing "am" or "are"
- "It" - sex appeal
- "Jock" - high school/college athlete
- "Kisser" - mouth
- "Middle aisle" - to marry
- "Moll" - gangster's girl
- "Nifty" - great
- "Pipe down" - shut up
- "Putting on the Ritz" - go high style
- "Sap" - a fool
- "See?" - Essentially a Verbal Tic that came at the end of sentences, see?
- "See a man about a dog" - an old excuse to where he's leaving without any apparent reason
- "Sheik" and "Sheba" - man and woman with sex appeal, respectively
- "Spiffy" - an elegant appearance.
- "Swell" - wonderful
- "Torpedo" - a hired gun.
- "What's eating you?" - What's wrong?
- "Whoopee!" - having a gay old time
- "You slay me" - that's funny.
- Art Deco in her full blossomed glory.
- B Movies: Surged around this time as bigger budgets became more common, with the film industry ending up differentiated between larger studios such as Paramount and Universal from "Poverty Row" companies.
- Banned In Boston: and the rest of America, alcoholic beverages.
- Barely-There Swimwear: nowadays it's an Old-Timey Bathing Suit, but it was completely daring on that era.
- Black Face: It was the 20's...
- The Cheerleader: Before about 1925 all cheer squads featured only men (yup, even in "co-ed" campuses, believe it or not), but soon after some flappers decided to get in the act, and the rest its history...
- Coco Chanel
- Cosmic Horror Story, if you're HP Lovecraft
- Dance Sensation / Happy Dance: In prosperous times like these, dances like The Shimmy, The Charleston and The Black Bottom would set the dance floor ablaze with sensational flappers cutting the rug. The former was banned as bootleg, yet praised as a good aerobic dance; the latter two became the rage during the rest of the decade.
- The Dandy: Also known as the "Sheik" during this time.
- Dangerously Short Skirt: Despite being knee length due to a flourishing economy (the lengths were seemingly influenced by how the stock market performed that week), they were scandalous, at the time, according to their Victorian parents.
- Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster
- Diesel Punk, just starting out with Fritz Lang's Metropolis
- Dry Crusader: to those who supported Prohibition.
- Evolution: Started to really enter the public consciousness during the 1920's, especially because of the Scopes trial.
- The Flapper
- The Gay Nineties: A nostalgic setting during the period, with many sketches poking fun at all those "Belle Epoque" fashions.
- The Generation Gap between flapper girls and their Victorian parents.
- Genteel Interbellum Setting
- Jive Turkey
- Ku Klux Klan: A major organization during the decade. The number of members was over 5 million, and they were so powerful that they had a 50,000-person strong march on Washington in 1925.
- Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy
- The Little Black Dress: Which Chanel first designed during this period.
- Nice Hat: Fedoras, newsboy caps, straw hats and top hats for men; tight-fitting, head-hugging swanky cloche hats for women.
- Petite Pride: The "washboard" look of the flappers.
- Pimped-Out Dress: Perhaps the most prominent decade of the 20th century for this trope. There's the figureless beaded chemise dresses as you see on old photographs and fashion magazines, the little black dresses made by Chanel, and then there's the 1920s alternative dress, the robes de style,.
- Pretty in Mink: Dyeing furs different colors became popular.
- The end of the Silent Age of film and animation.
- She's Got Legs: For the first time since antiquity. Whether she had Knee Socks or none.
- Short Skirt And Knee Socks: Flappers often had grade A or B.
- Stepford Smiler: Inside the parties and the booze-laden shell lies an empty core filled with economic downturns, depression and wartime trauma waiting to crack.
- Suburbia: Surged during this time as automobiles and bungalow houses became increasingly popular.
- The New Rock & Roll: Jazz is really the Trope Maker.
- Trope Makers: Everything we know as "popular culture" emerged at one time or another during the decade, thus making TV Tropes possible.
- '20s Bob Haircut: from the classic Irene Castle bob to Josephine Baker's boyish Eton Crop, from the sleek Louise Brooks shingle cut to the Clara Bow puff and the wavy Joan Crawford perm; different styles, same cut.
