If you’ve seen the 1975 Broadway musical Chicago, or the 1979 movie All That Jazz, or even an episode of Glee Season 4 in 2012 if you’re younger, then you must have caught the line saying ‘gonna rouge my knees’ and wondered what it meant.
The phrase ‘rouge my knees’ refers to the fad in the 1920s, when women would apply red rouge to their knees to draw attention and give illicit glimpses of their legs. This fad was popularized by flapper women whose fashion style included stockings that they would roll just below their rouged kneecaps.
Although women would wear shorter evening clothes for parties and dancing, showing off lots of skin was still pretty much taboo. Girls not brave enough to wear shorter skirts would fold their stocking over a roll garter and rouge their kneecaps.
This article will lead you back to an era when putting makeup on kneecaps was fashionable. Let’s start with that famous lyric from a jazz piece.
I’m Gonna Rouge My Knees and Roll My Stockings Down – All about the Flappers
This is a phrase from All that Jazz, the opening musical score written by theater lyricist Fred Ebb for the musical play (and film) Chicago. And yes, it refers to the Roaring 20s, the same era that Fitzgerald called the Jazz Age, which gave birth to a new kind of music that set the backdrop for a new way of life, especially for young women.
Remember the noisy parties, wild drinking, bootlegging, and the buzzy activities of the nouveau riche in the Great Gatsby? Post-war enthusiasm, bursts of economic prosperity, urbanism, consumerism, and carefree lifestyle were the hallmarks of this decade.
It was the peak of the women’s liberation and gender equality movement. For the first time, women in the US were allowed to vote. They made up a significant portion of the workforce and were financially independent, and how they loved it!
Aside from the changes in the social and political scene, 1920 also brought in a new sense of beauty and lifestyle. This was the decade of the flappers.
Where Did the Word Rouge Come from and What Does It Mean?
The term rouge means ‘red’ in French. In English and taken in the modern sense, it is synonymous with the cosmetic terms: blush, blusher, or blush-on. In other words, rouge is a makeup product in powder or cream form, used for putting color on the cheeks, lips, eyelids, or any part of your face or body. It comes in various colors and shades.
Taking this definition, you can use the term or its variants as a noun, adjective, or verb. Thus, you say:
- (Noun) I hate wearing too much rouge.
- (Adjective) Her perfectly rouged lips captivated her audience.
- (Verb) When rouging with a dark color, it’s best to use a brush.
How Did Makeup and Rouging Contribute to the Flapper Look?
The flappers rouged their cheeks, painted their lips red, plucked their brows, and used black liners and cosmetics to enhance their eyes. And, of course, they rouged their knees. Their look was theatrical, especially so that their mothers belonged to an age when women rarely used makeup nor half as much, if at all.
The goal of the flapper image was to deviate and come free from what was customary. With their makeup and rouge, they deviated from the traditional woman, shocking their mothers and attracting the men. Their free-flowing and drop-waist clothes made moving unhampered.
Throughout the decade, the flappers patronized the gar·çon (young man) or boyish look. They flattened their chests, and cropped, bobbed, or slicked their hair to achieve that boyish look.
But, heck, what’s so boyish about wearing heavy makeup and accessorizing to the hilt in one getup? I’ve asked the same questions, too. In fact, I could randomly pick a flapper dress (and all its sparkles) from my closet and swear by its elaborate femininity.
But, hey, lest we forget, flapperdom was a century ago. Mindsets were different. We’re in the modern age, and fashion styles have evolved by leaps.
So what do you say, we’ll dig a little bit more?
What Was the Flappers Fashion Style Like?
It’s important to note that just a few years before the Roaring 20s, hemlines reached the floor. Women had cinched waist, thanks to their pulse-stopping corsets!
Then came the flapper woman and her new way of dressing. She wore low-heeled shoes and a drop-waist dress that looked more like an undergarment than a proper clothing. She chopped her hair to a bob, rolled her stockings down, wore a lot of jewelry, and touched her kneecaps with a pink powder blush-on.
What was this rebellious fashion trend all about? Let’s get to that.
Roll My Stockings Down – the Fad’s Rebellious Undertones
If it’s not clear to you yet, the flapper vogue was all about the New Woman coming out. The bob hair style, tasseled slip of a dress, powder-rouged cheeks and kneecaps, rolled-down stocking, exposed legs, de-emphasis on the shape of a woman’s body, and the all-new elements of beauty and glamour in the early 1920s spoke of the rebel inside every flapper woman.
How the 1920s Women Rebelled against Stuffy Gender Stereotypes
Just a few years back, women wore the Edwardian S-shape corset and before that was the more rigid Victorian corset. The New Woman threw traditions away in favor of the unisex flapper shape, also known as the rectangular or shapeless silhouette. With it, the flappers embraced their new, non-constricting way of dressing. Rolling their leg coverings down was also seen as sexy and a way for women to challenge Victorian mores.
What Flappers Used for Rolling Stockings Down
Your modern elastic hose is not the same as the stocking worn by the 1920s women. What they had in the Twenties were made of non-stretchable silk that required roll garters to keep them in place.
What Pink Knees Meant for the Flappers
Why were pink kneecaps peeking out of garter-rolled stocking popular in the 1920s? Rosy kneecaps were thought pretty and healthy in the same sense that rosy cheeks were. That beauty fad may sound weird today, but back in the day, it was the craze.
Of course, cosmetics worn on the knees would invite men to look that way, which was the real intent. So this popular practice among younger women was both provocative and rebellious.
How Women Rouged Their Knees
In the same way that you’d make your cheeks appear rosy, the 1920 women used makeup. Even back then, cosmetic products were already available in powder, cream, and liquid formulas and could be applied with a brush or puff. Knee makeup was mainly powder blush or a special rouge formulated by cosmetic chemists.
Was making a fashion statement out of the knees exclusive to the 1920 American women? Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, the Chicago musical and the All That Jazz film would make you think so. But that’s not completely true.
In the same period, there were reports of knee painting among French women, who used oil paint and watercolor instead of makeup. However, this artistic trend in France never became as popular as its American equivalent.
Rouging Knees & Feminism
The 1920 fashion revolution caused hemlines to creep northward for the first time since the Victorian age, thanks to the efforts of feminist activists. Made-up kneecaps and rolled stockings, which drew attention to more skin than norms would allow, were a unique part of the flapper culture.
The flapper women’s lifestyle and brand of beauty became symbolic of the feminist movement’s assertions, which brought more changes into the sociopolitical arena. Congress passed the law enshrining women’s right to vote, more women had jobs, and many pursued higher education later in the decade. It was the dawn of women empowerment.
Rouging one’s knees was a fashionable thing to do in the 1920s. It began as a makeup fad that was part of the flapper culture. While it seemed insignificant in the beginning, blushed-on kneecaps became an essential part of the image of the feminists.
So, next time you apply makeup on your kneecaps and wear a flapper costume to a party, don’t forget to put on your proudest and boldest countenance as well. You should know why—you’re representing a rare, brave breed of young women.
Written by Kerry Wisby – GatsbyFlapperGirl.com
Owner & Founder of GatsbyFlapperGirl.com
Kerry Wisby, a former teacher with a BA in English, is the founder of GatsbyFlapperGirl.com. With a passion for all things 1920s, including The Great Gatsby novel, her website is the ultimate source for Roaring Twenties fashion, history, and party ideas. Read more about Kerry here.