Fashion: Return of the flapper

Beaded dresses, cloche hats, dropped waists and Art Deco fabrics... the Twenties and Thirties are making a comeback on the catwalk, says Katherine Ormerod

The effervescent spirit of the Jazz Age informs many of the looks for the spring/summer collections. From dropped waists to tiered tassels, there is no doubt that the styles of the Twenties – and Thirties – are again in vogue.

The two dominant movements of the era, the decorative Art Deco and clean Utopian Modernism, have provided reference points for an array of designers. The flapper dress, timelessly infused with a sense of joie de vivre, was one of the key pieces this season with fringing, feathers and sequinned details all over the catwalks. Like true flappers, models glistened and glimmered in sparkling designs perfect for dancing the Charleston. At John Galliano the glamour of the boom years was recreated with chiffon ruffles and iridescent cloche hats. Dancing and strutting down the catwalks, Galliano's girls perfectly encapsulated the exuberance of the era, heads held high, swathed in heavy fur and ready to race off in a green Bug0atti.

Over at Nina Ricci, Olivier Theyskens dressed his bright young things in low-waisted mini dresses accessorised with feather hats and boas, the glamour clashing with his grungy, smoky colour palette. Moschino offered multiple variations on the dropped waist and played on the classic Chanel suit combination first popularised in the Twenties.

Aside from the beaded dress, shadows of Art Deco and Modernism were also cast in fabric and print. Angular, Deco-style geometric shapes were seen at Gucci and Basso & Brooke, with graphic uses of colour. These prints are reminiscent of Sonia Delaunay's abstract fabrics. Other fashionable shapes were also referenced with the luxe-pyjama style first popularised for evening wear by Paul Poiret in the Twenties, reinterpreted this season at Dior, Prada and Sportmax.

Jonathan Saunders, the celebrated Scottish-born designer whose collections have made waves both here and across the Atlantic, has a deep design relationship with the interwar years. This season his catwalk featured a range of clothing bearing the hallmarks of the Twenties and Thirties. "What was beautiful about Deco," Saunders comments, "was its simplified approach to decoration."

While Art Deco has been criticised for its apparent paucity of intellectualism, central to the "modernity" of the Jazz Age was the changing role of women in society. After four years of war it was impossible to return to a world in which women were confined to their drawing rooms. A new, more active lifestyle that included driving, playing tennis and dancing the night away drove dramatic changes in female fashion. Sonnet Stanfil, the fashion curator at the V&A, emphasises the role of individual designers, especially Poiret who "liberated women from the petticoat in 1903 and then the corset in 1906". By expanding the shape and silhouette, women were given more options. Stanfil argues that this revolution in undergarments was "groundbreaking in terms of fashion's impact on daily life". Although it took some years to filter through to the mainstream, the new clothing offered women the freedom of movement to ski, swim and dance.

Saunders says that "from a fashion perspective, more thought was put into the way women wanted to live their lives" and that "when you think of Deco you don't think of clothes that are overtly sexy or restrictive".

For all the talk of empowered women, though, the Deco age also provided the backdrop for another salient model of womanhood. While many of the heroines of the Twenties and Thirties were forward thinking, competing in the public sphere, others preferred to conspicuously consume in a way never seen before. The media's image of the WAG – a beautiful materialist totally dependent on the earnings of her husband or consort – is one that the flappers of the Jazz Age would have recognised. The parity between Tamara de Lempicka's heroines, with their waspish waists and never-ending legs – beautiful but ultimately gormless – and the contemporary elevation of the vacuous beauty, is striking.

Art Deco as a style represents a Utopian era, a generation that gorged itself on new, luxury products and that bought into an image of limitless glamour. With just the right mixture of hedonism and style, it is not difficult to understand why it retains so much of its appeal. As we stand on the precipice of our own economic uncertainty, it's perhaps no wonder that we are yearning for an age when it seemed the party would never end.

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