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March 8, 2021

Hand-Painted Knees: 1920s Trend You Probably Never Heard Of

The Roaring Twenties brought on a lot of envelope-pushing trends for young women to assert themselves with. They wore bobbed haircuts that hacked off their “crowning glory” locks, dark makeup that helped them channel vampy vampires, and painted their knees to draw the eye to their naked legs, much to their mothers’ disapproval.

Painted or rouged knees were flappers’ version of thong straps above low-rise jeans. Rebellious girls in the 1920s wanted to anger and shock their Victorian-era parents, so not only would they bare their knees with short dresses, but they would also paint pictures to make sure an onlooker didn’t miss their risque hem length. Rolled stockings became a fad with the shorter hemlines, and girls would go get roses, butterflies, ocean scenes, or their dogs’ faces painted on their knees to further push their boundaries.

Much like with most makeup in women’s history, this wasn’t just an act of creativity, but an assertion of independence. After World War I, more women gained financial independence with work, broke away from chaperoned parlor dates, and became a part of the public by walking the city streets without a guardian. The new generation felt a need to express this clear break from the old era of Gibson Girls and Victorian women, and they did so with the help of paint and knee rouge.

Painted knees were also an experiment in owning sexuality. Rouged knees would seem flushed, and painted knees would bring attention to body parts that were stigmatized just a few short decades back. But these moments of self-rule were oftentimes punished, as students in Ohio Northern learned in 1925. Girls had been drawing roses on their knees, and the dean called an emergency meeting to get them to stop.

The fad eventually fell out of vogue, but it resurfaced again in the 1960s — during an era where skirts rose in hemline, women pushed for independence, and embraced their sexual freedom once more.

(via Livingly)


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