From fashion to theatre, the legacy of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is still going strong. With an updated film due for release next summer, we look at why the Roaring Twenties decade of the book is still striking a chord and influencing popular culture once again.
The invitation to the Great Gatsby Ball in Washington promised flowing champagne, three crystal chandeliers and a marble dance floor – nothing less than all the “elegance, splendour and extravagance of 1920s America”.
A captivated crowd RSVP’d, arriving on a recent June evening to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in pearls, feathered hats and white jackets. They stood in long queues for the open bar and the desserts. They danced the night away to a live band’s swing, waltz and tango tunes.
It was all in homage to F Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, and it was hardly a singular event.
In the midst of the recession, Americans can’t seem to get enough of The Great Gatsby. The Gatsby-themed parties, fashion trends and staged renditions were set to culminate in December with the release of a 3D movie update starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The momentum will have to be carried until next summer, however, as Warner Bros recently pushed the film’s release back from its scheduled opening on Christmas Day in the US and the day after in the UK.
“I guess it’s kind of in the air,” says John Collins, the director of Gatz, an eight-hour verbatim staging of the novel. His long-running show next hits Los Angeles in December, just weeks before the movie’s original release date.
“It’s a story about wealth and class and class transcendence, and these are big American issues.”
Collins’s Gatsby play is not to be confused with the San Francisco opera version. Or the London play that encourages audience members to come in period dress. Or the other London version that has turned the book into a musical.
Or, of course, the Hollywood blockbuster that has everyone talking. The mere trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s highly stylised, star-studded movie has fashion blogs in a tizzy. Hayley Phelan, the fashion news editor at Fashionista, is confident the costumes are going to be “truly spectacular” coming from Catherine Martin, of Moulin Rouge! fame. Consumer demand for 1920s garb is already on the rise. Phelan has noticed the influence of the 1920s on the spring collections of Marc Jacobs, Gucci and Ralph Lauren.
But not everyone is happy with the movie’s depiction of jazz-age fashion. Jacqueline WayneGuite, an American fashion historian, describes the costumes in the trailer as “contemporary fashion interpreting 1920s Halloween costumes”. She says the designer has taken a number of liberties – tighter clothing, brighter colours – that are distracting, and make the movie not accurate of the period.
“Obviously they started by looking at 1920s things, but things from the trailer just looked a bit flashier, a little more modern,” she says. “I think anytime when you do period movies that are supposed to appeal to a popular audience, just to get things to look stylish to the current eye, they make some changes.”
That’s apparently perfectly fine with Hollywood. Celebrities such as Camilla Belle, Zoe Saldana and Emmy Rossum are already wearing 1920s-inspired clothes. The designer Stella McCarthy unveiled her latest line at a Gatsby-like garden party in New York, where partygoers including Anne Hathaway played croquet and listened to a jazz and soul band. (Although presumably the vegetarian-only barbecue selection wouldn’t have flown in the 1920s.)
The hype isn’t just for the well-heeled. The period’s drop-waist dresses are on the racks at stores such as Zara, Madewell and Maje, as are 1920s-inspired jewellery and accessories, according to Phelan. She credits shows such as Downton Abbey for playing a role in the renewed interest in the decade, too.
Joe Hancock is a fashion professor in Philadelphia and the president-elect for the Popular Culture/American Culture Associations. He’s seen this roar before, noting that film is the number one factor in determining mass fashion.
The very same thing happened the last time around, when Robert Redford starred as Gatsby in the 1974 move version. Ralph Lauren – then relatively unknown – stylised the film, launching his career and establishing a friendship with Redford. A full decade later, Lauren timed the release of a safari-inspired line with Redford’s Out of Africa.
“Today’s consumer is really quick,” Hancock says. “They want to see the movie, and then they want to buy the clothes.”
While governments around the world cut spending or drive up taxes in an effort to emerge from the global slowdown, there’s no better place for citizens to find solace than in a novel that celebrates the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties. It’s an imagined past, of course. No decade is perfect, Hancock points out. Though Americans remember the 1960s for peace, love and flowers, there was also a war going on.
“We have a tendency, when we’re depressed about our present, to go to the past and to make it better than it was. We like to identify with time periods we think were really fun.”
The composer Jacques Desjardins is the general manager of Ensemble Parallèle, which staged the Gatsby opera in San Francisco earlier this year.
“We were at 92 per cent attendance,” Desjardins says. “I don’t know what it is. I think it’s the fact that these people are not perfect, they are bad characters. We know that this happens in life, it’s just a way of showing human error.”
Earlier this month, the Gatsby opera was staged by high-school performers in Aspen, Colorado – inspiring a brand-new generation of Americans to fall in love with a story written 75 years before their birth.
F Scott Fitzgerald’s best-known novel is set in New York City in 1922, the heart of the jazz age, when it was roaring with excessive wealth. The story is told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, who moves to the big city from the mid-west, and watches how the loose morals of the time slowly undo his cousin Daisy Buchanan, her husband Tom, and the mysterious Jay Gatsby.
Haven’t I seen this movie before?
The Great Gatsby was released as a silent movie in 1926, and done in black and white in 1949. The third attempt, in 1974, reached the widest audience and met with the most financial success. Starring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, it is widely credited for launching the career of the man who designed the costumes – Ralph Lauren.
Audiences will have to wait until next summer for the fourth (and swankiest) Gatsby movie to open. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan. Moviegoers can expect a hip, modern version this time around, with songs from Jay-Z and Kanye West setting the tone in the film’s trailer. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, of Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet fame, this Gatsby will be released in 2D and 3D. The blockbuster cost US$125 million (Dh459m) to make.
The standout fashion developments in the Roaring Twenties were rising hemlines for women (to just below the knee) and baggier suits for men, with loose trousers, seen on a male model at Gucci’s spring show, and boxy jackets, Feathers and sequins decorated women’s evening wear, while pastel colours dominated their daytime wear. A popular men’s accessory was the fedora, and tuxedos with tails were worn for formal evening wear.
The woman behind the costumes
Australian Catherine Martin designed the costumes for the 2012 movie, putting a modern spin on the signature 1920s pieces to create an even more lavish, dazzling look. She is married to the movie’s director, Baz Luhrmann, and also designed the costumes for his 2001 movie Moulin Rouge!. Martin also has her own line of home decor products, including rugs and wallpaper.
Gatsby goes global
There has been a surge of Gatsby productions leading up to the movie’s release, by coincidence. There were multiple stagings in London this spring, after the book’s copyright expired in the UK and royalty fees no longer had to be paid. One production encouraged the audience to come dressed in period costume, another was done as a musical. In San Francisco, an opera version was staged for the first time in 10 years. A popular verbatim theatrical version called Gatz will be staged in Los Angeles in December, following a successful run in London in the spring.
Why does it appeal to us?
John Collins, the director of Gatz, says what he loves about The Great Gatsby is the craftsmanship of the writing, and the way it describes old New York. “There’s something exuberant about it,” he says. “It’s irresistible in a way.” And it’s timeless – he began to conceive of Gatz in 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom. “There was a lot of new money and a lot of excitement about it,” he says. “Rich people were popping up everywhere.” Jacques Desjardins, the composer who reorchestrated the score for the Gatsby opera, says he loves the work and its wide appeal makes it a good choice in the arts. “It’s a topic that everybody knows – even non-opera people know the Gatsby book. It’s required reading in high school,” Desjardins says.