The Dating Avant-Garde

January 22, 2020 4 min read

Many of us grimace over writing an OKCupid profile, or sitting opposite a stranger. But imagine if meeting your date required a supervised walk, or tea in the family parlour? For the most part, the days of Victorian courtship are over. As we enter the decade of the twenties once again, it’s time to uncover where dating rituals begin.

Alcohol was prohibited but consumed in abundance. Speakeasies, jazz bars and picture houses popped-up, alongside ‘gasoline-buggies’ to ride between them. It was the roaring twenties and a thrilling time, but also an important one. The war was over, the economy boomed and women had the vote. Not only did young people suddenly have places to meet, freedom ruled the day, setting a precedent for having a swinging good time with a person.

Things were also getting a lot sexier. The word ‘sexy’ dawns in 1925, along with scantily clad flappers, and women arrested for wearing “abbreviated bathing suits”. A 1922 issue of Ladies Home Journal declares:

“It would be a fine thing for this generation if the word ‘flapper’ could be abolished...Its after-war significance entangled itself with the ‘dreadful’ side of youth — with jazz, short skirts, bobbed hair and glistening legs; with the ‘immodest’ passing of corsets: with cigarette smoking; with petting parties and gasoline-buggy riding... with one-piece bathing suits... with birth control and eugenics…”

1922 chicago illilois woman arrested for wearing 'abbreviated bathing suit'.

But women weren’t only flapping around, they worked. The shopgirl, like the flapper, was an emblem of the times. Painted faces no longer reserved for prostitutes and actresses became a necessity with book titles like, ‘Beauty a Duty’. Made-up shopgirls advertised a fantasy, emulating higher-class women in the hopes of picking up rich men. Whilst this doesn’t sound like progress, it signals a drastic change in social mobility but also led to the first uses of the term ‘gold digger’. 

Whether selling perfume or yourself, beauty wasn’t the only duty of the day - personality was also prescribed. A 1920 issue of Cosmopolitan first describes charisma as having ‘it’, winning you “all men if you are a woman - and all women if you are a man.” In contrast to the Victorian demand for virtue in a partner, ‘it’ suggests a shift towards individual intrigue, even love. 

The image of a girl selling her wares goes a step further when women that date get confounded with ‘whores’, “women who let men buy them food and drinks or gifts and entrance tickets looked like whores, and making a date seemed the same as turning a trick.” writes Moira Weigel in Labour of Love. In reality, men getting the check was a necessity, since a woman in the 1900s earnt half what he did.

First-wave feminism

With slut-shaming rampant, how slutty was it? Sex before marriage was still a no, but young people, as ever, pushed the borders of going ‘all the way’ at petting parties. “Mothers Complain That Modern Girls ‘Vamp’ Their Sons at Petting Parties” proclaims a New York Times headline from 1922. Fondling and necking in cars isn’t exactly like casual sex today but attitudes to sex had altered with pioneering birth control clinics. As a result, women in the 1900s  had only half the number of children as the third generation before them. 

A secretive dating underworld was also burning bright through cryptic personal ads and flashy drag balls. Gay culture struck a high point in the 20s when, “thousands of tuxedoed lesbians and glamorous pansies in sequins ‘billowing clouds of feathers’ paraded across the dancefloor, indifferent to any purported racial divide,” writes Chad Heap in Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife. Lengthy queues to supposedly “use the washrooms” are also mentioned. Still, many suffered for their sexuality. Leading us to the conclusion of this glittering oasis as the depression era sets in.

Flashing forward to the 2020s, where does this leave us? All social movements for the freedom to love require space. Entertainment venues like Berlin’s picture palaces were once condemned as part of ‘the cult of distraction’ and the internet is talked about in similar terms today. But it has always been morality’s argument against entertainment and self-fulfilment. So the next time you open Tinder, remember dating can be fun and freeing.

Olivia Rose
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