Baz Luhrman and The Met Erased the True Feminist Histories of Flappers and Punks

This summer promised to be the “summer of Gatsby” and when that fizzled out, we still had the opportunity to revisit the punk era at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Punk: Chaos to Couture” show. While an era revolving around opulence and the elusive American dream and another centered on rebellion seem to have little in common, their 21st century revivals are strikingly similar in one aspect: the complete erasure of feminist histories.

The Flapper and Punk movements for women were distinctly feminist. Flapper style was formed through a rejection of the societal norm; shorter hemlines and hair, replaced more traditionally feminine styles. Similarly, the punk movement could be seen as distinctly unfeminine, as the women adopted masculine haircuts and silhouettes and became more androgynous. The clothing and styles of each movement reflected the larger ideas at hand, rather than the other way around.

But the Met completely misses this. There is an acknowledgment of women as creators of punk clothing — the replication of Vivienne Westwood’s tee-shirt shop and discussion of her contributions — but no representation of female influences. It should also be noted that the representation of female designers is minimal at best. There are photos of Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, and the Clash, but no photos of female punks. There were women in England at this creating music and influencing style, yet the Met chooses not to feature them. Vi Subversa, a member of a female punk band in England, looked back on the punk movement and said: “To me, that’s what being a female punk was all about, being a pioneer.”

The complete absence of women in the exhibit was a bit startling, especially after looking through the exhibit catalogue, which featured incredible photos of young punk women. There was literally not a single female face in the exhibit — even the mannequins, who all wore women’s clothes, were faceless. So what message is the visitor left with when an exhibit about clothes worn by women in a movement shaped by women — features almost no mention of women? 

In comparison, Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, features lots of women in the style of the day. But they seem to serve as props to enhance the glitz of his grandiose production.

Of course, Luhrman had to work with Fitzgerald’s characters, which do not represent the true flappers of the day and are instead shallow caricatures concerned only with money and fashion. However, it is the modern day positioning of the film Luhrman takes that upholds this image, furthering the erasure of true feminist flapper history.

Luhrman attempted to reawaken a major commercial interest in the flapper style and jazz age with the release of the film. Catherine Martin, the costume director and Luhrman’s wife, partnered with Prada. The film also worked with Brooks Brothers to design a clothing line to be released along with the film. All of these partnerships further the flapper style, while erasing the feminist actions that created it.

Women’s choices influence the style of the day. It is impossible to ignore the significance of suffragettes abandoning the strict style of the day for bloomers. The same goes for punk and flapper fashion. What does it say about our chances of moving forward when we subtract women’s contributions from history and leave only the clothes? 

It is important to note that within erasure of punk feminist movements, there is a significant amount of erasure of women of color. Mimi Thi Nguyen’s recent interview in Bitch Magazine is a great further read about this erasure, and how archiving contributes to it.

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Alexandra Natale

Alex Natale is a Women's Studies Major with minors in Journalism and Italian Studies at Wheaton College (MA.) She enjoys writing feminist critiques of popular culture, loves coffee, and can spot a pug from a mile away.

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