Flappers, a subculture of young Western women during the 1920s, were known for their distinctive style, including short skirts (considered knee-length at the time), bobbed hair, a love for jazz music, and a rebellious attitude that challenged societal norms. They boldly expressed their independence by wearing heavy makeup, openly consuming alcohol, smoking cigarettes in public, driving automobiles, engaging in casual sexual behavior, and defying conventional social and sexual conventions. As automobiles became more accessible, flappers enjoyed newfound freedom of movement and privacy.
These flappers have become enduring symbols of the Roaring Twenties, a period marked by social upheaval, political changes, and increased cultural exchange between Europe and the Western world following World War I. However, there was a strong reaction against this counterculture, especially from more conservative individuals, mostly belonging to older generations. They criticized flappers for their revealing attire, viewed them as frivolous and reckless, and often questioned their intelligence.
Although the modern girl archetype, similar to flappers, was present worldwide, it went by different names depending on the country, such as “joven moderna” in Argentina or “garçonne” in France. Nonetheless, the term “flapper” from the United States was the most widely recognized and used internationally.
The Etymological Background Of The Term “Flapper”
The term “flapper” has a fascinating historical journey with several distinct phases. It is believed to have originated in northern England, where it initially denoted a “teenage girl” with untied hair, causing her pigtail to “flap” on her back. Alternatively, its roots may be traced back to an older word associated with “prostitute,” dating as far back as 1631. By the late 19th century, “flapper” was already in use, referring to both very young prostitutes and lively mid-teenage girls, albeit in a less derogatory sense. (1)
Around the turn of the 20th century, “flapper” transitioned from slang into standard non-slang usage. In 1903, it appeared in print in England and in 1904 in the United States, as seen in Desmond Coke’s novel “Sandford of Merton.” Subsequently, English actor George Graves popularized it as theatrical slang, describing acrobatic young female stage performers, often noted for their Charleston dance moves resembling bird-like flapping. (2) By 1908, even esteemed newspapers like The Times adopted the term, though cautiously, defining a “flapper” as a young lady who hadn’t yet transitioned to adult attire. In 1910, “flapper” gained enough popularity for A. E. James to create a series of stories titled “Her Majesty the Flapper.” By 1912, London theatrical impresario John Tiller described a “flapper” as a girl who had “just come out,” signifying her formal entry into society upon reaching womanhood. (2) In the context of polite society during that era, a teenage girl who hadn’t undergone her formal societal debut would typically be regarded as a child. Social norms dictated that she maintains a modest presence during social gatherings and should not be the focus of male attention. Despite these traditional expectations, the term “flapper” was still primarily associated with spirited teenagers, reflecting the evolving attitudes and behaviors of this youthful demographic.
As the term evolved, it gradually extended to describe reckless, immature women. By the late 1910s, the concept of the “flapper” began to shift, influenced by societal changes following World War I. It came to represent “independent, pleasure-seeking, khaki-crazy young women.” Coinciding with these developments, there was a fashion trend in the early 1920s in which American teenage girls wore unbuckled galoshes, leading to the misconception that “flapper” referred to the sound of their shoes flapping as they walked, symbolizing their defiance of convention. Another theory suggests it might relate to a fashion trend where women left their overcoats unbuttoned, allowing them to “flap” freely as they walked, symbolizing independence from Victorian-era clothing norms.
By the mid-1930s in Britain, the term “flapper” had largely faded from common usage, becoming associated with the past. A Times journalist in 1936 grouped it with outdated slang terms, marking the end of its prominent cultural significance.
The Influence Of The Flapper Culture
Several factors contributed to the transformation in young women’s behavior during the post-World War I era. The aftermath of World War I, which concluded in November 1918, played a significant role. The devastating loss of a large number of young men in the war, coupled with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, acclaimed the lives of millions and instilled in young people a sense of life’s brevity and fragility. Consequently, young women began to prioritize enjoying their youth and freedom rather than adhering to traditional roles of staying at home and waiting for marriage prospects.
Political changes also played a pivotal role in shaping the flapper culture. World War I eroded the influence of the class system on both sides of the Atlantic, fostering social mixing and a shared sense of liberation among different classes. (3) In the United States, women secured the right to vote on August 26, 1920, marking a milestone in their quest for social equality. Women aspired to be regarded as social equals to men and embraced the broader goals of feminism, including individuality, full political participation, economic independence, and sexual autonomy. (3) They sought the same freedoms as men, including the ability to partake in activities like smoking and drinking. Additionally, women gained more opportunities in the workforce, even taking on traditionally male professions such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and pilots. The rise of consumerism further encouraged women to think independently about their clothing, careers, and social engagements.
Furthermore, society underwent rapid changes in the wake of World War I, with customs, technology, and manufacturing swiftly advancing into the 20th century after the disruptions of the war. The emergence of the automobile played a pivotal role in flapper culture, as it granted women the freedom to come and go as they pleased, facilitating visits to speakeasies and other entertainment venues. Cars also provided a private setting for intimate encounters. Additionally, the economic prosperity of the time afforded more people the leisure time and financial means to engage in activities like golf, tennis, and vacations, all of which required suitable clothing for movement. The slender silhouette of the flapper’s fashion was well-suited for these pursuits, reflecting the evolving societal norms and aspirations of the era.
Flapper Fashion: A Complete Guide to Embracing the Iconic Style
- Hair Trends: The bob hairstyle stands out as one of the most iconic looks from the 1920s. Yet, it’s often overlooked that this era didn’t kick off with the bob in full swing. Initially, many women opted for a faux bob, tucking their hair to mimic the style before eventually embracing shorter cuts when it became more socially acceptable. This fashion evolution was notably kick-started by movie stars like Gretta Garbo and Claudette Colbert. While the bob was the prevailing trend, it came in various forms: some women wore it short, straight, and close to the head and face, while others sported elegant finger curls.
