From the cult violence of A Clockwork Orange to Hannibal Lecter‘s legacy of cannibalism, long has Hollywood been the much suspected culprit behind America’s criminal underbelly; yet as much as many may wish to deplore the extravagance of American cinematography, its power to enchant the modern multitude also makes it a global educative force. A kaleidoscopic explosion of shimmering diamonds, jewels and sequins, a bewitching array of suave billionaires and vintage motor cars –the Great Gatsby in film provides a rich and visually sumptuous feast that has left its audience entranced by the intoxicating decadence of 1920’s New York.
Spurred on by the film’s release this December, 1920’s glamour has been propelled onto the catwalk, invading both the world of haute-couture and high street fashion as sales of vintage clothing soar by as much as 225% in stores such as Debenhams while glistening copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s novels have flown into handbags across Europe and America. Not only has the film re-opened the world’s eyes to classic American literature and post-war fashion, but from London, India to Brazil and Australia, the roar of 1920’s American high society has echoed into the 21st century with many choosing to walk into the new year with a step back in time as a plethora of 1920’s style new year’s eve parties swept across the oceans.
What better way to learn of history than to relive it?
“I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.” –Owl Eyes
Feather bowers and pearls necklaces dangle glamorously from the necks of women in crimson and royal blue velvet flapper dresses taking indulgent sips of champagne cocktails, young couples do the Charleston as the heavy rhythmic tones of the saxophone vibrate through their dancing feet whilst trilby hats shake to the beat of fast-moving ragtime riffs as the owners beneath them savour the exquisite taste of Russian roulette. A perhaps somewhat acute picture on the human condition, exposing an almost intrinsically human tendency towards sensual indulgence and self-gratification, these 21st century socialites appear to be perfect doubles of their 20th century counterparts.
Are we innately self-indulgent beings? Aside from technological advancements, is there simply nothing more to distinguish us from our 100 year old forerunners? Is society still the same divided cake of classism and racism that it once was?
“Her voice is full of money.” -Jay Gatsby
106 years ago, America had waved goodbye to the suffering of World War I and was beginning to rebuild its delicate shell; the enlightening spark of electricity was to illuminate two thirds of households and after its initial depression,1920’s New York was to undergo a scintillating economic jump as the hire-purchase scheme was introduced, encouraging people to ‘buy now and pay later’, thus feeding commercial excess. The eighteenth amendment of the Constitution that banned liquor, allowed lower and middle-class characters such as Gatsby to ride high on the waves of organised crime and make their fortune on underground sales of alcohol and by 1929, 20% of Americans were the proud owners of a new motor car, prices having fallen dramatically with high production demands.
The Class System
“An Oxford man!” He was incredulous. “Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.” -Jordan Baker
Aside from the unhindered excess of parties hosted by new-found millionaires, the Great Gatsby unveils some of the lesions in 1920’s society that had been brought on by post-war economic growth with Gatsby’s desperate attempts at social climbing encompassing the ill-fated chase for the all American Dream and the East Egg and West Egg embodying the class struggle between ‘old money’ and ‘new money’.
“What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon?” Cried Daisy “And the day after that, and the next thirty years?”
In post-war America, women began to make their way to the ballot box for the first time and Fitzgerald’s portrayal of emancipated women such as Myrtle dabbling in extramarital affairs reflect the bounty of a battle won by the suffragettes with the commencement of female sexual liberation and the start of changing attitudes towards women. Yet ‘I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’ wishes Daisy cynically for her daughter; women as housewives bound by domestic duty was still a commonplace phenomenon and the avarice of fiercely money-driven female characters in the novel such as Daisy reveal the perpetual economic dependence of women on their partners.
The Black Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem Renaissance
“The idea is, if we don’t look out, the white race will be–will be utterly submerged… “ –Nick Carrraway
The mass-migration of the long suffering African American population from the poor living conditions of the south to the economically flourishing northern cities had not proved dramatically beneficial in terms of finance for they found themselves still segregated onto the fringes of urban society. Often accused of crimes they had not committed and refused entry to white-only establishments, most had to dwell in urban ghettos, having swapped the overt southern racism of the Klu Klax Klan for the more covert racism of high society New Yorkers. The jazz singers at Gatsby’s social gatherings however, mark the beginning of the Harlem renaissance; the invention of radio and coverage from African American-run newspapers such as the New York Amsterdam News had brought gospel, blues and jazz to a mainstream audience, popularising singers such as Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. 1920’s New York was to experience a cultural wave of poetry, music and theatre as African-Americans finally found an outlet to express their extended suffering of social marginalisation.
“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!” –Jay Gatsby
Today, despite the elaborate veneer of 1920’s fashion that has begun to sweep night time stages with twinkling vibrancy, thanks to the suffragettes, changes in constitutional policy and the american civil rights movement, America has made unimaginable strides of improvement towards equality since Gatsby’s time. African Americans and all ethnic minorities enjoy equal rights and many revel in some of the highest salaries in the world, yet gun crime is rife and incidents of racial attacks still come to the limelight each year whilst racial discrepancies in the judicial system exist with Hispanic and African American prisoners making up 78% of incarcerated men in Florida. Women also enjoy unprecedented levels of freedom and equality in terms of family life, education and employment, many even enjoying more freedom than men. However, their political presence still lacks- marked by the entire male legacy of American presidents- and with 1000 women killed by their partners in 2012 and approximately 100,000 under-age girls sex trafficked in 2013, violence against women through crime and domestic abuse crime is also a concerning issue. Class prejudices have diminished greatly, yet a class system still rattles under the surface of America’s contemporary skeleton and children from impoverished backgrounds rarely manage to escape the financial fate of the generation before them.
Is racism still rife in America or have ethnic minorities been given a welcoming grip of warm acceptance into everyday America? To what extent does violence against women plague the American nation? Is the emancipation of women still a concern or should we rather seek to eradicate injustices undergone by a male population overlooked and villainized by radical feminists? Billionaire Warren Buffet is taxed 10% of his salary as everyday American citizens are taxed 30%- is classism rotting underneath America’s capitalist skin?
Tickled by the lavish jazz age of the Great Gatsby or fascinated by the class struggle, women’s rights, the Harlem renaissance and the African American Civil Rights Movement? Then perhaps these are the blogs for you: Intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance, Violence against black women, The Civil Rights Movement, American Suffragettes, Votes for Women, Dressed in fashion and How to dress Gatsby Style.