Roaring Twenties Enthusiasts Gather in New York

Hundreds of time travelers in 1920s-era outfits took ferries to Governors Island earlier this month to attend the two-day Jazz Age Lawn Party, one of New York City’s most curious summer traditions.

They wore flapper dresses with feather boas, pinstripe suits with black-and-white wingtips and lots of boater hats, cloche hats and bow ties. Gathered on picnic blankets in a grassy field, they passed the day sipping gin and tonics before dancing to hot jazz performed by the Dreamland Orchestra.

A man wearing pink pants and suspenders drank beer from a Mason jar while his young son, also in suspenders, sat on his shoulders. Lines gathered outside a stand that sold newsboy caps and another that offered on-site tintype portraits. A pie contest included the category, “Hobo’s Choice,” which rewarded the confection most likely to be “stolen off a back porch.”

The orchestra was conducted by the pencil-mustached bandleader Michael Arenella, who started the event in 2005. “We were pretty much the first event out here,” he said. “It was maybe 50 people then. People are drawn to the Roaring Twenties because there’s a youthfulness to the era. After the war, people were looking to have a good time, after their brush with mortality.”

In the edited interviews below, re-enactors on the second day named their Jazz Age fashion heroes and pondered whether they would actually time travel back to the era.

Model and playwright

If you could time travel back, would you? I’d go back. I’d be a showgirl at the Cotton Club and be the best dancer there. As much as I love the era, I don’t think life was better, though. There was segregation. Yet despite what we were going through as people of color, we created beautiful dance, music and art.

Do you have a Jazz Age fashion hero? Josephine Baker, all day, every day. She was righteous and liberated in her beauty.


Would you go back? I can’t romanticize that period, as a person of color, but I’m very drawn to the era’s fashion. As a Harlem native, I have an affinity for the Harlem Renaissance. African Americans were using fashion to carry themselves proudly every single day.

Jazz Age fashion hero? Coco Chanel. Her designs introduced gender fluidity. She pioneered the idea you could go both ways.

Would you time travel back? People think of the 1920s as one big party, but it was just good for a few people of certain persuasions. It was also a time of intolerance and prejudice. I’d probably go back just for a weekend. However, this is only one time period I’m involved with as a re-enactor. I did a World War II event the other weekend, and I was at a Revolutionary War event recently in Mount Vernon.

Your old-timey fashion hero? Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He was married to Joan Crawford and was the best dressed man in Hollywood.

Would you go back? I’d like to go back, because I relate to the simplicity of that time. Don’t get me wrong, it was a harder life, and lots obviously wasn’t good, but things were simpler then, and I feel we’ve gotten further from that.

Jazz Age fashion hero? Gary Cooper. He was just starting out, and he had that elegant swagger. You don’t see elegant swagger in a man these days.

Would you time travel back? Yes, because I think people were happier then, though I’d want to arrive before the Great Depression. Women’s liberation was starting and so much of that fashion remains stylish today, from sequins to headbands.

Old-timey fashion hero? Carole Lombard. She married Clark Gable and died in a plane crash. She started the blond hair trend.

Scientist and Beauty sales executive

Would you go back?

J. R.: I think there are aspects of me that wouldn’t fare so well then, but to experience those parties, I don’t know …. If I could come back, sure, but I’d stay here if it was a one-way ticket.

Jazz Age fashion hero?

T. D.: I can’t immediately think of one but I feel Tom Ford pulled heavily from this era. His suits are masculine yet use feminine color palettes. He loves a luxurious full lapel with strong shouldering, like the gangsters wore. You could argue the power suit was born in the 1920s and that Ford borrowed from it.

Flight attendant

Would you go back? I’d be naïve to say any era was better, but in terms of fashion, I’d like it if everyone still dressed like this. The mobsters in particular, with their red ties and cigars, were really bringing it.

Jazz Age fashion hero? I feel Karl Lagerfeld was channeling the Jazz Age. The gloves. The white collar. His white cat, Choupette, in a carrier basket.

Events coordinator

Would you go back? Probably not. The prohibition era was a time of hardship. Now we can get liquor whenever we want.

Jazz Age fashion hero? Bonnie and Clyde. Because they did whatever the hell they wanted.

Graphic designer and Book editor

Would you go back?

C.S.: Absolutely not. I like having the internet and rights as a woman.

M.K.: Only with a return trip. I have rights in this era and so do my friends and allies. We also have medicine. I could have gotten the Spanish flu.

Jazz Age fashion hero?

C.S.: Jean Harlow. She played unremorseful characters, like women who got involved with married men, yet she played them in a surprisingly likable way.

M.K.: Elsa Schiaparelli. She took from surrealism and said, ‘What if we put lobsters on our dresses?’ Wearing Schiaparelli was to wear art.

Retired electrical engineer and Retired fashion image consultant

Would you go back?

M.N.: I think I would have fit right in. It was a ladylike time. A time of gentleman. Girls were girls. Men were men. Wait, could I get in trouble for saying that? What I mean to say is it was a stylish feminine era, which I like.

Jazz Age fashion hero?

A.N.: My glamorous great-aunt. She was a fashion buyer for the top New York department stores back then. She’d go to Paris to bring back the latest fashions for New Yorkers. I’ve seen pictures of her. She was the bee’s knees.