The 1920s was a decade of rapid change, and societal values – particularly among urban elites – quickly shifted from women being expected to be wives who are subordinate to their husbands to women valuing independence and breaking the rules. In other words, many young women became flappers.
36. Flappers Emerged Out of World War I
The United States’ involvement in World War I lasted from 1914 until the war’s end in 1918. During that time, when the good ole boys were fighting in Europe, women had to hold down the fort in the United States. When the war ended, many young women were used to independence and had developed a carefree attitude.
As the Victorian Age was coming to a close, the vast majority of women still wore long skirts that went down to their ankles. Flappers, on the other hand, wore skirts that (gasp) showed their knees. They also cut their hair short, so they were the girls that boys wouldn’t bring home to meet their parents.
One theory suggests that “flapper” originates from the 17th-century connotation of a “forward young woman,” while another suggests that it refers to the flapping of the arms that one does when dancing the Charleston. Some people suggest that the term comes from women who refused to button their galoshes in rainy weather, so they made a “flap, flap, flap” sound.
33. Flappers Followed on the Heels of Suffragettes
When suffragettes were fighting for women to gain the right to vote at the turn of the twentieth century, they were seen as forward, rebellious, and unladylike, much like flappers. They were brash and outspoken, characteristics that contrasted sharply with the traditional Victorian ideals of the era.
Some might view flappers as feminists for how they rebelled against the traditional roles of women, in which they stayed at home full-time and cared for their husbands and children. Others view them as the epitome of femininity, with their class and poise. However, they strayed quite far from the ideals of femininity, even going so far as to drink and smoke in public.
Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 until 1933, made the sale and consumption of alcohol illegal. Speakeasies and gangs flourished, as people weren’t keen on giving up their alcohol but didn’t plan on going to jail. Flappers frequented speakeasies and dared each other to get drunk, entirely in keeping with their disdain of any societal norms and taboos.
Flappers were pretty much the only women who dared to smoke or drink in public. These vices were reserved for men, even in the speakeasies. Heaven forbid that a woman should corrupt her moral character and delicate constitution by smoking and drinking, not alone at home, but in public.
Before the 1920s, no one would dare mention the birds and the bees. Flappers broke taboos and were the first generation of wealthy women to have sex outside of marriage. They attended so-called “petting parties,” which weren’t all that different from a group of middle schoolers discovering kissing. They referred to making out as “snugglepupping.”
Gone was the social norm of girls and boys only spending time with each other if a chaperone was present. Flappers, true to their rebellious natures, had no qualms about getting in cars with boys and riding as far as the road would take them. Often, they went to speakeasies or out to the country club. Of, of course, they would park and snuggle up with each other.
The fashion police were a real thing, and the flappers dared the FP to come after them for their short skirts. The Washington Post published an article in 1907 that said, “These apologies for skirts endanger the morals of the children. The police must interfere and stop the outrageous proceedings.”
Compared to the string bikinis that some women today prefer to wear, the swimsuits that flappers would wear are about as modest as one can get. However, they went too far above the knee, and the fashion police would lurk on the beaches and arrest women who wore them.
Prior to the twentieth century, makeup was reserved for ladies of the evening, not young women from wealthy, respectable families. However, the suffragettes had also adopted the use of bright red lipstick as symbolic of their cause. Flappers followed in their footsteps by wearing heavy makeup, topped off with red lipstick.
Victorian norms were falling to the wayside as cosmetics companies realized that they could make a lot of money by creating products for flappers. They would produce red lipstick and blush simply because there was a high demand for it. However, the flappers’ mothers frequently disapproved of their makeup and would wipe it off.
Flappers knew that they were rebellious and that society didn’t know what to do with them. They actually relished the attention that they got, whether it was from disapproving traditionalists or from people in the crowds that they ran with. One ex-flapper said, “We did it because it wasn’t the nice thing to do.”
Flappers, with their short hair, had a more androgynous appearance. To make matters worse, sports like basketball and hiking began to open up to women in the 1920s, so they were quite often keen to prove themselves as “one of the boys.” While movies like Singin’ in the Rain portray flappers as the essence of femininity, they were far from it.
And that just wouldn’t do. While the vast majority of women in the 1920s insisted on wearing girdles, flappers ditched them so that they could dance unhindered. Often, girls would put on girdles or corsets when they got dressed; then, when they arrived at school or a dance, they removed them.
Girdles were confining and restrictive, and boys preferred girls who were daring enough to take them off. As opposed to women who wore loose-fitting clothes that had no shape, boys in the Roarin’ Twenties wanted girls who had a figure that they could get their arms around. Morals were looser all around than they are in the 21st century.
