Enter. Play the game of self-discovery. Music reverberates from behind closed doors. The sun gutters in against the rooftops, sending rays of sunlight scattering shadows on the bespeckled paved roads. If you listen closely, it’s almost as if you can hear the quiet chatter of gossip behind closed doors. You know the password. The coast is clear. What hurt would it be to take a step inside and see what’s there? What hurt would it be to speak low, speak easy, and gain entrance into this place that shouldn’t exist at all? There is no better time than the present.
- Definition: During prohibition, the illicit bars and nightclubs that cropped up allowing patrons to drink.
- Derivation: The term “speakeasy” refers to how low a patron would have to speak the password to gain entrance into the illegal bar so local law enforcement could not hear.
When the 1920s debuted with the ratification of the 18th amendment, banning all transportation, selling, purchasing, etc. of alcohol, no one could have surmised what was about to occur. The freedom to have a glass of wine was suddenly taken away by the populace due the prohibitionist belief that not consuming alcohol would cure an ill society. With this daily pleasure carved away, there became a niche for those who wanted to enjoy liquor but could not legally do so. Enterprisers and opportunists lunged on this niche, filling it as quickly as they could.
So, in the hidden corners and back-rooms of the city, the speakeasy was initiated. Patrons, both men and women, could now come to these venues to enjoy a drink in the face of prohibition. They were social venues cradling a nascent society in their hands, staunchly killing what was left of the perceived stuffiness of the Victorian era. Prohibition birthed the speakeasy, and what one may simply consider a place to drink became a nexus for a social and, thus, a fashion revolution.
The result of prohibitionist efforts was a permanent shift in American life, just not the one they were hoping for. Men and women could now drink together (the moral fabric of the country was surely crumbling). Coming to these speakeasies with their groups of friends, ‘dating’ emerged as a concept because they were no longer under the supervision of their elders. Jazz music proliferated these speakeasies, setting a sonic backdrop to the venues that were already rife with social tension.
Music begets dance: the ‘Charleston’ and other jazz dances slowly replaced the traditional waltz. Due to their rapid movement of the arms and legs, these dances were extremely difficult to perform in constricting clothing. The hems of skirts and dresses needed to become shorter so women could actually dance without risk of injury, as well as looser in order to allow movement. These two simple changes dramatically changed fashion for the rest of the decade.
The perceived exoticism of Jazz music, imposed its will on fashion; making dresses, skirts, and accessories flamboyant and flashy. Dresses were decorated with fringes and beads that could swing as they danced. Glossy fabrics were used to mirror the light to the beat and rhythm of the music and dance. Slowly, the ‘flapper’ look was being developed, so-called because the very movements of these dances recalled the ‘flapping’ of bird wings.
In this time that intentioned repression, an aesthetic of flash, spark, dynamism was cultivated, and evolved over time into iconographic images that one can immediately recall. Whether individuals mean for it to or not, fashion always speaks, just all art does. And, just as one might interpret a painting, one could reasonably interpret the composition of an outfit. What does the style of the speakeasy tell us about the politics of aesthetic? What does our obsession with these styles tell us about our current politics of aesthetic?
“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!” Those were the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the epitome of the Lost Generation writers. While tastes and fashions shift and change, decadence remains a glittering display of American culture. But it is a different performance now. Where it once was a dance, it is now a spectacle.
This is the anthropogenic age. Sea levels are rising. Temperatures are rising. Tensions are rising. It’s harder to hide behind closed doors in secret parties when satellites track every movement and one’s location can be pinpointed via the cellphone they carry in their pocket. The private realm has been destroyed, all the intimacies exposed to a beguiled audience. Behind closed doors, speakeasies held dances, secret chatter, jazz music, swirling in and out of earshot. Decadence was a mystery.
But, even with all this change, things remain the same. One could even argue that ‘influencers’ are the modern speakeasy; cultivating taste, style, and the like in their private rooms on social media platforms. The only difference is that you don’t need to speak a secret password to gain entrance anymore (not that it was particularly difficult to enter speakeasies).
The speakeasy stands as a groundswell in American history where social relations, music, art, and fashion interconnected to form something new. The fashion of the decade grew in response not only to Art Deco, but also to the necessity of form and function. We remember the ‘flapper’ and everything else that comes to mind when we think of The Great Gatsby because it has imprinted itself into the American mythos. At the end of the day, there’s something Romantic about secret parties with jazz music, unbridled hope for the future and the celebration of the eve of the Roaring 20s. The speakeasy argued for a new path for American culture to follow. Social media is arguing for a new path as well.
So as 2019 tiptoes into 2020, ask yourself, what will the coming years roar?
– Ryan Aghamohammadi