What were the roaring 20s really like?

The roaring 20s are back in vogue thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s Jazz Age spectacle The Great Gatsby, which splashes the era across the screen in hyper-real 3D and with a hip-hop soundtrack. But what was the decade really like? Here’s our guide to how boys and girls of the 20s got their kicks.


How to dance…

Hints and Hobbies No. 7 (1926)  extract

The ‘Hints and Hobbies’ series amused and enlightened 1920s British cinemagoers with all kinds of invaluable advice which, we can only hope, few actually tried at home. This extract is from the seventh instalment and continues the tradition of doling out helpful tips to the masses including advice on how not to ballroom dance (stamping hard on your partner’s toes is frowned upon). If ever a franchise deserved resurrecting, it’s this one.

Dressing on a budget…

Hints and Hobbies No.12 (1926) — extract

In this instalment of ‘Hints and Hobbies’, fashionistas on a budget can learn how to transform a humble morning frock into a delightful evening dress, with a little help from Mum.

What to do on a Friday night…

What Do You Do on Friday Night? (c.1926)

An amateur advertisement for the Varsity Dance Club in Cambridge, made for screening in local cinemas. Its tone parodies the recruitment film, urging ladies to join the gentlemen of the varsity for what promises to be a swinging night out.

At the pool…

Aquatic Frolics (1926)

The Topical Budget newsreel here presents a novelty ‘story’ that would appear to have no greater purpose than to enable audiences to ogle the “brighter Blackpool beauties” in their knitted swimming costumes. There’s quite a lot of sliding and diving, but mercifully little bombing or petting to worry the lifeguard.

Getting some exercise…

Hints and Hobbies No. 11 (1926) — extract

Best of all the Hints and Hobbies series are the ‘Hints to the Ladies on Jiu-Jitsu’, which feel unnervingly like a long lost chapter from the history of lesbian erotica.

Tying the knot…

Marriage of Miss Rose Carmel and Mr Solly Gershcowit (1925)

For a couple with such Jewish-sounding surnames, the wedding celebrations of Miss Carmel and Mr Gerschcowit are distinctly secular in flavour. In fact, the 20s are far more in evidence than Judaism: the music comes courtesy of the San Diego Dance Band, the female guests sport flapper dresses and bobs, and the dancing is more ‘Strictly’ than ‘shtetl’.

What to wear to a royal wedding…

Princess Mary’s Thought (1922)

Fashion has long been integral to the appeal of royal weddings, not least in the build up to the lavish nuptials of Princess Mary and Viscount Lascelles in 1922. Princess Mary, the Princess Royal (1897-1965), was the only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary and the sister of Princes Edward and Albert (later Edward VIII and George VI). This Topical Budget newsreel snippet shows how even a flu epidemic was no match for invited society ladies, who made the best of the situation with chic morning dress in place of the usual low-necked court gowns.

Texts by Simon McCallum, Robin Baker, Alex Davidson and Marianne Levy

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