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Understanding 1920s Beauty

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 6, 2012 04:13 PM

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The movie is almost a year away, but people are already getting excited about Baz Lurhmann's 3D (!) adaptation of The Great Gatsby, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy. Early stills released from the studio show that the movie more-or-less glows with that special twenties beauty. But what is it, exactly, that's so beautiful about the twenties?

Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties offers one answer. The book is the catalogue to a museum exhibit, currently at the Brooklyn Museum but soon to tour around the country. The lead essay, by curator Teresa Carbone, aims to identify what's special about 1920s beauty and glamour. Today, we tend to think of beauty and sexiness as relatively relaxed and carefree qualities. But during the 1920s, she writes, American visual artists prized "physical forthrightness" only if it was also "disciplined" -- athletic, poised, and pristine. Sexiness was good, but only if it was also, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, "clean"; you wanted to be "liberated," but, in the words of painter Thomas Hart Benton, that liberation had to be infused with "physical sanity." (Benton's Self-Portrait with Rita is below.) "The ideal modern woman," Carbone writes, "was a Venus rising from, or swimming in, the sea -- pristine, fit, scantily clad." For both men and women, the goal was to embody "an elemental health and freedom" -- the key word being elemental.

It's this combination of sexiness with pristine, disciplined cleanliness which makes the American '20s look so unique to us now: Think of bare skin, flowing silk, perfect posture, a body toned from swimming, and glittering jewelry reminiscent of the sun on the sea. The aesthetic wasn't just high-art -- it was also popularized in fashion magazines and advertisements. And it drew attention to the physical fitness of the body in a way that endures today. Carbone cites a 1928 article from Vogue: "The 'ideal' modern figure... will be found to fulfill the acrobat's dream of fitness.... A really supple and muscular young body, with no spare flesh on the well-made frame."

After the horror and destruction of World War One, people all over the world were obsessed with beauty, healthfulness, and youth. But America had a particular, and now instantly recognizable, way of lionizing those qualities. During the same period, European artists tended toward the avant-garde and abstract; before the War, the Gibson Girl aesthetic reigned. Afterwards, the American beauty ideal changed. Today, the 1920s remain unique in the history of art, fashion, beauty, and taste -- a time, Carbone writes, when our idea about beauty centered on "an uneasy reconciliation of liberation and restraint."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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