Look back of the Roaring Twenties in Paris, the Années folles of France

The Années folles (means “crazy years” in French) was the decade of the 1920s in France. The term “Années folles” or “Roaring Twenties” retrospectively designate the European urban exuberance of the years following the First World War. After the First World War, Paris experienced ten years of effervescence (from 1920 to 1929) and total liberation which resonated like an enchanted parenthesis. Like the thirst for life that took hold of post-war France, the fashion of the 1920s was marked by an outpouring of creative energy, the effects of which would be visible throughout the 20th century.

An immediate reaction to the horror of the trenches and its traumas, this era of dance, cinema, pleasure and the avant-garde hides, however, a sometimes darker reality. Thus Paris, a city-example of the creative and carefree vigor of the 1920s, harbored very diverse lifestyles, where the attraction for new forms of literature, fashion or architecture rubbed shoulders with moral distress and ever-pecuniary misery palpable.

The Utopian positivism of the 19th century and its progressive creed led to unbridled individualism in France. Art nouveau extravagance began to evolve into Art Deco geometry after the First World War. André Gide, who founded the Nouvelle Revue Française literary review in 1908, influenced Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Tristan Tzara’s 1918 Dada manifesto and the resulting Dada movement were very much a product of the interbellum: “Dadaists both embraced and critiqued modernity, imbuing their works with references to the technologies, newspapers, films, and advertisements that increasingly defined contemporary life”. All these served as the precursors for the Années folles.

The party is the watchword of what will be nicknamed “the Roaring Twenties”, led by young people intoxicated with hope, who want to have fun, live and above all forget the horror of war. The Roaring Twenties therefore dragged Parisians into a kind of frenzy, both cultural and social: the city was transformed by Art Deco constructions, cars invaded the streets, household appliances revolutionized daily life… Changes that will actively participate in the emancipation of women, who have already acquired a taste for a certain independence, involuntarily experienced following the departure of men for the front.

The Années folles was coined to describe the rich social, artistic, and cultural collaborations of the period. During their time in Paris, the artists spent their days making works, networking and frequenting a range of hangout spots around Paris; many of which are still open for business to this day. The Jardin du Luxembourg was one of the favorite daytime spots in the 5th arrondissement. It is said to be a haven for creative minds, giving them room to walk while stimulating their processes. The evening were filled with jazz, booze and more cigarettes than you can imagine.

Between the two world wars Paris witnessed an unprecedented festive and artistic proliferation. Here the lost artists delved deep into one another’s psyches in the presence of many well known French artists also living in Paris in the 20s; Picasso, Duchamp and Klein amongst them. Still others come from European countries like the painters Chagall, Modigliani and Soutine who will give birth to “The School of Paris”. Paris then became the city of all the avant-gardes, and it was in the brasseries of the Montparnasse district, inexpensive and rich in numerous cafés. Most of these establishments such as the Dome, the Coupole, the Select, the Rotonde or the Closerie des Lilas still exist today.

At the same time, fleeing alcohol prohibition, Americans arrive in Paris, taking part in the celebration. Came from the United States with the jazz made its appearance but also dance, radio and sports, industries with household appliances, etc., the car has also become the most fashionable symbol of the era. American dancer Josephine Baker quickly become the star of the Champs Elysées theater, releasing many fantasies with her mythical and catchy dance. She is the symbol of the sexual liberation that exalts Paris at the time.

“The Lost Generation” specifically refers to the group of expat American artists who made their way to the French capital during this time. Writers within Paris in the 1920s refer to the American expatriate writers in Paris in the 1920s, They created literary works and movements that influence the global literary landscape to date. During the 1920s, political, economic and social issues shaped the inspiration behind many of the writers in Paris. The belief was that this group of creatives had inherited values that no longer had a place in the postwar world – leaving them a lonely, misunderstood bunch.

During the 1920s, the surrealist movement also appeared, carried by many artist writers such as André Breton and Paul Eluard, painters with Salvador Dali and Joan Miro, or even sculptors such as Jean Arp and Germaine Richier. Fashion, cinema, photography, song, theatre, sport and architecture with art nouveau and art deco are also involved in this creative madness: Paris thus becomes the world capital of all the arts.