- Cosmetic: During this era, eyebrow trends took a distinctive turn. Women often plucked their eyebrows almost entirely, creating a more pronounced and youthful appearance. These thinner brows were then filled in with dark pencil, adding depth and framing the eyes. Additionally, dark red lipstick was a key element of the makeup routine, emphasizing the “Cupid’s Bow” of a woman’s lips, that distinct and alluring curve in the upper lip. Moreover, to complete the look, many women embraced the use of dark eyeliner encircling the entire eye, contributing to an intense and captivating gaze. The overarching goal of these makeup choices was to achieve a more youthful and vibrant appearance. Rosy lips, combined with broader and more open-looking eyes, were seen as the ideal beauty standard of the time, reflecting the evolving ideals and aspirations of women in the 1920s.
- Flapper Dresses: The allure of the flapper era often centers on the bold fashion statement of women revealing a bit more leg. However, it’s essential to clarify that this trend did not manifest immediately, nor were skirts as short as mass media might suggest. The hemlines of dresses during this time typically hovered around the mid-calf region, and it’s worth noting that women always wore stockings under their dresses. In daytime attire, dark stockings were the norm, but for evening wear, it was considered acceptable to opt for stockings that were one shade darker than your skin tone. The gradual transition to shorter skirts was emblematic of the broader societal shift catalyzed by the sexual revolution. It was a period where women began to embrace their bodies and break free from their traditional roles. The “boyish” look became synonymous with flapper fashion, leading to innovations like bras designed to flatten the bust, aligning with the straight and streamlined silhouette reminiscent of men’s attire.
- Footwear: In stark contrast to today’s stilettos, the footwear of the 1920s prioritized practicality above all else. This was an era where women frequently embraced the lively rhythms of dances like the Charleston and enjoyed going out on their own, making comfortable shoes a necessity. Consequently, the heels of the 1920s were characterized by their low and chunky design, ensuring that women could move freely and comfortably while dancing the night away. To ensure a secure fit, many of these shoes featured a T-Strap design, which helped keep the foot firmly in place during dance movements and social outings. What set apart these shoes were the intricate decorative details that adorned them. Patterns intricately embroidered on leather and stylish cutouts on the sides of the shoe were commonly seen. These embellishments not only added a touch of individuality to the footwear but also made certain designers’ creations particularly unique and sought after.
- Jewelries and Accessories: Art Deco wasn’t confined to architecture alone; it made its mark on fashion, including jewelry. The era’s penchant for triangular designs and sleek, clean lines extended to women’s attire, providing the perfect canvas for unique and captivating jewelry. Art Deco pieces were typically adorned with gemstones, precious metals, and other exquisite materials, often taking on extravagant and larger-than-life forms. These jewelry pieces served as statement accessories, amplifying the glamour of the era. Moreover, costume jewelry gained immense popularity during this period, thanks in part to the availability of plastics that could expertly replicate the look of prized materials like jade and amber. This accessibility allowed women to adorn themselves with eye-catching pieces that captured the essence of luxury without the extravagant price tag.
Furthermore, their fashion accouterments extended beyond the realm of cloche hats and dainty embroidered purses; they boldly embraced controversial items like feather boas and cigarette holders. Women even carried their cigarettes in ornate and extravagant cases that exuded the elegance of the art deco style. Alongside these provocative accessories, fringed scarves served a practical purpose by providing warmth and a touch of flair to their ensembles. When it came to handbags, the preference leaned toward petite designs with handles rather than long straps, emphasizing a commitment to both style and convenience.
The Demise of the Flapper Era
As the curtain fell on the year 1928, The New York Times ran an obituary for the “Flapper,” signifying her replacement by the enigmatic and stylish “Siren” – a figure with a somewhat vague, European allure. This marked the end of the flapper lifestyle and its distinctive look. The roaring ’20s, characterized by glitz and glamour, came to an abrupt halt in America following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – a catastrophic stock market crash that occurred on October 29, 1929. The economic downturn rendered many unable to afford the latest trends and extravagant lifestyles, prompting a return to more conventional dropped hemlines and the disappearance of the iconic flapper dress.
The arrival of the Great Depression (a prolonged economic crisis that occurred in the United States) ushered in a somber tone, rendering the high-spirited attitude and hedonistic lifestyle less socially acceptable. When hemlines began to rise once more, several states intervened by enacting laws that mandated women wear skirts with hemlines no shorter than three inches (7.5 centimeters) above the ankle. Even the ever-popular bobbed haircut faced backlash, with some women losing their jobs as a result.
Transitioning into the 1930s was a formidable challenge. Campaigns like “Make Do and Mend” gained prominence to discourage overconsumption in society. Fabric choices also underwent significant changes during this period of economic hardship. The opulent silks of the early 1900s were replaced by artificial fabrics due to their affordability. Party dresses lost their ornate embellishments and vibrant colors, as women increasingly took on physically demanding jobs that had traditionally been the domain of men at war. This shift in societal roles necessitated the acceptance of women’s pants, marking a pivotal moment in the evolution of fashion and gender norms.
The flapper phenomenon, while often disparaged by more conservative elements of society and labeled as synonymous with prostitution, had a profound and lasting impact on the quest for gender equality. Despite the negative stereotypes, the flapper era represented a radical shift in women’s roles and expectations. Flappers embraced newfound freedoms, such as drinking, driving, and pursuing careers, traditionally reserved for men. This movement challenged deeply entrenched gender norms and paved the way for women to demand equal rights and opportunities. It served as a powerful catalyst for women’s empowerment, challenging societal expectations and advocating for a more equitable world.