We are in the midst of a Jazz Age revival. Downton Abbey’s third season, set amid the social upheaval of the 1920s, debuted on Sunday to record ratings. This summer, Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated Great Gatsby will look to mine the decade’s glamorous fashions as successfully as last year’s Oscar winner, The Artist. Even violent crime is being reworked by the nostalgia machine: On Boardwalk Empire, Al Capone reads as a toothless throwback compared to the shadowy masterminds and fifth columnists of Homeland. Gucci, meanwhile, has launched a flapper-inspired line, while bars ride the retro wave, replacing bartenders with “mixologists” in their jaunty vests and mustaches, brewing cocktails fit for a young Hemingway.
So why does 2013 wish it were 1923?
It’s natural that, during a financial slump, we’d want to revisit a past boom time for a bit of relief. Shifting our gaze to the 1920s helps us avoid looking at an economy straight out of the 1930s. And the Jazz Age strikes a nerve right now because we love how the people of that era, at least in our collectively imagined version of it, seemed to relish their relative prosperity.
The Twenties, as we now remember them, can’t be anything but “freewheeling” or “roaring.” The drinks flowed without end, and people danced all night to wild jazz. Every conversationalist was as witty as Dorothy Parker and all the women looked chic and dangerous with their bobbed hair.
Easily forgotten in the standard Roaring Twenties narrative is the bittersweet sense of loss and renewal that fuelled this fast life. The global sigh of relief coupled with more than a little survivor’s guilt. Coming through the trauma of war imbued people with a need for togetherness, while the fragility of life was further underscored by a global flu pandemic that would, by some estimates, claim more victims than the war itself. Behind the cocktails and the costume parties, people were grasping for connection.
As Gerald Murphy, one of the shining lights of the expat coterie in Europe that Gertrude Stein dubbed the Lost Generation, later recalled: “There was such affection between everybody. You loved your friends and wanted to see them every day, and usually you did see them every day. It was like a great fair, and everybody was so young.”
Today, communing with a decade when people seemed to have truly savoured their fun and their relationships helps us feel comfortable with measuring our own success in terms of fullness of experience. We can’t spend like it was 1993 or 1953, but we can party like it’s 1923. A strong drink, a daring haircut, a night spent dancing with friends – these small pleasures are within our reach.
With traditional markers of success becoming less and less attainable (perhaps even less desirable), we might as well enjoy ourselves. The title of Calvin Tomkins’s memoir of Gerald and Sara Murphy says it all: Living Well is the Best Revenge.
We, too, are grasping for connection. Rather than money, we amass friendships, romances and memories. We hone our little crafts, pour our energies into art and love, and turn our lifestyles into performances. Status is no longer measured in goods acquired but in richness of time lived, with one’s levels of fun documented and monitored online. As with the so-called Lost Generation, we aren’t so much conspicuous consumers as conspicuous adventurers, striving to create our own Golden Age.
Mark Braude is the author of Making Monte Carlo: Spectacle and Speculation in the Jazz Age, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. He is completing his PhD in history at the University of Southern California.