With the Roaring Twenties, France experienced very strong economic growth. But the famous stock market crash of 1929 marked the end of this boom… Several large theaters closed, and the party had to stop with the Second World War, which began in 1939. This period of peace, joy, profit from the life to the fullest between troubled times nevertheless remains etched forever in the collective memory thanks to the works that resulted from it and which are now part of our heritage.

Art and literary
During the 1920s, the city of Paris thus became the capital of the arts and the privileged meeting place for artists and intellectuals from both the Old and New Worlds. Thus, Gertrude Stein introduced Picasso, Braque and Matisse to the works of Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. It was in Paris that the first edition of the Irish writer James Joyce was published. It is also in this city that chooses to live Natalie Clifford Barney who inspired the character of Valérie Seymour in The Well of Solitude byRadclyffe Hall.

Many foreign artists and writers settled for longer or shorter stays in the French capital: Sonia Stern, Elsa Schiaparelli, Edith Wharton and Jean Rhys, not to mention French women like Nathalie Sarraute. Likewise, well-known writers such as Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis come here to seek novelty and new inspiration.

During the Roaring Twenties, Montparnasse and Montmartre were the most famous and popular places in Paris, hosting its prestigious cafés such as La Coupole, Le Dôme, La Rotonde and La Closerie des Lilas or salons such as that of Gertrude Stein, rue de Fleurus.

Montmartre, first of all, constitutes one of the major centers of these meeting places between these intellectuals. The district presents an aspect of modernity with the existence of trumpeters like Arthur Briggs who performs at the Abbey. But for the American writer Henry Miller, like many other foreigners, the Vavin – Raspail – Montparnasse crossroads is, in his own words, “the navel of the world”. He also came there to write his Tropiques series.

In Paris, it is more precisely the left bank of the Seine which is mainly concerned with the arts and letters, and all this is confirmed during the 1920s. The high concentration of creators who have settled in the French capital and who occupy the places of the cabaret Le Bœuf on the roof or the large brasseries of Montparnasse bear witness to this. The American writers of the ” lost generation “, namely in particular F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway, rub shoulders there with the exiles who fled the Mediterranean and Balkan dictatorships. Finally, there are the painters who form what will later be called “theSchool of Paris ” and which bring together, among others, the Lithuanian Soutine, the Italian Modigliani and the Russian Chagall.

Cafés around Paris became places where artists, writers, and others gathered. On the Rive Gauche (left bank) the scene centered around cafés in Montparnasse while on the Rive Droite (right bank), the Montmartre area. The Années folles in Montparnasse featured a thriving art and literary scene centered on cafés such as Brasserie La Coupole, Le Dôme Café, Café de la Rotonde, and La Closerie des Lilas as well as salons like Gertrude Stein’s in the rue de Fleurus.

The Rive Gauche, or left bank, of the Seine in Paris, was and is primarily concerned with the arts and the sciences. Many artists settled there and frequented cabarets like Le Boeuf sur le Toit and the large brasseries in Montparnasse. American writers of the Lost Generation, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, met and mingled in Paris with exiles from dictatorships in Spain and Yugoslavia.

The painters of the School of Paris for example included among others Chaïm Soutine, Amedeo Modigliani and Marc Chagall, Lithuanian, Italian, and Russian, respectively. Later the American Henry Miller, like many other foreigners, gravitated to the rue Vavin and Boulevard Raspail. Montparnasse was, he said, “the navel of the world”. Gertrude Stein also lived in Montparnasse during this period.

Montmartre was a major center of Paris nightlife and had been famous for its cafés and dance halls since the 1890s. Trumpeter Arthur Briggs played at L’Abbaye and transvestites frequented La Petite Chaumière. After World War I, the artists who had inhabited the guinguettes and cabarets of Montmartre, invented post-Impressionism during the Belle Époque. In 1926, the facade of the Folies Bergère building was redone in Art Deco style by the artist Maurice Pico, adding it to the many Parisian theatres of the period in this architectural style.

The Lost Generation
Although the crisis of the post-world war context led to a decrease in cultural and artistic flare during the 1920s in Paris, the political, social and economic situation in France inspired the movement which was to be The Lost Generation (Les Années Folles) Although coined by Gertrude Stein, it was Ernest Hemingway who promulgated this term. The Lost Generation was a collectivised recognition of the aimlessness, confusion and grief experienced by the survivors and civilians of the war. In particular, the Lost Generation encompassed American expatriate writers in Paris within the 1920s.

During the 1920s, Paris became the epicentre of culture, embracing extravagance, diversity and creativity. Artists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, flocked from all over the world towards Paris, by this time the hotspot of expression and instrument of artistic direction. The Lost Generation all shared the post-war griefs of losing their loved ones, innocence and sense of pride. However, one thing that was most certainly not lost but in fact learned, was the sense of artistic expression characterised by the disillusionment and pessimism of the end of the First World War. Numerous Individuals became part of the Lost Generation without any recognition.

However, the Lost Generation of the 1920s produced some of the most famous writers to date. Gertrude Stein grew to foster the creativity of the artists and writers of the Lost Generation, hosting frequent meetings of those who took part. Not only were writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald a part of this, but also world-renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Mattisse.

Surrealist movement
The surrealist avant-garde occupies during the 1920s the front of the cultural scene by bringing new forms of expression to poetry with authors like André Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard or Robert Desnos but also to painting through from artists like Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Francis Picabia, to sculpture with Jean Arp, Germaine Richier, even to cinematography withLuis Buñuel and his famous work An Andalusian Dog, René Clair and Jean Cocteau. Now turned towards the unspeakable, the avant-garde movement sees its members adhere for a large majority of them to the French Communist Party which they share the desire to break with the bourgeoisie.

Performing arts
The influence of the United States on France is also nourished by various cultural practices coming from abroad, and the war accentuated this contribution of new cultures. One of these most striking influences is the rag which is quickly called jazz and which is experiencing a spectacular rise and popularity within the city of Paris. This kind of music was brought by the American army and enjoyed great success in 1925 on the Champs-Élysées with the Revue nègre hosted successively by Florence Mills.

Joséphine Baker quickly aroused the enthusiasm of Parisians for jazz and black music. The Charleston is danced solo, in pairs or in groups, to the rhythms of jazz. It is based on moving the weight of the body from one leg to the other, feet turned inwards and knees slightly bent. Of all the fashionable cabarets, the most famous is that known as Le Bœuf sur le Toit, where Jean Wiéner, a French pianist and composer, is playing. The Parisian world attending these entertainments constitutes only a tiny part of the French population, namely the elites..

American influence
American culture of the Roaring Twenties had a substantial influence on France, which imported jazz, the Charleston, and the shimmy, as well as cabaret and nightclub dancing. Interest in American culture increased in the Paris of the 1920s, and shows and stars of Broadway theatre introduced as innovations for the élite and were imitated thereafter.

The American influence on the Paris of the Roaring Twenties is considerable: the Charleston, the shimmy and jazz fill the cabarets and dance halls populated after the war by American and English soldiers but also by a socialite public in search of all the possible novelties. A sudden passion and a certain taste for the United States, their values and their culture, then characterized the Paris of the 1920s, magazines and Broadway stars were bought at high prices and then imitated.

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But France is not content to recover shows from across the Atlantic; she adapts them and creates her own performances and representations. This is the case for the famous Revue nègre which presented for the first time in Paris in 1925 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Joséphine Baker, a dancer appearing heavily naked and feathered, dancing the Charleston and multiplying provocative gestures, on music by Sidney Bechet. Inspired and influenced by the French colonial Empire, she created La Folie du jour in 1926. She also covered hit songs from café-concerts such as Vincent Scotto ‘s La Petite Tonkinoise. The song J’ai deux amours in 1930 consecrates her as a star of Parisian life, a complete star who, like the chansonniers, does not content herself with dancing but comments on the tunes of music and gives comedy.

New dances
Driven by new techniques (records, radio, cinema), dances are developing, expressing themselves in new places, dance halls. The tuxedo and the taste for “Negro music”, as it was called at the time, repelled divergent opinions. Paul Guillaume organized the Fête nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1919. Six years later, this same theater offered Parisians the Revue nègre. Rue Blomet, the black ball attracts aesthetes and the curious. France is thus seized by a phenomenon of “dansomania”, abandoning social dancesof European tradition in favor of various exotic dances (Charleston, tango, foxtrot, meringue, etc.).

Swedish Ballets
The Roaring Twenties were also marked by a revival of ballets. Thus, it was in 1921 that the Swedish Ballets offered L’Homme et son Désir by Paul Claudel with music by Darius Milhaud. They then present The Bride and Groom of the Eiffel Tower, for which Jean Cocteau wrote the screenplay. Alas, it does not convince the public. In 1923, another ballet was created, namely La Création du monde, for which Darius Milhaud wrote the music and Blaise Cendrars the screenplay. Fernand Leger, who made the costumes, brought gigantic animals, birds, insects and even totemic gods to the stage. The importance of the salons, those of the Princesse de Polignac, Madame de Noailles and the Comte de Beaumont, should not be overlooked either, which were places of encounter and inspiration.

It is also the period when the music hall definitively replaces the café-concert. We go to the Casino de Paris, to the Parisian concert and to the Mayol concert as we go to the theater: the spectators, the attractions and the songs follow one another at a rapid pace. The fanciful sets and costumes of the girls were designed by fashionable painters like Zinoview as much as by costume designers who became celebrities like Erté or Charles Gesmar.

Artistic productions are experiencing a meteoric rise: Paris qui danse, Cach’ ton piano, Paris qui jazz, Mon homme and Dans un armchair which gave Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett international fame. Valentine ‘s “little toes” go around the world. The American influence, the big show, the musicals make the success of the Folies Bergère, the famous “Fol Berge”. They indeed inaugurated their cycle with Les Folies en furie in 1922.

The operetta also gets a new start onNovember 12, 1918with the premiere of Phi-Phi by Henri Christine and Albert Willemetz. It is a success against a backdrop of ancient Greece with many fanciful creations. Indeed, up to a thousand presentations were performed in just two years. Another great success is entitled In life, don’t worry, Dédé ‘s most popular song, created in 1921 at the Bouffes-Parisiens with Maurice Chevalier again. Composers turn out to be talented, such as the Marseilles – based Vincent Scotto, but also Maurice Yvain (the composer of My Man) as well as authors like Sacha Guitry who wrote the libretto of Masked Love.

At the Olympia, at Bobino or at the Théâtre de la Gaîté-Montparnasse, we find Marie Dubas and Georgius inaugurating the Théâtre Chantant by staging various popular songs. There is also Damia nicknamed the “tragedian of the song” or Yvonne George and her vibrato voice which takes up traditional songs. From 1926, however, the American operetta came to compete with the French with titles likeNo, No, Nanette, Rose Mary and Show Boat. The Roaring Twenties are therefore a time of stars and varied repertoires operating in various festive places.

Another form of entertainment, namely the sports spectacle, experienced a similar craze during the Roaring Twenties. Indeed, attendance at sporting venues increased significantly during the years following the war and the press gave the sporting event a growing audience and popularity. Newspapers actually play a major role in the promotion of sport by devoting, through the sports pages, notoriety to the Tour de France, for example, as well as to this extreme event that was the Paris-Strasbourg race. In the mid-1920s, French tennis dominated the world and then experienced its golden age. The Davis Cup victory of the ” Four Musketeers ” will lead to the construction of the Roland-Garros stadium to accommodate ever-increasing spectators.

Revival of popular culture
Parallel to this culture of the elites which characterizes the Roaring Twenties, one sees reappearing at the same time in Paris, a popular culture. Indeed, the First World War changed many things, even in the field of song. After four years of nostalgic era of the ” Belle Époque “, new artists are appearing in fashionable places. The music hall, for example, while attracting artists and intellectuals in search of novelty, also works in the working class. There is certainly the exoticism of the reviews at great expense of the Moulin Rouge but it is necessary to evoke at the same period the beginnings of Maurice Chevalier, illustration par excellence of French good humor through one of his songs, Valentin. There is also the magazine leader Mistinguett, nicknamed La Miss, who successfully covers popular tunes such as Toujours au turbin, Moi, j’en am mare.

Fashion and style
The garçonne (flapper) look in women’s fashion emerged in Paris, promoted especially by Coco Chanel. The boyish look was characterized by a loose, streamlined, androgynous silhouette where neither the bust nor the waist are evident, accompanied by a short hairdo. It became the symbol of the emancipated woman: free and autonomous, and expressing a new social freedom for a woman-she goes out on the town, smokes, dances, engages in sports or outdoor activities, drives a car, goes on trips-and, flying in the face of moral conventions of the day, she flaunts an extra-marital liaison, perhaps even her homo- or bisexuality, or cohabits openly with a partner.

Also by Chanel, the celebrated little black dress came out in 1926. A straight sheath with 3/4 sleeves and no collar, the crêpe de Chine tube all in black (a color previously reserved for bereavement) was the perfect evocation of garçonne style, erasing the forms of the female body. Copied many times over, this “Ford signed ‘Chanel'” as Vogue magazine dubbed it, referring to the mass-produced American car, would become a classic item of womenswear of the 1920s and beyond.

The radio plays a preponderant role by becoming the privileged vector of the new mass culture. Indeed, it allows, through the first 78 rpm discs, to make known to a greater number of people, especially among the working classes, the stars of cabaret and music hall. Thus, the radio quickly propelled Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier to the rank of national and then international stars; the two quickly become emblems of the Parisian way of life.

Silent cinema is the striking and fascinating expression of the first three decades of the 20th century. This visual curiosity, baptized “cinematograph”, for which the scientists of the time predicted little future, and who considered it a curiosity or a fairground attraction, would become both one of the facets and one of the milestones of the 7th art. Silent cinema is considered by some to be the years of innocence or even carelessness of the 7th art. The elegant Max Linder, after being discovered by Charles Pathé, rules the screens until the early hours of the war.

Theatrical revival
The Paris of the 1920s is also the theater which is essentially represented by four directors and principal actors, namely Louis Jouvet, Georges Pitoëff, Charles Dullin and Gaston Baty. The latter decided in 1927 to join their efforts by creating the “Cartel of Four”. They nevertheless had much less success than Sacha Guitry, who triumphed at the Théâtre des Variétés. There are also the plays of Alfred Savoir, the comedies of Édouard Bourdet and those of Marcel Pagnol which all meet with certain success.

Theatrical performance enjoyed great audience success and an undeniable revival during the 1920s, first of all in terms of stage performance. Around the Cartel develops a creative effort aimed at translating the concerns and aspirations of the time into the production. The change is also evident in the choice of themes treated and the atmosphere that emanates from the works presented. At the same time, educated elite audiences are increasingly interested in authors and works that combine classicism in form and reality/dream opposition in theatrical atmosphere. Also, Cocteau ‘s theatre, Giraudoux ‘s first plays (such as Siegfriedin 1928) and the works of the Italian Pirandello are its most illustrious and successful representatives. However, all of this remains classic in the modes of expression chosen and in keeping with the taste of the elites.

End of an era
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought an end to the exuberant zeitgeist in the United States, although the crisis didn’t actually reach Europe until 1931. In 1928, the Parisian theater La Cigale, then the Olympia and the Moulin Rouge suffered the same fate in 1929, being torn down at the end of the decade. Although production was intended for a wide audience, most people attended music halls and other dance halls. Their world of song was primarily that of the street, the javas and tangos of dances, weddings, and banquets and not of the Parisian high society. Parallel to this culture of elites, at the same time in Paris, existed a popular culture that was increasingly successful and came to dominate the late 1920s and early 1930s through artists such as Maurice Chevalier or Mistinguett.

Notable Literary works
The literary works of writers in the 1920s in Paris would go on to influence a contemporary audience and have proven to remain relevant despite a significant cultural shift.

The Sun Also Rises (1926)
Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) summated life for writers in Paris throughout the 1920s. This novel re-evaluates themes such as the aimlessness of the Lost Generation, the concept of male insecurity, and, (as said by William Adair in his essay; “The Sun Also Rises; A Memory of War”), the destructiveness of sex. The ideas in this novel are so profound and provocative that it was banned in cities in the United States, as well as Nazi Germany for “being a monument of modern decadence”.

The Waste Land (1922)
The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, is one of the most renowned poetic pieces to emerge from the 20th century. It is the cornerstone of Modernist writing. It includes the themes of war, disillusionment, trauma and death. It is a poem divided into five sections. It is a significant work which is devoted to the experiences of writers living in Paris in the 1920s, inspired by the loss of moral and cultural identity established by the backlash of World War One. The title is significant, a metaphor for the physical and psychological devastation experienced by Europe, and, particularly Paris in the mid-war period.

A Moveable Feast (1964)
Although not written in the 1920s, one book which pays tribute to the sentiment within Paris in the 1920s is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964). The novel focuses on the weather in Paris in the 1920s as a metaphor to encapsulate the disillusionment brought by the first World War. Like many works dedicated to Paris in the 1920s, this novel references Gertrude Stein’s home at 27 Rue de Fleurs, the hub of literary collaboration and inspiration. ‘A Moveable Feast’ references the role Stein played as a mentor to Hemingway, a hugely influential entity to the artistic, particularly literary community within Paris in the 1920s.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)
Gertrude Stein’s work The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) is rather an analysis of herself than the suggested subject, her partner Alice B.Toklas. It summarises her life before and during her move to Paris and the effects this had on her identity, writing and relationships. In particular, it is a comparison of life in pre-war California and post-war Paris in the 1920s. although published in 1933, it contextualises Paris in the 1920s, the commonly shared experience of an American expatriate within this time and the influences of 1920 Paris on not only her own but the art of all those who surrounded her, particularly members of “The Lost Generation”.


Alongside the labour shortages of the First World War, the emergence of technology and urbanisation, came the search for financial opportunities and the redefining of economics. As a response to this shift in perspective and values, Modernism emerged as a new movement of literary expression particularly catalysed by artists of the Lost Generation.

The Beat Generation
The principles and key tenets first embodied by works of the Lost Generation in Paris in the 1920s included not only the expression of political disillusionment, but also a collective rejection of authoritarian values. Such a concept inspired the “Beat Generation” of the 1950s and 1960s, as the post- World War II era led to the rejection of conventional societies on behalf of artists in this time.

Contemporary films
The immense influence of Writers in Paris in the 1920s on subsequent literature Is effectively captured in award winning works. Woody Allen’s 2011 film, Midnight in Paris, is inspired by literary works produced in Paris in the 1920s such as Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. It pays homage to the literary landscape in Paris in the 1920s and references writers of this period such as Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Z: the beginning of everything (2015)
The legacies of both F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald remain highly significant in contemporary society. The Television series, Z: The beginning of everything, that spanned from 2015-2017, is a fictional biography which follows the early life of both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald, and what would result in their turbulent love affair. It follows the life of writers in Paris in the 1920s, the close associates of the Fitzgeralds, and what it meant to experience the tensions of a War ridden society first-hand.

The Making of Americans (1925)
The Making of Americans is a novel which was officially published in 1925 by Gertrude Stein. Although set in a fictional world, its plot mimics her own personal experiences of immigration in the interwar period. The novel entails repetition as its main technique and a limited use of vocabulary. It has been the centre of literary conversation until present. It is widely criticised as “lacking in form, consistency and coherency”.

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