The first time I heard the song And All That Jazz from the movie Chicago, the line, “I’m gonna rouge my knees. And roll my stockings down,” struck me… Did women once rouge their knees?
Yes, Virginia, like courtesans who rouged their breasts (or, more accurately, their areolas), flappers heightened the color of, and therefore the attention to, their knees. My guess is though, that they rouged post placement of their stockings. *wink*
Why were knees so important? Well, as we (I hope) all know, the 1920’s were about female liberation, especially in terms of fashion. Gone were the bustles and skirts which rendered women unable to enjoy even the simple joy of riding bicycles. Without the bottom part of the hourglass, less emphasis was put on the top half, and corsets which whittled waists and pronounced bust lines were escaped.
Now, I’m not against corsets or figure forming via foundation garments, but if it’s not fashion but rather enforcement which limits activities, akin to foot binding, then I’m not a fan. And to some extent, Victorian dress was as much about women’s place in society as it was the placement of breasts — about the ease and accessibility to life and their own sexuality.
Naturally, such freedom would lead to a mocking fashion frivolity in which women, especially young women, would relish in the abandonment of fashion’s constraints & an exploitation of fashion loopholes such as higher hemlines to express themselves, their attitudes and their intentions to live life fully.
Where once legs and even ankles had remained lily white in the dark shadows of skirts, now flappers dared to bare. They exposed skin to kisses of sunlight, trading the pasty pallor of invalids for the rosy complexions of those who lived life fully. As skin kissed by sunlight is also exposed to kisses from beaus, flappers used bare skin and its coloring to garner attentions and announce intentions. Like bees to flowers, flappers drew admiring glances and those that gave them. They used the natural appeal of revealing what had so recently been forbidden to see — and they used the artificial appeal of cosmetics.
It’s no coincidence that a more portable & easier to apply form of lipstick (in the tube) and other cosmetics (in compacts) were made at this time. And as odd as it may seem to us to color the knees, legs were all the rage so why not color & accentuate them?
Legs were so much the rage in the roaring 20’s that there was even the expression, “the bees knees” which means Its origins aren’t completely clear, but two theories seem possible…
One is that because bees carry pollen back to their hives in sacs found in the middle of their legs (the ‘knee’, if you will), the phrase alludes to the goodness to be found around the bee’s knee. Euphemistically, it’s racy; which certainly fits the 1920’s. And it reminds me of those lines from Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise:
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Speaking of dancers…
Another possibility for the origins of “the bee’s knees” may be found in the dancing legs of Bee Jackson. Jackson, once a member of the Follies, is said to be the first white girl to feature the dance we all associate with the 20’s and flappers, the Charleston.
Bee Jackson went on to become a world Charleston champion and her legs were insured for a whopping $10,000. Surely the glimpses of this Bee’s knees could garner a catchphrase along with admiring glances and erotic thoughts, and inspire other young ladies to dance and to show off their legs with short hemlines.
Obviously, such states of fashionable undress were seen as brazen & inappropriate by many; and not all women dressed (or acted) like flappers. While the moral majority & fashion minority may not have agreed, everyone knew of flappers and rolled stockings. In fact, there was even a 1927 film called Rolled Stockings.
The film stared the fabulous and iconic Louise Brooks as Carol Fleming, the girl two boys — actually brothers — Jim and Ralph Treadway (James Hall, Richard Arlen), fall in love with. The movie is believed to be lost, so not only have I never seen it, but don’t know a soul who has. However, there are a few remnants of its existence, such as promotional photos like this one:
You’ll no doubt notice that lovely Lulu is not wearing rolled stockings — but the irony continues! According to Hal Erickson:
Not unexpectedly, one of the publicity photos taken for this film was a close-up of a pair of rolled stockings, ostensibly filled by the trim legs of Louise Brooks; in fact, Brooks refused to pose for this cheesecake shot, whereupon her legs were “doubled” by her co-star, Nancy Phillips.
Rather strange for a woman who posed for nude photos… I guess completely bare equals “artistic nude” while rolled stocking promotional photos are exploitative? Or maybe she thought rolled stockings ruined the lines of a lady’s leg?
In any case, I can’t find a single photo of Louise with rolled stockings — but here’s one of Louise with her younger sister, June, who is wearing rolled stockings.
June looks so sweet — like a young woman wearing knee-highs, not some risqué flapper. But that’s just the way time — and stockings — roll by… *wink*