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Punks and Flappers and What They Can Teach Us

05/14/2013 03:06 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2013
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Both punks and flappers are at the center of popular culture right now, thanks to the Met Ball using punk as a theme and the Costume Institute's exhibition "Punk: Chaos to Couture." There is also that little art house flick, The Great Gatsby, which brought flappers back to the mainstream.

Despite thriving over 50 years apart, these two groups have quite a bit in common and can give us a good refresher course on female empowerment, which is totally having a moment right now. Dissertations could be written about their commonalities, but these are a few that are most relevant today.

Post-War, Urban Life Were Their Incubators: "They were sick of being ignored and fed up with the post-war complacency. They were weary of doing what their parents wanted, tired of feeling isolated, bored and disenfranchised." The BBC wrote this in 2006 not about the flapper movement, but punk rock, in its three-part series, "Punk rock: 30 years of subversion."

One common denominator between punks and flappers is how much a post-war environment contributed to their existence. The Jazz Age seems obvious, since it followed World War I, but the punk scene of the late 70s was heavily influenced by the fallout of the Vietnam War.

Vivienne Westwood, the Grand Dame of punk fashion, recently cited the social consciousness of the hippies who came before her for putting the importance of politics on her radar. She recently told Harper's Bazaar, "I was about 36 when punk happened and I was upset about what was going on in the world," she continues. "It was the hippies who taught my generation about politics, and that's what I cared about -- the world being so corrupt and mismanaged, people suffering, wars, all these terrible things... And I blamed the older generation for what was going on too, so we wouldn't even accept their taboos."

In the 1970s, parts of Manhattan had all but been ignored, and so they became perfect breeding grounds for the punk scene and its music. New York's East Village became home to one of the most iconic punk clubs, CBGBs as well as Max's Kansas City. If you didn't have a lot of money, or even a job, a walk-up on 1970s-era Eighth Street would be a great place to crash and make your music, away from the more square parts of town.

We should not pretend for a second that flappers were in any way shape or form a political bunch. They were not. Even though they enjoyed the right to vote that the suffragettes before them fought so hard for, flappers pretty much solely sought a good time. But it was a good time where they created the rules. World War I brought young women into the workforce due to the scarcity of men to do jobs, however menial.

It also kept the women there. Once the war was over and women still earned their own money, they realized could live on their own and were not bound by social rules their mothers and grandmothers abided by. Flappers were called the New Woman and this New Woman was certainly not going to defect to a domestic life until she got a few things out of her system, and tried out a few different men. Only a city could afford her those options. It was social rebellion by lifestyle choice.

Both Had Signature Designers: When one thinks of flappers, drop-waist dresses immediately come to mind. Coco Chanel was mostly responsible for creating this look, since when she first opened her shops she was very much one of these New Women who worked outside the home and needed clothing she could move in.

What the average consumer doesn't realize is that before Coco, there was her greatest rival, Paul Poiret. As early as 1904, Poiret was designing clothing without corsets that freed women's bodies. He did it mostly just to shake up design, and not so much for women's well being. He didn't revolutionize fashion using jersey as fabric or incorporating straight lines, as Chanel did, but he was one of the first to toss the corset and loosen silhouettes.

The ethos of punk would make following fashion counter intuitive -- punk culture relies heavily on being anti-commercial, but Vivienne Westwood is still the quintessential punk designer. Her 70s-era London shop, variously known as Let It Rock; Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, Sex and World's End was one the first to sell punk clothing, which is handy when one doesn't have the time to rip their own jeans or insert their own safety pins. Stores such as the East Village's Trash and Vaudeville were -- and still are -- more than happy to carry the goods. It is also notable that both Chanel and Westwood are still thriving today as companies, decades after they were created. While being a multi-national company may not be truly punk rock, making money as a woman in big business certainly is.

Hair As An Act of Rebellion: In the 1920s, when flappers were bubbling up on society's radar, it was unheard of for a woman to leave the house without a hat, and certainly not with short hair. A typical woman in Edwardian times (the period that came before the Jazz Age, although most people mistake it for the Victorian Era) hair was long and pinned up, like a Gibson girl. Simply cutting hair and wearing it out in public seems tame by today standards, but it was very much an act of defiance.

Women in punk were also quick to adopt boyish hairstyles. For punk women short hair was the antidote to the heavy, feather Farrah Fawcett-style that was popular. Add a little bright color -- maybe magenta -- and even a shaved side or two, and there was no questioning that they were not buying was mainstream society was selling.

Androgyny As Fashion Statement: The loosening of clothing for flappers was in direct contrast to Edwardian norms, but it spoke to a larger issue. By abandoning the corset, women could move in ways they couldn't before. (Not to mention that corset-related health issues were a thing of the past.) Coupled with short hair, it created a look that was androgynous, but still sexy.

But androgyny did not mean asexuality. Quite the contrary. The 1920s were the first time in history that women lived and worked outside the home, and could date freely. According to Joshua Zeitz, who wrote the book, Flapper, Jazz Age fashion often incorporated Oriental and primitive themes that were associated with raw sexuality. In a post-imperialistic society, these groups were seen as uncivilized, and therefore not always able to restrain themselves.

Women in punk took a similar aesthetic, the best example being Patti Smith. With her short hair and small frame, she was able to play among the men with the same fervor. This may not have been necessary, given that punk was generally blind to gender. As long as you could play, or wanted to play, there was an outlet to do so.

While everyone nowadays is "Leaning In," we might be ignoring the signs of another movement for women. The East Village is just a sanitized playground for college students and young bucks who work in finance, but parts of Brooklyn, such as East Williamsburg and Bushwick are teaming with young people who are coming up in the game as we deal with a decade of war. More women than men are graduating from college and getting married right out of college without first establishing a career seems as antiquated as having a land line. The timing is just right for flappers and punks to come back onto our radar. They have a lot to teach us.