Lovers and Liars

Lovers and Liars : A David Garrick Double Bill

Women in the 1920s

From War to Peace – 1914 – 1920

When war broke out in 1914, countless women found their lives thrown into turmoil as accustomed routines were destroyed by the departure of their menfolk for the dangers and uncertainties of the battlefield. Among the well-to-do, the outbreak of war led to widespread changes. There was an upsurge of patriotic fervour which encouraged many women to take up a variety of charitable activities, including meetings with the Army Nursing Board and Voluntary Aid Detachment.

The additional female labour needed both to substitute for men who had joined up and to meet the demands of war production was recruited from four principal sources. Firstly, there were former servants, who seized the chance to leave the restraints and poor pay associated with residential domestic employment. In all, the number of female servants shrank by nearly 400,000 over the war years. Secondly, there were many working class married women who responded to appeals to return to employment perhaps on patriotic grounds or because they and their children were unable to live on the military separation allowance awarded when their husbands were killed at the front. Throughout the 1920s, many working women, like their male counterparts, were haunted by economic uncertainty and the fear of losing their job.

The Social Elite

The Daily Mail observed in 1920 that ‘the social butterfly type has probably never been so prevalent as at present. It comprises the frivolous, scantily clad ‘jazzing flapper’, irresponsible and undisciplined.’ Although numerous families still mourned the death of a husband, son or fiancé, there was a deep relief that the slaughter had at last ended, and a wish to resume such remembered pleasures as dancing, racing, hunting and foreign travel ignited.

The London scene saw ‘night-clubs opening up in rows’ and there became apparent a darker side of High Society life, with it’s ‘dope parties’. Where cocaine, opium and heroin were passed around. Drug taking had grown yp under the pressure of the war, and it was to persist in certain circles throughout the 1920s. Later, Noel Coward’s play The Vortex was to shock theatre audiences by making drug taking a major theme.  Alongside this, the Victorian Balls, turned into speak-easy style dances, and London was described as being ‘dance mad’, in particular the Charleston and the one-step were popular dances .

Many younger, unmarried girls welcomed country-house weekends for their informality, and their opportunity for flirtation and practical joking. Yet, in London at least, certain conventions had to be observed; etiquette required that a woman did not engage in a conversation with a man unless she was dancing with him or sitting next to him at dinner. However, when a woman stayed in the country with her friends for tennis, croquet, shooting, fishing, sailing and golf parties, everything was more relaxed.

In London, the new black American jazz bands were all the rage in hotels, restaurants, night-clubs and at private parties. Jazz in the early 1920s meant ‘heavily punctuated, relentless rhythm, with drums, rattles, bells, whistles, hooters and twanging banjos… All of a sudden everything black was the rage; black and white decor, heads wrapped up in turbans, bracelets up the whole arm, jazz and the Charleston.’ P.29

Some of the more spirited unmarried girls reacted to their parents strictures concerning their behaviour by deliberately setting out to shock. Despite the disapproval of their elders, they drank cocktails, smoked in public, and adopted the American fashion of wearing lipstick, rouge, nail varnish and mascara.

Despite the problem of getting servants after the war, resident domestics were still customary among the families of the social elite, and in the wealthiest households, large staffs were employed.

Middle Class Wives and Daughters

During the 1920’s, the term ‘middle class’ covered a very broad spectrum of the population. It applied not merely to social expectations but to income and standing in the community as well. The lifestyle of a prosperous professional or business family differed widely from that of a clerk or a shopkeeper or a clergyman’s widow. The variations in finances and rank were reflected in personal relationships. Each grouping had its own ‘seclusion rituals and status ideaology’ which were designed to preserve its identity.

The rituals associated with such attitudes were carefully described in books on etiquette published during the decade. Their aim was to protect their readers from the humiliation of social gaffe. Etiquette for Women: A book of Modern Manners and Customs was published in 1928, and covered such topics as the leaving of visitng cards, the paying of calls, table manners, and ‘Little Courtesies that Count’.

Marriage and its associated domestic role, therefore, became the goal at which women were encouraged to aim. Yet, equally, a desire to achieve an appropriate lifestyle might lead some engaged couples to postpone their wedding for a few years, perhaps until the prospective bridegroom had achieved a good position in his firm or had obtained a pensionable post, or the bride had saved enough money to buy the furniture.  Once a woman was married her way of life depended on her husband’s income and upon the nature of the locality in which they lived.

Working Women

Significant at a time of much unemployment and underemployment, was the belief that married women should not take jobs which unemployed single girls could do. A characteristic of the labour force was the narrow range of occupations in which females were concentrated, with 71.6% of them employed in personal service (especially domestic service), textile and dress manufacture, shop work and office duties.

Some posts were regarded as more respectable than others, with laundrywork, rag sorting and general labouring regarded as particularly rough and unfeminine. Despite the reluctance of most girls to take up domestic service, with its low status, poor pay, and restricted leisure time, it was household work which proved the decade’s biggest single employer of women. As early as 1919 the Ministry of Reconstruction Report on Domestic Service had concluded that the main reasons for the occupation’s unpopularity were the long hours of duty, the lack of companionship and the loss of standing which it entailed.

The fact that they were not covered by the 1920 Unemployment Insurance Act added to the low esteem in which the job was held. Women who had previously been in insured posts and had then become servants found they were no longer entitled to the benefits to which they had contributed in their earlier employment. In addition, prior to the 1928 Representation of the People Act, which gave the vote to all women over 21, resident maids were unable to vote.  Only women with a property qualification in their own right or whose husband had such a qualification were enfranchised under the 1918 legislation.


Horn, P. (2010). Women in the 1920s. UK: Amberley Publishing


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