Works set in this time period:
Films — Animation
Films — Live-Action
- Most works of HP Lovecraft (1890-1937) not set in a Dream World.
- Several Jeeves and Wooster stories (1917-1966) by P. G. Wodehouse, and a decent number of his many other ones, too.
- The first published works by Agatha Christie appeared in this decade.
- Bulldog Drummond. The novel series started in 1920.
- Babbitt. First published in 1922.
- Lord Peter Wimsey. The novel series started in 1923.
- The Most Dangerous Game. First published in January 1924.
- Charlie Chan. The franchise began with a series of novels that started in 1925.
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (the novel first published in 1925 and the musical later based on it, but not, however, the movie musical)
- The Great Gatsby (1925) is probably the best-known novel set in the 1920s. It features a number of classic elements of the era, including the Depression-era dust bowl, Jazz Age parties, and wealthy bootleggers. For that matter, much of F. Scott Fitzgerald oeuvre was produced in the 1920s and set there.
- Sannikov Land (1926)
- Some of Ernest Hemingway's work.
- The Hardy Boys. Series started in June, 1927.
- Elmer Gantry (1927)
- Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928)
- The Twelve Chairs (1928) is a famous depictions of the Soviet 20's culture.
- Albert Campion. This series of novels started in 1929.
- Bony. This series of novels started in 1929.
- Tender Is the Night (1934) is set in France, but mostly portrays Americans of the era.
- Practically the entire published output of Edward Gorey (1925-2000).
- The Phryne Fisher mysteries (1989-) are set in 1928 and 1929, in Melbourne, Australia.
- The Full Matilda (2004) has events starting in this period. Matilda's main storyline starts here, and she continues to live this lifestyle until the day she dies.
- The Princess 99 (c. 2009) takes place in 1924, in New Orleans... but with wizards!
- Bride of the Rat God takes place in the Hollywood silent film era.
- The Diviners (pub. 2012)
Live Action TV
- Doctor Who, episodes "Black Orchid" and "The Unicorn and the Wasp".
- Poirot, the TV series; the books actually span a much longer period. (The Miss Marple series, meanwhile, is set in a different version of this trope - what might be called the suburban one. Middle-aged housewives sit around musing how hard it is to get good help since The War gave the rabble ideas.)
- Upstairs Downstairs (seasons 3-5)
- Boardwalk Empire
- In the Charmed episode "Pardon My Past", Prue, Piper and Phoebe time-travel back to the Twenties.
- The House of Eliott
- Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
- Downton Abbey: Starting in Series 3.
- Ken Burns produced a three-part documentary entitled Prohibition about, well, Prohibition. The Roaring Twenties take up most of the second and third episodes.
- Underbelly: Razor begins in 1927. The prequel, Underbelly: Squizzy, ends in 1927.
- Though we never get to see it, the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Course: Oblivion" has a holodeck program set in Chicago of that period, which would have been the place for the duplicate Voyager's Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres' honeymoon.
- Louis Armstrong rose to fame in this decade.
- Irving Berlin with his musicals and individual songs was rising to fame during this time.
- George Gershwin wrote two of his most popular works, "Rhapsody In Blue" and "An American In Paris", during this decade.
- Al Jolson was really big during this era.
- Igor Stravinsky started his neoclassical phase during this decade.
- Lackadaisy Cats, whose only inaccuracy is that the world is populated by anthropomorphic felines.
- And the presence of a cathedral radio, and a few anachronistic cars (by one year). And, maybe, checkbooks.
- Chess Piece takes place at the near end of this decade. Of course, it being an alternate universe, some things are very, very different. Like ghosts inhabiting Antarctica, demons ruling Australia (no, really), and America being ruled by a kindly demonic-looking king.
- Problem Sleuth, save for the occasional Anachronism Stew.
- Alleged Whiskey is set in 1928 California, just before talking motion pictures became popular.
- At Knotts Berry Farm, the "Boardwalk" area, which now holds most of the park's thrill rides, was previously called "The Roaring 20s," a literal theme park version of the era.
Works made in (but not necessarily set during) the twenties: