Their dances, their music and their clothes: Sourcing the iconography of “heritage” in the dancehalls of the 1930’s


In this second installment on the iconography of “heritage” I’d like to address the role the music and the associated imagery, that permeated the dance halls of the European cities in the 1920is, play in contemporary revival subcultures. In opposition to last months focus on the Great Depression era, in this short writing I will try to describe the exuberant and mostly unconscious escapism that affected a certain part of Central European society in the decade following the Great War. Ultimately I’d like to find an answer to my quest for the why it’s iconography is still present in adult oriented subcultures. Tags would include for some aspects in their aesthetics the various forms of gatherings such as Revivals, Swing and Lindy Hop social clubs, Style Rides etc. When we look at pictures that reached us from this era today, our attention is quickly drawn to the opulence and curated elegance in the buildings and architecture.

The Dancehalls and ballrooms of the “Golden Era” were magical places. Their late gothic exteriors promised their patrons a parallel world, where the shadowy realms of syncopated music and dances reigned until dawn. Just look for the works of Carl Schaefer, who built the Cafe Kerkau/Equitable Palais in Berlin, later known as the Cafe and ballroom Moka Efti. Where the original space and architectural volumes have been preserved, you’d be overwhelmed when you enter them for the first time. To get admission you didn’t have to be rich; it was the shine on your cap toed oxfords, the pattern on your tie, the angle you wore your fedora at, the measurements of your lapels that counted. If your daytime work comprised manual labor, you’d better left your work clothes at home and put on your best take on what would be comfortable when the dance floor got crowded. It was that time, when Jazz was still known for being a music to dance to. Every single member of the orchestra was a master not only on his instrument but also in the performance of his panache as sharply dressed man. Once you got on the frontline though, you were a certified master of ceremonies, be it through your voice as a crooning story teller like Cab Calloway or as the leader of the pack through your sheer genius in handling your instrument like Louis Armstrong. It were the nights that made the stars shine and the dim lights on the dance floor that blurred the class distinctions. These first attempts at breaking through the societal cage of class related restrictions were often interpreted as hedonistic and decadent. It’s furor obviously didn’t really respect the efforts and the timespan, that a similar change in human relationships would have needed to become accepted and lived by the mainstream. It ended as it should have, like most revolutionary movement do, in an outbreak of violence of global dimension. The voices, the dances, the visuals, the images survived. And from the late 1980s on a steady crowd curated the memories and rebuild particular aspects of the aesthetics, the rooms and their atmosphere, the voices and the music. This crowd learned from the still living masters of the ballrooms and dancehalls the moves that became strolls, hops and slow dances. The process of reappraisal of the places, where the hip crowd got tight in the 1920is, merged with a growing interest in the historical events of that era. We can ascertain today, that a growing consciousness in the revivalist subcultures  and in some cases an intriguing contemporary interpretation of the iconography of the 1920is and 30is in the form of a “retrospective modernism” (SFC) is gaining attention outside its mostly niche enthusiasts. The work that’s been done by specialized brands on this heritage showcases the topicality and contemporary validity of the historical roots of an elegance that celebrated the conscious escapism from the certainty of an upcoming catastrophe.

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