I’m Chicago, Hear me Roar: The Allure of the 1920s

The revival of the carefree, fun-loving flapper era has reached Vienna: Put on your Scott and Zelda at the Chicago Ball

On The Town | Philippe Schennach | June 2013

There is something about the roaring twenties that beguiles trend-stragglers; it’s hard not to be captivated by its lawlessness and sense of freedom, the lure of shady extravagance. Speeding down an empty highway, hopping a freight, all that matters is a good time and staying out of jail. It’s all so far from the conventional lives most of us live, it’s easy to see why the era has been idealised in the entertainment industry.

It has also become a popular theme for exotic partying, as it will be in Vienna on 8 June for the "Chicago 1920 –The Ball" at the Marx Palast, Maria-Jacobi-Gasse 2, in 3rd District. That the venue was formerly a slaughterhouse just adds a delicious layer of verisimilitude to the enterprise.

Still, today’s villains don’t hold a candle to the thrill and excess of the real 1920s. Those gangsters knew how to help themselves, and it is this sense of empowerment, perhaps, that resonates more than anything else.


What makes an era

In burgeoning Chicago, times changed so fast that each new generation lived in a world radically different from their parents. Rules were broken so often that even forward-thinking people wished things could slow down. The prosperity and hyper-patriotism that followed World War I accelerated consumer demand, changing lifestyles and cultural norms. Innovation shaped the "Roaring Twenties".

The automobile embodied the new American dream: You could jump behind the wheel of a Tin Lizzie (Ford Model T) and the world was your oyster. By 1919, there were 1.7 million new cars on the road, double the number the year before. Ten years later, there were 4.5 million, a number not equalled again until 1949.

For the woman of the ‘20s, suffrage had finally given a voice in the political process, challenging the traditional definitions of "a woman’s place".  WWI had brought thousands of women into the workforce (23.6% by 1920, 27% by 1930). So a woman could have a job (at least until she married; only 10% stayed in their jobs) and have a taste of independence. This was also the beginning of women’s sexual liberation: She was overtly rebellious, intent on breaking through social and sexual norms, wearing short skirts and bobbing her hair, and abandoning the corsets of the past. She became known as a "flapper".

The word derived from the layers of fringe on the popular dresses of the era. As mass production made fashion affordable, working "girls" could share the styles of the affluent. Men often abandoned formal attire for more comfortable fashions, with fuller cuts and soft collars. Still, they were very dapper, and men’s suits today often take their cue from the elegant cuts of the ‘20s.

The gang lord Alphonse Gabriel "Al" Capone, shaped a great part of "gangster chic". The invention of the "Chicago Typewriter" (the tommy-gun) was also definitive of his legacy. Despite his blood baths in the Windy City, he was a popular folk hero, filling his enemies’ stomachs with bullets and those of the poor with soup.

"You can go a long way with a smile," Capone often joked, "but you can go a lot farther with a smile and a gun."


Reliving the good old days

Repeatedly immortalised by Hollywood, the era is back again with The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, newly adapted in 2013. And the recent HBO series Boardwalk Empire, with bootlegger heroes with hearts of gold.

So join the Jazz Age as June 8th’s "Chicago 1920 –The Ball" takes over the Marx Palast! Reach for your waistcoats and zoot suits, headbands and feather boas and be Scott and Zelda, even if it’s only for a night.

So: Go dapper if you dare, and let the adventure begin!


Chicago 1920 – The Ball 

8 June, tickets €45, www.wienlive.at

Marx Palast, 3., Maria-Jacobi-Gasse 2


Other articles from this issue