Flappers in the Roaring Twenties

The New, Modern Woman

Flappers 1920s
Flappers dance while musicians perform during a dance contest in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In the 1920s, a new woman was born. She smoked, drank, danced, and voted. She cut her hair, wore make-up, and went to petting parties. She was giddy and took risks. She was a flapper.

The "Younger Generation"

Before the start of World War I, the Gibson Girl was the rage. Inspired by Charles Dana Gibson's drawings, the Gibson Girl wore her long hair loosely on top of her head and wore a long straight skirt and a shirt with a high collar.

She was feminine but also broke through several gender barriers for her attire allowed her to participate in sports, including golf, roller skating, and bicycling.

Then World War I started. The young men of the world were being used as cannon fodder for an older generation's ideals and mistakes. The attrition rate in the trenches left few with the hope that they would survive long enough to return home.

The young soldiers found themselves inflicted with an "eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die spirit."1 Far away from the society that raised them and faced with the reality of death, many searched (and found) extreme life experiences before they entered the battlefield.

When the war was over, the survivors went home and the world tried to return to normalcy. Unfortunately, settling down in peacetime proved more difficult than expected.

During the war, the young men had fought against both the enemy and death in far away lands, while the young women had bought into the patriotic fervor and aggressively entered the workforce.

During the war, both the young men and women of this generation had broken out of society's structure. They found it very difficult to return.

They found themselves expected to settle down into the humdrum routine of American life as if nothing had happened, to accept the moral dicta of elders who seemed to them still to be living in a Pollyanna land of rosy ideals which the war had killed for them. They couldn't do it, and they very disrespectfully said so.2

Women were just as anxious as the men to avoid returning to society's rules and roles after the war. In the age of the Gibson Girl, young women did not date, they waited until a proper young man formally paid her interest with suitable intentions (i.e. marriage). However, nearly a whole generation of young men had died in the war, leaving nearly a whole generation of young women without possible suitors. Young women decided that they were not willing to waste away their young lives waiting idly for spinsterhood; they were going to enjoy life.

The "Younger Generation" was breaking away from the old set of values.

The "Flapper"

The term "flapper" first appeared in Great Britain after World War I. It was there used to describe young girls, still somewhat awkward in movement who had not yet entered womanhood. In the June 1922 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, G. Stanley Hall described looking in a dictionary to discover what the evasive term "flapper" meant:

[T]he dictionary set me right by defining the word as a fledgling, yet in the nest, and vainly attempting to fly while its wings have only pinfeathers; and I recognized that the genius of 'slanguage' had made the squab the symbol of budding girlhood.3

Authors such F. Scott Fitzgerald and artists such as John Held Jr. first used the term to the U.S., half reflecting and half creating the image and style of the flapper. Fitzgerald described the ideal flapper as "lovely, expensive, and about nineteen."4 Held accentuated the flapper image by drawing young girls wearing unbuckled galoshes that would make a "flapping" noise when walking.5

Many have tried to define flappers. In William and Mary Morris' Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, they state, "In America, a flapper has always been a giddy, attractive and slightly unconventional young thing who, in [H. L.] Mencken's words, 'was a somewhat foolish girl, full of wild surmises and inclined to revolt against the precepts and admonitions of her elders.'"6

Flappers had both an image and an attitude.

Flapper Clothing

The Flappers' image consisted of drastic - to some, shocking - changes in women's clothing and hair. Nearly every article of clothing was trimmed down and lightened in order to make movement easier.

It is said that girls "parked" their corsets when they were to go dancing.7 The new, energetic dances of the Jazz Age, required women to be able to move freely, something the "ironsides" didn't allow. Replacing the pantaloons and corsets were underwear called "step-ins."

The outer clothing of flappers is even still extremely identifiable. This look, called "garconne" ("little boy"), was instigated by Coco Chanel.8 To look more like a boy, women tightly wound their chest with strips of cloth in order to flatten it.9

The waists of flapper clothes were dropped to the hipline. She wore stockings - made of rayon ("artificial silk") starting in 1923 - which the flapper often wore rolled over a garter belt.10

The hem of the skirts also started to rise in the 1920s. At first the hem only rose a few inches, but from 1925 to 1927 a flapper's skirt fell just below the knee.

The skirt comes just an inch below her knees, overlapping by a faint fraction her rolled and twisted stockings. The idea is that when she walks in a bit of a breeze, you shall now and then observe the knee (which is not rouged - that's just newspaper talk) but always in an accidental, Venus-surprised-at-the-bath sort of way.11

Flapper Hair and Make-Up

The Gibson Girl, who prided herself on her long, beautiful, lush hair, was shocked when the flapper cut her's off. The short haircut was called the "bob" which was later replaced by an even shorter haircut, the "shingle" or "Eton" cut.

The shingle cut was slicked down and had a curl on each side of the face that covered the woman's ears. Flappers often finished the ensemble with a felt, bell-shaped hat called a cloche.

Flappers also started wearing make-up, something that had previously been only worn by loose women. Rouge, powder, eye-liner, and lipstick became extremely popular.

Beauty is the fashion in 1925. She is frankly, heavily made up, not to imitate nature, but for an altogether artificial effect - pallor mortis, poisonously scarlet lips, richly ringed eyes - the latter looking not so much debauched (which is the intention) as diabetic.12

Smoking

The flapper attitude was characterized by stark truthfulness, fast living, and sexual behavior. Flappers seemed to cling to youth as if it were to leave them at any moment. They took risks and were reckless.

They wanted to be different, to announce their departure from the Gibson Girl's morals. So they smoked. Something only men had done previously. Their parents were shocked.