In the 1920s, diaphragm caps and IUDs came into use, and flappers made good use of them so that they could engage in more behavior that was far outside of societal norms. Their method of contraception paved the way for oral contraceptives, which came about in the 1960s and ultimately resulted in families that, on average, were much smaller.
Actresses in the 1920s, like Clara Bow, Norma Talmadge, Louise Brooks, and Olive Thomas frequently pushed boundaries on the silver screen. They may have been the ones behind the whole flapper movement. After all, if people on the silver screen are smoking and wearing short skirts with bobbed hair, everyone else should do the same thing.
The post-war prosperity of the 1920s expressed itself in many ways, one of the first being the availability of credit. Department stores opened as the middle class could now use credit to obtain upper-class luxuries, leading to the birth of consumerism. With it came the iconic flapper dress, mass-produced for public consumption.
The length of the flappers’ skirts wasn’t the only thing to shake up the fashion industry. Their dresses were boxy, more androgynous than cinch-waist dresses that had previously been the norm. Flappers also wore rolled-up stockings, bras, and lingerie instead of girdles and pantyhose. Additionally, they wore their hair short and bold.
Jazz music originated in African-American communities, and racism was indeed high during the 1920s. Perhaps the fact that jazz was so taboo during the era is the primary reason why flappers flocked to it. They loved that they could do the Charleston, which made it even more fun without constricting girdles and corsets.
During the Victorian era, the longer a woman’s hair was, the more virtuous she supposedly was. The flappers shunned this norm by intentionally wearing their hair short; doing so immediately dispensed with any societal expectations of what they should be. In addition, short hair was a statement that the women were more than their hair and should be seen as such.
The haircut that we now refer to as a “bob,” in which the hair is cut evenly at about the ears, got its name during the Roarin’ Twenties, as the flappers popularized it. Possibly because flappers were more androgynous than Victorian women, the haircuts became known as bobs.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was the iconic writer of the 1920s, penning such classics as The Great Gatsby and “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Much of his inspiration for the glitzy party girls of his stories came from his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, who was a flapper. Through her husband’s writings, Zelda helped to bring the flapper culture into the mainstream.
Miley Cyrus wasn’t the first to change her looks to look more vampirish. Flappers were referred to as vamps, short for vampire, but not because they looked like Miley Cyrus. The reason was that they could suck the life out of someone with just one look. They had an electric kind of energy that they were not ashamed of.
Before World War I, women were expected to grow up, get married, and spend the rest of their lives taking care of their families. During the war, however, many women tasted independence as they had to work outside of the home, and they were not keen to return to the domestic sphere. Flappers wanted to make a bold statement that women could have a life outside of the home. After all, YOLO.
The prosperity of the Roarin’ Twenties, built on the post-war economic boom and the widespread availability of credit, came to a crashing halt when the stock market crashed on October 30, 1929. With the crash came the end of the flapper lifestyle, though there were quite a few elite families who were spared the worst effects of the Great Depression and even profited from it.
The founder of the Chanel beauty empire ‘Coco Chanel‘ was one of the most popular flappers who helped to liberate women from tight corsets and societal images of a “virtuous” woman with long hair and long skirts. Time Magazine listed her as one of the most 100 influential individuals of the twentieth century.
6. The Greatest 1920s Writer May Have Been a Flapper
Remember Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of Scott Fitzgerald? About The Beautiful and the Damned, she wrote: “It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. FitzgeraldâI believe that is how he spells his nameâseems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”
In 1923, Coco Chanel went on a cruise to Cannes and stayed out in the sun a bit too long. When she emerged with a golden-brown luster to her skin, tans became fashionable. Previously, women strove to keep their skin as close to an ivory white as possible, fair and delicate.
Being a flapper wasn’t just adhering to a particular fashion trend. It was about rebelling against societal norms and taking advantage of the freedom that women found during World War I. Countries like England and France also saw a rise in flapper culture, much to the chagrin of the established aristocracy and traditional values of the countries.
Seeing as flappers did away with girdles and corsets and gained the attraction of boys, what may come as a surprise is that they often tied strips of cloth around their chests in order to flatten them, thereby creating a more androgynous appearance. They were feminists, although not very feminine.
Taking on a more androgynous appearance and rebelling against societal norms were acts of scandal during the 1920s, but consider that this era was before women could wear pants. Flappers helped pave the way for women to free themselves of long dresses and corsets so that they could live productive lives outside, not just stay at home and care for their families.
In the 1920s, the struggle was between Victorian values and post-war prosperity and feminism. Today, it is between baby boomers and millennials. Flappers showed that traditional values may have their place, but society is always in flux and people need to be willing to adapt.
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