As we have seen, the “New Woman” who smoked Torches of Freedom was a literary creation of Modernism that originated in Henrik Ibsen’s play The Doll House (1879) and was popularized by Henry James in his novels in the late 19th century.
In America, the New Woman became known as the Flapper in the 1920s. In Weimar Germany, the New Woman became known as the Neue Frau in the 1920s. Previously, Victorianism had repressed female sexuality and segregated men and women into separate spheres. Sex was the price that women paid for the stability of marriage. Marriage was the price that men paid for the availability of sex. Victorians elevated religion, morality and family life above the pursuit of aesthetic lifestyles.
As an aesthetic sensibility, Modernism is the doctrine of art for art’s sake. Aesthetics should be autonomous from religion, morality and society. Art should have no didactic purpose. Art is about the self-expression of the artist, not about moral or religious uplift. Basically, it is hyper individualistic and leads to the narcissistic cult of the artist. Modernists value self-expression, self-realization and self-liberation far above any collective. They value the pursuit of aesthetic lifestyles above religion and morality.
What do you get when you apply the Modernist aesthetic to sex and gender roles in theater and later film? Women should be liberated from the shackles of religion and morality to pursue aesthetic lifestyles. This is the Modernist reasoning that led to the emergence of feminism.
“HELMER: It’s shocking. This is how you would neglect your most sacred duties.
NORA: What do you consider my most sacred duties?
HELMER: Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?
NORA: I have other duties just as sacred.
HELMER: That you have not. What duties could those be?
NORA: Duties to myself.
HELMER: Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.
NORA: I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are — or at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer contain myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.”
Modernism is also about “experience.”
According to William James, life is the stream-of-consciousness. It is a series of moments. You should collect and savor those moments. What are the most vivid experiences?
As Malcolm Cowley explained in Exile’s Return, the Greenwich Village ideal was to throw off every religious, moral and cultural restraint to aesthetic self-expression and the full enjoyment of the moment by hedonists. The purpose of life is self-expression and men and women experimenting in sex and drugs creates these intense experiences. The body is a shrine to the ritual of love.
In the 1910s, Modernism arrived in America. The film industry developed in Hollywood. The first American Moderns created bohemian enclaves in Chicago and New York City before World War I. Greenwich Village became the American counterpart of Montmartre which was the headquarters of the French avant-garde. From Greenwich Village, the Modernist aesthetic went mainstream in the 1920s once capitalists realized that the new style could be used to make a fortune selling products to young women.
Most of the products we associate with Modern women’s fashion came into existence in the 1910s: mascara, lipstick, eyeliner, blush, eyeshadow. As Victorian culture broke down in the 1920s, the taboo on women’s makeup which had previously been associated with “fast women” like prostitutes and actresses in the 19th century collapsed. Glamorous Hollywood celebrities like Louise Brooks mainstreamed the new Modern aesthetic. Mothers who had been Gibson Girls began to imitate their Flapper daughters who were absorbing the new Modern culture from fashion magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue, examples like Lady Brett Ashley in Ernest Hemingway’s novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ditzy wife Zelda Fitzgerald who popularized tanning in the French Riveria and above all else from actresses in movies.
Note: American jazz crossed the Atlantic and took root in Paris in the 1920s. The cultural exchange went both ways.