Glittering, bold and determined to enjoy themselves, the Bright Young Things of the 1920s were a famously glamorous set.
The original Bright Young Things – a term coined by the British tabloid press – were aristocrats and socialites including Cecil Beaton, Edith Sitwell and the Mitford sisters, all doing daring and scandalous things in London. As the decade wore on, the term came to include writers, photographers, poets and artists. They weren’t confined to Britain, either, as there were a number of American contenders – not least the Fitzgeralds.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels were inspired by his marriage to Zelda Sayre and by the hedonistic New York society they lived in. In particular his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby has become synonymous with the decadence and drama of the Roaring Twenties.
For this upper-class celebrity set, in many cases partying was their response to the darkness of the war years. The world had changed, and their generation wanted to change with it. This was particularly true for women, who had seen jobs open up to them with the advent of war and they finally gained the right to vote.
Female Bright Young Things like the Mitford sisters and Elizabeth Ponsonby, who inspired a character in Evelyn Waugh’s satirical 1930 novel Vile Bodies, became known for their fashion sense. Their American counterparts included original It girl, Clara Bow, a red-headed Queenie Goldstein-esque style icon, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda, the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan, heroine of The Great Gatsby.
These women were well-known for their style – short skirts, bobbed hair, immaculate make-up — so much so that they earned fashionable 1920s women a nickname of their own: the flapper. Flappers were, The Times said, ‘mystifyingly frivolous’. But the fact that The Times was reporting on them at all tells us why their look became iconic – these women were the celebrities of their era.
Silent cinema flourished in the years after the war, and in the early 1920s stars like Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo built up a significant following. The Italian-American actor Rudolph Valentino – known as the ‘Latin lover’ – was one such famous face. An early sex symbol, his premature death in 1926 caused an outpouring of mass hysteria and cemented his legendary status.
A year later, Warner Bros. released the first film to feature dialogue. This revolutionised cinema, and brought a host of new celebrities. Some of them, like Clara Bow and Mary Pickford, were already known, but there were new faces, too – like Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, who saw their careers skyrocket with the advent of the ‘talkie’.
The prevailing soundtrack to all this was jazz – the first talkie was called The Jazz Singer, and many of the world’s greatest jazz musicians came to prominence in the 1920s. Jazz originated in New Orleans as a fusion of African American and European styles, and the era’s best-known musicians were African American – like the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, and trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong.
The advent of jazz also led to a new dance craze. The Charleston, which was fast and physical, came to prominence in the 1923 Broadway musical Runnin’ Wild. It became immensely popular in the mid-20s, when Josephine Baker introduced it to European audiences at Parisian club La Revue Negré.
Innovations were also happening in fashion. Designer Coco Chanel introduced her now world-famous Little Black Dress in 1926 and the use of make-up became widespread, with stars like Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford helping to popularise certain looks.
The style choices of stars like these became fodder for the press. And it wasn’t just fashion – Photoplay, founded in 1911, became hugely popular in the 1920s, in part for its reporting on the private lives of cinema’s stars. Although by today’s standards, the gossip was relatively discreet: when stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks married after divorcing their previous partners, the magazine ran a double-page spread celebrating their romance to counteract any potential scandal.
The papers couldn't help but report on scandals like the Fatty Arbuckle trial. In 1921 Arbuckle, a comedy star of the silent film era, was accused of murdering a young actress called Virginia Rappe. Although he was later acquitted and nothing was ever proved, the case has continued to be discussed by scholars and historians years afterwards: a strong after-effect of sensationalist reporting, often dubbed ‘yellow journalism’.
Although there were few scandals as dramatic as Arbuckle’s – with the exception of the 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor, linked to two popular actresses, Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter – the trend for reporting lurid detail increased. Gossip magazines even appear in The Great Gatsby. Town Tattle, as it’s called, has been referred to as Fitzgerald’s indirect criticism of the beginnings of America’s celebrity culture.
Whether or not this is true, it’s clear that the 1920s presented a unique set of circumstances. Huge advances in film, music and fashion, coupled with a shifting postwar landscape, saw the popular culture change dramatically. And although there have been many other changes since, what the 1920s gave us in terms of stars being held to account by an ever-watching public has never gone away.