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The Follies Sisters' Past Lives: Tap Dancing Around the Antimodernity Movement

Vintage souls: Chantel Geary, in bow-tie blouse, was the inspiration for fellow Follies Sisters Natalie Miller, in yellow, and Nicole Holloway.
Orly Olivier

They met like many 1920s-loving flappers do these days, on the Internet. Chantel Geary, Nicole “Nicolette” Holloway and Natalie Miller, the three members of the Follies Sisters vaudeville act, are practicing their routine at Chantel’s mother’s house in Riverside, stomping the wood floors into oblivion.

“I was always interested in the 1920s, but I was kind of lax,” says Natalie. “I was wearing jeans. Until I met Chantel. She inspired me to be less of a slob.”

“I stalked Chantel,” says Nicole, who is now married to Chantel’s ex-boyfriend. “I saw her on MySpace and went, Wow. This person is neat. Then I went to a party and saw her dancing the Charleston. I tried to do it, but I looked so lame! I had long blond hair and was into classic rock.”

All three of the Follies Sisters are slender and pretty, with short jet-black Louise Brooks hair. They are cultivating the delicate pinkish pallor of the era, and studiously avoid the California sun. They eat, sleep, breathe and dress as if the past eight decades never happened.

“What really inspired me was the bobbed hair,” Natalie says, absently touching the curling edge of hair fused to her cheek. “I saw a picture of Louise Brooks and she looked so beautiful. I wanted to be like that.”

Nicole took things a step further. Like the rebellious girls of the 1920s, she snipped off her long blond hair herself.

The rhythmic pounding of tap shoes resumes. “Have you ever danced to a live band?” Chantel asks. “It’s really hard.”

“We can’t disgrace ourselves twice!” says Nicole, referring to the time they inadvertently drank too much before their last performance, got sweaty and upset. “Stop,” she begs, struggling with the steps. “It’s driving me crazy.”

Why live your life like it’s the past? Because the present kind of sucks. Yes, it might seem odd for this faction of the antimodernity movement to obsess over the 1920s — after all, that era is arguably when modernity was born. But the ’20s happens to be a good time to be obsessed with when you are in your 20s and young and sturdy and hedonistic. It’s an era that seems both more decadent and more innocent than ours.

“Chantel’s life is her art,” says her friend, Mr. Uncertain, at a recent party held at a mausoleum. They were two of the most attractive in a crypt full of flappers — alive and dead. All night, people arrived to pay homage to Chantel’s outfit and pet her vintage fur stole.

Like most things, dressing like a flapper improves with practice. Wearing real vintage isn’t crucial. For instance, the pleated skirt Chantel is wearing today is from Target. The cloche hat, from Anthropologie.

“Besides,” she says, “vintage clothes are so fragile. They shatter. It’s not hard making modern stuff look ’20s. You just have to have an eye for it.”

Developing an eye for it means immersing in old magazines like The Flapper, of which Chantel owns an original first edition. She slips the small pamphlet reverently from its plastic case and thumbs through articles like “Society Girl Is Found in Bathtub: Foul Play Suspected.”

In high school, Chantel, who is now 23 years old, was a devotee of the 1940s. Then she started watching movies of the 1930s, which led her naturally to the 1920s. It was a process of moving further and further back in time. It would be tough to go back any further to the Victorian era and start wearing bustles every day, she thinks.

“Maybe you should explain It,” Natalie interrupts. The concept of the It girl originated with Jazz Age star Clara Bow. “She was dancing on the table with the champagne. She was hot. She was bold.” Natalie waves her hands in the air.

“That’s the thing. You can’t explain It,” says Chantel.

Suffice to say, there are things that modern-day flappers hate. These include: denim and tennis shoes. Drop-waist dresses that are dropped too low. Ennui. Cruel people who tease them when they are out in the world by saying, “Hey, Halloween is over.” Or who ask, “Are you in a play?”

Men, however, tend to be nicer to girls in dresses. This is one of the things that modern-day flappers appreciate. For one glorious minute, when the movie Chicago came out, Chantel even suspected the ’20s might make a comeback. (They didn’t.)

“We respect all good time periods,” Natalie says diplomatically. Then less diplomatically, “Except for the early 1990s, which were deplorable.”

“The ’40s has some good stuff, but I can’t stand the big shoulder pads,” adds Nicole.

Other unsophisticated flapper wannabes think the ’20s means fringe and long glass beads, but as Chantel says, “That’s like saying everybody in the ’50s wore felt poodle skirts.” At which point, Nicole is reminded of her early, embarrassing newbie attempts at recreating the Roaring ’20s, of trying to pass off a sequined shirt as a dress.

“It was scandalously short!” Chantel scolds.

Nicole rolls her eyes. She brightens and adds, “There’s a stage you have to go through until you find what’s real. You get better and better at it. I was already into the ’70s. And you know what they say about the ’70s — it’s the ’30s in polyester.”

In the kitchen, Chantel pours another cream soda into her wine glass. “There was so much more to do back then,” she sighs. “I definitely feel like I was born in the wrong decade.” She has a persistent fantasy about the 1920s involving jumping into a jalopy, and rendezvousing with flocks of flappers to gossip about Zelda Fitzgerald and Gatsby. Well, maybe not Gatsby. “That was a terrible, terrible book. I hated the Nick Carraway character. I like The Beautiful and Damned better.”

“Really? I liked it,” says Nicole.

“I think we can agree that being a flapper is about having a good time all the time,” says Natalie. “Like Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was, like, woohoo! Free sex with everybody.”

“No,” says Nicole, looking chagrined.

Like Paris Hilton?

“Not Paris Hilton! Not at all,” says Natalie. “There is no modern equivalent.”

In their nonflapper lives, Nicole owns a vintage-clothing store, and Natalie is an executive assistant. Chantel, on the other hand, doesn’t work or go to school. Living the Roaring ’20s, you could say, is her full-time occupation. When asked how she makes money, she answers in a blithe way, “Any way I can.” Which usually involves selling something — a dress, a pair of stockings — through her online shop and ’20s-resource page, Flapper Flock.

In a bit, Chantel goes upstairs to assemble the outfit she will wear to a party tonight. Like the rest of the house, her room is cozy and messy and filled with lots of weird old things. Old books, old daguerreotypes, old dolls, an old rocking chair, an embroidered old silk peignoir. Asked how her friend Mr. Uncertain is doing, she says, “Oh, Anthony? He used to dress ’20s. But now he wants to go back to the 1700s. He’s an eccentric.”

She roots around in a drawer for a sheer blouse from Forever 21, high-waisted sailor shorts, John Fluevog oxford pumps and a sequined bustier belonging to her mom, burlesque star Kitten Deville. Chantel tries on a red beaded corset, declares it to be “awfully frumpy,” then yanks open the armoire door to reveal a single squashed wire hanger. The girls collapse into giggles. “Chantel has a pair of Uggs in there,” says Natalie.

“You take that back,” says Chantel. “I do not.”

Flapper Flock 1920s resource page at www.flapperflock.etsy.com; The Follies Sisters at www.myspace.com/thefolliessisters.