Updated: May 15, 2022
“It’s rather futile to analyze flappers. They are just girls–all sorts of girls. Their one common trait being that they are young things with a splendid talent for life.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1927
One newspaper editorial in 1920 called them "the demi-dame who is too young to marry but too old for Santa." They embody the modern image of the 1920s. They were writ large in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. They were personified by Clara Bow, the first "IT" girl and first darling of the new medium of motion pictures. They were called Flappers; a term used derisively as well as a badge of honor. Flapperism was at once a fashion statement and a mindset. It was born from changing attitudes within society and created by mass media. Flappers were much more than short dresses, bob-cut hair, and a love of dancing the Charleston.
The exact origin of flapper as a slang word is unclear. The word had long been used to describe baby birds learning to fly, awkwardly flapping their wings. Before World War I, the term was used in Britain as slang for a gangly teenage girl. If you ever watch people doing the Charleston, then the image of a flailing fledgling seems apropos. After the war, the word emerged to define the free-spirited lifestyles of young women.
World War I brought on major changes within society. Henry Ford's assembly lines enabled a higher degree of mobility than before. The war years saw migration to the cities and jobs. For the first time in US history, more people lived in urban areas than in rural ones. A larger percentage of women went out into the workforce in support of the war effort. More women than before were entering college. In the United States, by 1920, women had won the right to vote, and an early version of the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed in 1923. Even though men returned from war and to jobs they left behind, women had tasted the possibility of life outside of the home. They saw the potential in expanding their roles beyond homemakers and caregivers. Personal fulfillment and independence became a priority for women, assisted by higher disposal income and technological innovation. As one defender of the Flapper lifestyle aptly put it: "The war tore away our spiritual foundations and challenged our faith."
The Charleston was certainly the dance craze of the 1920s and symbolic of the free-wheeling decade. There were other dance fads as well: The Fox Trot, The Peabody, The Turkey. The rise of jazz clubs and dance halls created opportunities for dancing. Yet, it is hard to dance the Charleston in a corset and long skirts. Fashion needed to change to provide greater freedom of movement. In 1923, Coco Channel introduced the "garconne look." The boyish look borrowed from men's fashion with high-waisted trousers, hats, and dresses that looked like tailored suits. Hemlines rose, and waistlines on dresses disappeared. Gone was the hourglass silhouette or the S-curve of the Gibson Girl of the previous decades. Lines were straight and chests flat. (Some women were known to tape down their bosom to be more flat-chested.) Designers developed lighter and more flexible undergarments. Stockings were rolled down for a more rebellious look. The trend was toward comfort and practicality. This spilled over into other areas such as sportswear - more women participating in athletic activities - and bathing suits.
The idea of the Flapper, though, was much more than just fashion. It was an attitude. A magazine devoted to the flapper culture defined a flapper this way: “A Flapper is one with a jitney body and a limousine mind.” They were young and fast. They were fast-talking with a lingo all their own. They cared little for the older generation's social conventions or taboos. They were reckless in smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. They bought into the automobile culture and the mobility the car provided them. Like modern-day clubbers, they bar hopped and made the rounds of speakeasies and jazz clubs. Jazz itself had recently made its way into popular culture. It was a perfect companion to the Flapper with its irreverence and breaking of musical norms.
One of the contemporary critiques of Flapperism was the perceived promiscuity of young women. Women felt free to explore their sexuality. Young women left the confines of home not only for employment but also to get away from parents' watchful eyes. They escaped the traditions of arranged dates. Going out to dance clubs meant meeting new men each time. Flappers felt free to kiss men and engage in "petting." Contemporaries offer no clue exactly what petting entailed, but it is certain it probably involved more than casual social interaction. With this, women sought to take control over their own bodies. In 1916, Margeret Sanger established the first birth control clinic in the United States, and by the 1920s, women looked for ways to forestall unwanted pregnancies. Despite this seeming liberation, women were still expected to get married, have children, and run a household. Yet, the nature of marriage was also changing. Choosing a partner became more about romance and companionship rather than by arrangement or the parent's choice.
Mass media contributed to the image of the Flapper. The years after World War I are often referred to as the Second Industrial Revolution, particularly in the United States. Mass production enabled new products and innovations to hit the market—items like the washing machine and the refrigerator. Radio was gaining in popularity. More households had electricity and telephone. The automobile and the airplane were altering long-distance travel. And the motion picture industry was beginning its influence on pop culture. Motion pictures and print advertising helped establish the Flapper image in every household. For the first time, women had buying power, and savvy marketers targeted them. Like star athletes and other celebrities are used today to sell products, the image of the ideal Flapper was used to hawk cosmetics, clothing, cigarettes, and even soft drinks. Motion pictures glamourized the Flapper lifestyle. The modern image is more a product of mass marketing, film, and "The Great Gatsby." More to the truth, there was a wide range of those who stylized themselves as Flappers. As one writer noted, there were "semi-flappers, flappers, and super flappers."
No different from today, there was a downside to the mass marketing of the Flapper mystique. More women became conscious of their body image. The fashion industry set new standards. With the advent of mass-produced clothing, women were assigned body types and body sizes. Previously, clothing was made to fit the body, but now, the body had to fit the pre-made clothing. The flapper girl, as she appeared in the media, idealized the thin and slender figure. This guilted women into extreme weight loss measures. This replaced the older notion that fat symbolized wealth and health. Thin was now the beauty standard.
After World War I, the Flapper represented a move by women towards liberation from traditional roles and expectations. Yet, there were still limitations encountered by women. Despite increase sexual freedom, the specter of unwanted pregnancy and the expectation of marriage still reined in many women. It is debatable as to how much real freedom women had in this regard. Many were reminded that no one wanted to marry a Flapper. Even as more women entered the workforce, their employment opportunities were limited to those jobs deemed woman's roles. Women were locked out of many professions, and the "glass ceiling" prevented any real upward mobility. Women's wages lagged behind men's. Regardless, the real flappers and the ones in mass media broke new ground. They showed that social norms and traditional roles could be challenged. Even though Flappers would fade away with the stock market crash of 1929, they laid the foundation for those who would continue the fight for women's rights and the women's liberation movements in the years after World War II.
Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern: Joshua Zeitz
Flappers: Six Women of A Dangerous Generation: Judith Mackrell
Flappers and Philosophers: F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Flapper's Appeal To Parents: Ellen Welles Page