I was sure my girls had never experimented with a hip-pocket flask, flirted with other women's husbands, or smoked cigarettes. My wife entertained the same smug delusion, and was saying something like that out loud at the dinner table one day. And then she began to talk about other girls.

"They tell me that that Purvis girl has cigarette parties at her home," remarked my wife.

She was saying it for the benefit of Elizabeth, who runs somewhat with the Purvis girl. Elizabeth was regarding her mother with curious eyes. She made no reply to her mother, but turning to me, right there at the table, she said: "Dad, let's see your cigarettes."

Without the slightest suspicion of what was forthcoming, I threw Elizabeth my cigarettes. She withdrew a fag from the package, tapped it on the back of her left hand, inserted it between her lips, reached over and took my lighted cigarette from my mouth, lit her own cigarette and blew airy rings toward the ceiling.

My wife nearly fell out of her chair, and I might have fallen out of mine if I hadn't been momentarily stunned.13

Alcohol

Smoking wasn't the most outrageous of the flapper's rebellious actions. Flappers drank alcohol. At a time when the United States had outlawed alcohol (Prohibition), young women were starting the habit early. Some even carried hip-flasks full so as to have it on hand.

More than a few adults didn't like to see tipsy young women. Flappers had a scandalous image as the "giddy flapper, rouged and clipped, careening in a drunken stupor to the lewd strains of a jazz quartet."14

Dancing

The 1920s was the Jazz Age and one of the most popular past-times for flappers was dancing. Dances such as the CharlestonBlack Bottom, and the Shimmy were considered "wild" by older generations.

As described in the May 1920 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, flappers "trot like foxes, limp like lame ducks, one-step like cripples, and all to the barbaric yawp of strange instruments which transform the whole scene into a moving-picture of a fancy ball in bedlam."15

For the Younger Generation, the dances fit their fast-paced life-style.

Driving

For the first time since the train and the bicycle, a new form of faster transportation was becoming popular. Henry Ford's innovations were making the automobile an accessible commodity to the people.

Cars were fast and risky - perfect for the flapper attitude. Flappers not only insisted on riding in them; they drove them.

Petting

Unfortunately for their parents, flappers didn't just use cars to ride in. The back seat became a popular location for the new popular sexual activity, petting. Others hosted petting parties.

Though their attire was modeled after little boys' outfits, flappers flaunted their sexuality. It was a radical change from their parents' and grandparents' generations.

The End of Flapperhood

While many were shocked by the flapper's skimpy attire and licentious behavior, a less extreme version of the flapper became respectable among the old and the young. Some women cut off their hair and stopped wearing their corsets, but didn't go to the extreme of flapperhood.

If one judges by appearances, I suppose I am a flapper. I am within the age limit. I wear bobbed hair, the badge of flapperhood. (And, oh, what a comfort it is!) I powder my nose. I wear fringed skirts and bright-colored sweaters, and scarfs, and waists with Peter Pan collars, and low-heeled "finale hopper" shoes. I adore to dance. I spend a large amount of time in automobiles. I attend hops, and proms, and ball-games, and crew races, and other affairs at men's colleges. But none the less some of the most thoroughbred superflappers might blush to claim sistership or even remote relationship with such as I. I don't use rouge, or lipstick, or pluck my eyebrows. I don't smoke (I've tried it, and don't like it), or drink, or tell "peppy stories." I don't pet.16

At the end of the 1920s, the stock market crashed and the world was plunged into the Great Depression. Frivolity and recklessness was forced to come to an end. However, much of the flapper's changes remained.

In the 1920s, flappers broke away from the Victorian image of womanhood. They dropped the corset, chopped their hair, dropped layers of clothing to increase ease of movement, wore make-up, created the concept of dating, and became a sexual person. They created what many consider the "new" or "modern" woman.

End Notes
1. Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1931) 94.
2. Allen, 94-95.
3. G. Stanley Hall, "Flapper Americana Novissima," Atlantic Monthly 129 (June 1922): 771.
4. As quoted in Jackie Hatton, "Flappers," St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2000.
5. Hall, 772 and Ralph K. Andrist, ed., The American Heritage: History of the 20's & 30's (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1970) 130.
6. As quoted in Andrist, 130.
7. Hall, 773.
8. Judith S. Baughman, ed., American Decades: 1920-1929 (New York: Manly, Inc., 1996) 155.
9. Hatton, 112.
10. Baughman, 157.
11. Bruce Bliven, "Flapper Jane," The New Republic 44 (Sept. 9, 1925): 65.
12. Bliven, 65.
13. W. O. Saunders, "Me and My Flapper Daughters," The American Magazine 104 (Aug. 1927): 27.
14. Hatton, 112.
15. As quoted in Baughman, 269.
16. Ellen Welles Page, "A Flapper's Appeal to Parents," Outlook 132 (Dec. 6, 1922): 607.

 

Bibliography

Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1931.

Andrist, Ralph K., ed. The American Heritage: History of the 20's & 30's. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1970.

Baughman, Judith S., ed. American Decades: 1920-1929. New York: Manly, Inc., 1996.

Bliven, Bruce. "Flapper Jane." The New Republic 44 (Sept. 9, 1925): 65-67.

Douglas, George H. Women of the 20s. Saybrook Publishers, 1986.

Fass, Paula S. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920's. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Hall, G. Stanley. "Flapper Americana Novissima." Atlantic Monthly 129 (June 1922): 771-780.

Hatton, Jackie. "Flappers." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. 2000.

Page, Ellen Welles. "A Flapper's Appeal to Parents." Outlook 132 (Dec. 6, 1922): 607.

Saunders, W. O. "Me and My Flapper Daughters." The American Magazine 104 (Aug. 1927): 27, 121.