Sex and Shopping

Ideas on the depravity of modern society

The “petting party” party antics of Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise speak to American youth’s shifting sexual mores. In an era when “the belle had become the flirt, and the flirt had become the baby vamp,” petting parties required an associated wardrobe. Fitzgerald writes, “When the hand-knit, sleeveless jerseys were stylish, Amory, in a burst of inspiration, named them ‘petting shirts.’ The name traveled from coast to coast on the lips of parlor snakes and P.D.’s”(68).1 In his short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” the “dopeless” Bernice stirs up scandal by briefing a boy on her bathing routine: “It takes a frightful lot of energy to fix my hair…so I always fix it first and powder my face and put on my hat; then I get into the bathtub.” The controversial topic does encourage a reaction. Her caller “considered feminine bathing an immoral subject, and gave her some of his ideas on the depravity of modern society.” As the Bernice blurb demonstrates, changing cultural standards redefined “when” and “where” sex was discussed.2

The first three decades of the twentieth century marked a primary shift in how, why, and where Americans bought. Mass-marketed clothing and cosmetics became essential elements of self-expression and vibrant commercial industries. Between 1909 and 1929 the number of cosmetic and perfume manufacturers doubled, and the factory value of their goods grew tenfold from $14 million to $141 million.3 As Kate De Castelbajac notes, the lack of bachelor in post-World War I America “created an emphasis on beauty that was sexually, rather than socially codified.” In sharp contrast to their Victorian predecessors, Fitzgerald’s generation valued youth and beauty. In 1920, 750 beauty salons existed in New York City; five years later there were 3,000.4 For the masses, participating in the fashion system was easier than ever. Historian of dress Rebecca Arnold points out that the 1920s flapper was the consummate consumer, “a potent symbol of lifestyle promoted through advertising and popular culture as a means to create a truly modern identity, which capitalized upon new freedoms.”5

Fashion also serves as a vehicle for Fitzgerald to explore the rise of consumerism in American culture. The carefree spending of heiress Nicole Diver sits in juxtaposition to that of the economically self-sufficient Rosemary Hoyt in Tender is the Night: “With Nicole’s help Rosemary bought two dresses and two hats and four pairs of shoes with her money,” while the daughter of the industrialist “bought from a great list that ran two pages” and “everything she liked that she couldn’t possibly use herself, she bought as a present for a friend.” Her purchases include colored beads, scarves, linen handkerchiefs, “a dozen bathing suits,” “three yards of some new cloth the color of prawns” and “two chamois leather jackets of kingfisher blue” (65).


1.The term “P.D” refers to “popular daughter” a title apparently invented by Fitzgerald to describe young women who participate with boys in petty parties. The boys were known as parlor snakes.
2.F.Scott Fitzgerald, Flappers and Philosophers, 154
3.Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, (New York, 1998), 97.
4.Kate De Castelbajac, The Face of the Century (New York, 1995), 36; 258.
5.Rebecca Arnold, Fashion, Desire and Anxiety (New Brunswick, NJ, 2001), 3.