The boy of the 1920s was an ambivalent figure

In the age of unisex fashion and water consciousness, the boy image makes us think about gender transgressors and the moral panic they cause.


The flapper is both an art form – a reference to the 1920s – and a literary figure – the sexually liberated young woman – captured in another era, the Roaring Twenties. Created by Joris-Karl Huysmans, the writer and illustrator, the word evokes the “bitch”, the unknown and oxymoronic female of “boy” and “boyfriend”. Its popularity comes from the eponymous novel by Victor Margueritte that was published a hundred years ago, in 1922. son, after the French war, was born under the sign of scandal. The author was removed from the Legion of Honor, after complaints from conservatives, Catholics and pro-natalists working in the name of protecting public rights.

Then newspapers, books, films, cartoons, pamphlets will make this child image a bribe, responsible for disturbing the moral. It is a fictional story based in Paris, an interesting and dangerous place, where the sexual debate is very strong, but also in other big cities like Berlin, London and New York, Cairo and New Tokyo. The word, though difficult to translate, is good to export. In Germany, in the 1920s, this name was given to a women’s book. And in Romania, hairdressing salons use the “boyish” cut in French. It was the first time women wore short hair: a revolution.

The body and sexuality are freed

A boy represents a boyish character. Today’s fashionistas still use this great retro phrase. Since the 1920s, boys have been seen as paradoxical and public.

Actress Vilma Bánky wearing a cloche hat, 1927.
Wikimedia

The word can only refer to a female character. A style adapted by Paul Poiret, Chanel, and others. Wearing a little black dress revealing arms and legs, with a long pearl necklace and cloche hat, it was boyish. But there is a girl who is more androgynous or masculine, with slicked back hair, who wears men’s clothes and smokes the crowd. Without forgetting the sportswomen, there are more followers of shorts and t-shirts.

Red football player, 1926, Ángel Zárraga.

The boy enters the body and the woman. He no longer lets go of restrictions and rejects the corset, the sign of chains that show female features. Her body is androgynous, slender, spindly. The box is washed: bandaged, spread by low-pressure coats, finished with a scalpel. It’s a great breakup, translated as a rejection of motherhood buttons. In the collective mind, nurtured by the story of Victor Margueritte, the boy is bisexual, nymphomaniac and rejects his mother. She no longer respects the way men behave. He avoids the type of races. He did not see the boundaries between the classes: under the bell hat, the bourgeoise and the creamer were the same.

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It would be a real story if, in real life, real women could inspire this side of this picture: Chanel, Mireille Havet, Joséphine Baker, Marthe Hanau, Violette Morris … But in real life, women in the 1920s had no right to vote and no right to wear shirts. And France, with a majority of blue in the Chamber of Deputies, increased the restriction on abortion and banned speeches that harm the birth rate.

Gabrielle Chanel in 1928.
Wikimedia

It is a difficult subject for women

However, the mistakes made by the child build the new character. This was going on a break that was considered rude, at the time, with traditions. This is what we can say with the passage of time and our own language. But we must beware of anachronism. And so understand how it was perceived at that time. This historical tour has many wonderful things for us. For example in the position of women. Clothing adjustment has never been a priority. In 1922, the Senate denied women the vote. Then most women want balance when it comes to gender diversity, including looks.

Since all the changes in women’s clothes are seen as the stages of marriage, women are afraid of the lack of difference between men, because they are criticized by anti-feminists. So it is a difficult subject for them. Be more careful in a way that shows the body. Actress Madeleine Vernet says she “inspires abortion” about the meat shoes that boys love. Feminists want “one right for both sexes”, but by comparing the sexual rights of men to women, not the other way around.

Artist Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, 1927.

For her part, Colette believes that the boyshort will create a new status. The boy, of course, is released from the corset, but he needs the body of a young girl, and therefore to hold his breasts, to go to meals, to take sports … This pressure from the new diktats of nature and this requirement. because of androgyny which did not satisfy the writer. He did, however, cut his hair in 1902 and was an expert on freeing the right…

Another disease: the boy’s homosexual behavior. The 1920s represent a pivotal moment in the history of gay feminism. A married man has a “achievement boy” look, with very short hair and sometimes a shirt. Garçonne is a euphemism for lesbianism, which is often considered a form of natural discrimination, but it is also a pathology related to the desire for women’s freedom. Bisexual boys and gay men are found in nocturnal and hedonistic Paris. Sport, with the famous image of Violette Morris, also published images of young girls.

Violette Morris in front of her car shop in Paris, Porte de Champerret, in 1928.
Wikimedia

Indeed with the androgynous stars of the cinema during the twenties and thirties, including Marlène Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks, androgyny gained aesthetic legitimacy. These charms are beautiful, mysterious, and attractive to both men and women. They create a “gender crisis”, to use Judith Butler’s term. This is evident in the political turn.

It’s a very intimate story

So we can wonder if “the child” is a story for the left or the right. At first glance, it seems confusing. The “father” of “boyish”, Victor Margueritte, was in 1922 a leftist who defended the right of women to destroy their bodies.

Louise Brooks in 1927.
Wikimedia

What is the anchor of this story on the left? not really. Leftist forces criticized the story’s sexuality, which it considered pornographic. The heroine reads Marriage by Leon Blum. It’s a shame … If the beginning of the novel is seen as the liberation of women – the heroine is bisexual, often goes to prostitutes, has more lovers, takes drugs – its fate is to completely return to normal since Monique allowed herself to grow it. hair, marriage, and motherhood later in the book.

son therefore, politically, it sends conflicting messages. Also, although his author takes the form of a social writer concerned with human liberation, his book deals with homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.

The tomboy looks at the conservatives: insulting her is a way to raise another story, which is the eternal woman, all in maternal comfort and obedience. Writers like Paul Morand or Maurice Sachs then describe a society that has lost its ideas, threatened from all sides. In this chaos, the boy plays his part. Incarnation of the masculinization of women, he is accused of devirilizing people. The anti-boyfriend discourse points to harm due to “gender perversion” and “homosexuality”; they create a model that we have a good model in the series of Brigitte, by Berthe Bernage. Creating fears that require a return to order: the process is not new. It’s worth considering.

Behind these declinist fears, partly fed by the traumas of the war, we see above all the opposition to the liberation of women and the protection of a model of patriarchal society. In the 1920’s as today, the issue was to combine women and race, for example the so-called demographic concern.

even if Mrs doesn’t like children (the title of a best-selling novel by Clément Vautel published in 1924), the movement “explodes” … It is interesting to uncover the false rumors of the time, such as rumors to say If the hair is short or bald, it’s different. strengthens facial hair. It is necessary to go beyond an image of a boy, a beautiful heroine trained by nature and relaxed by time, to reveal the explosive element about this image created for good and evil. . It is also done, to be destroyed, in the form of exorcism. A warning for now.


Christine Bard published “Les Garçonnes. Styles and ideas of the Roaring Twenties”, Paris, Otherwise, 2021.

During the year of Victor Margueritte’s history, he joined Marine Chaleroux and Bruna Holderbaum in the colloquium “Itineraries of La Garçonne” on September 16-17, 2022 at the University of Angers, colloquiumlagarconne@gmail. .com.

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