The term flapper in the 1920s referred to a "new breed" of young women who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, listened to what was then considered unconventional music and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered "decent" behavior. The flappers were seen as brash in their time for wearing excessive makeup, drinking hard liquor, treating sex in a more casual manner, smoking cigarettes, driving automobiles, and otherwise flouting conventional social and sexual norms.
Flappers had their origins in the period of liberalism, social and political turbulence, and increased transatlantic cultural exchange that followed the end of the First World War, as well as the export of African American jazz culture to Europe. In the United States, popular contempt for Prohibition was a factor. With legal saloons and cabarets closed, back alley speakeasies became prolific and popular. This discrepancy between the law-abiding, religion-based temperance movement and the actual ubiquitous consumption of alcohol led to widespread disdain for authority. Flapper independence may have its origins in the Gibson girls of the 1890s. Although that pre-war look does not resemble the flapper identity, their independence and feminism may have led to the flapper wise-cracking tenacity 30 years later.
The term flapper first appears in Britain, though the etymology is disputed. It may be in reference to a young bird flapping its wings while learning to fly, or it may derive from an earlier use in northern England of flapper to mean "teenage girl" (whose hair is not yet put up), or "prostitute". While many in the United States assumed at the time that the term flapper derived from a fashion of wearing galoshes unbuckled so that they could show people their bodies as they walked, the term was already documented as in use in the United Kingdom as early as 1912. From the 1910s into the 1920s, flapper was a term for any impetuous teenage girl, often including women under 30. Only in the 1920s did the term take on the meaning of the flapper generation style and attitudes, while people continued to use the word to mean immature. A related but alternative usage in the late 1920s was a press catch word which referred to adult women voters and how they might vote differently than men their age. While the term flapper had multiple usages, flappers as a social group were well defined from other 1920s fads.
Writers and artists in the United States such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Held Jr., and Anita Loos popularized the flapper look and lifestyle through their works, and flappers came to be seen as attractive, although reckless and independent. The actress Clara Bow is often cited as the epitome of the style. Among those who criticized the flapper craze was writer-critic Dorothy Parker. She penned "Flappers: A Hate Song" to poke fun at the fad.
Flappers went to jazz clubs at night where they danced provocatively, smoked cigarettes through long holders, sniffed cocaine and dated. They rode bicycles and drove cars - fast. They drank alcohol openly, a defiant act in the period of Prohibition. Petting (physical intimacy without sexual penetration) became much more common. Some people even threw "petting parties" where petting was the main attraction. Flappers also wore "kissproof" lipstick and a lot of heavy makeup with beaded necklaces and bracelets. They liked to cut their hair into "boyish" bob cuts, often dyeing it jet-black or peroxiding it blonde.
Flappers had their own slang, with terms like "snugglepup" (a man who frequents petting parties) and "barney-mugging" (sex). Their dialect reflected their promiscuity and drinking habits; "I have to go see a man about a dog" often meant going to buy whiskey, and a "handcuff" or "manacle" was an engagement or wedding ring. Also reflective of their preoccupations, they had many ways to say "fantastic", such as "That's so Jake" or "That's the bee's knees," or a more popular one, "the cat's pajamas."
Many terms still in use in modern American English slang originated as flapper slang, such as "big cheese", meaning an important person; "to bump off", meaning to murder; and "baloney", meaning nonsense. Other terms have become definitive of the Prohibition era, such as "speakeasy", meaning an illegal place to get liquor and "hooch”, describing illegal liquor.
In addition to their irreverent behavior, flappers were known for their style, which largely emerged as a result of the musical style of jazz and the popularization of dancing that accompanied it. Called garçonne in French ("boy" with a feminine suffix), flapper style made them look young and boyish. The short "bob" haircut became popular, only to be replaced later by the shorter "Eton" or "shingle" which slicked the hair and covered the ears with curls. Flappers did away with their old corsets and pantaloons in favor of "step-in" panties. Without the old restrictive corsets, flappers wore simple bust bodices to make their chest hold still when dancing. They also wore new, more soft and supple corsets that reached to their hips. Instead of the corsets slenderizing the waist and accenting the hips and bust, it smoothed the whole frame giving women a straight up and down appearance. Without the added curves of a corset they promoted their boyish look, and soon early popular bras were sold to flatten and reduce the appearance of the bust.
Flapper dresses were straight and loose, leaving the arms bare and dropping the waistline to the hips. Silk or Rayon stockings were held up by garters. Skirts rose to just below the knee by 1927, allowing flashes of knee to be seen when a flapper danced or walked through a breeze, although the way they danced made any long loose skirt flap up to show their knees. Flappers powdered or put rouge on their knees to show them off when dancing. A round, bell-shaped hat called a cloche was pulled down low on the head and framed the face. Perhaps most scandalously, flappers also took to wearing obvious make-up, previously restricted to actresses and prostitutes. Popular flapper make-up styles made the skin pale, the lips red, and the eyes black-ringed. All of this encouraged the development of shocking dance styles such as the Charleston, the Shimmy, the Bunny Hug and the Black Bottom. Tanned skin became increasingly popular after Coco Chanel donned a tan after spending too much time in the sun on Holiday - it suggested a life of leisure, without the onerous need to work. Woman wanted to look fit, sporty and above all, healthy.
Despite all the scandal flappers generated, their look became fashionable in a toned-down form among even respectable older women. Most significantly, the flappers removed the corset from female fashion and popularized short hair for women. Among the actresses most closely identified with the style were Dorothy Mackaill, Alice White, Bebe Daniels, Billie Dove, Helen Kane, Joan Crawford, Leatrice Joy, Norma Shearer, Laura La Plante, Norma Talmadge, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Colleen Moore.
End of the flapper era
Despite its popularity, the flapper lifestyle and look could not survive the Wall street Crash and the following Great Depression. The high-spirited attitude and hedonism simply could not find a place amid the economic hardships of the 1930s. More specifically, this decade brought out a conservative reaction and a religious revival which set out to eradicate the liberal lifestyles and fashions of the 1920s. In many ways, however, the self-reliant flapper had allowed the modern woman to make herself an integral and lasting part of the Western World.
Flappers were women with determination. Not only did these women have the mannerisms of a bold person, but also the intelligence and poise to back them up. A large portion of the flapper population went to college and was well educated. In fact, in 1870, 24% of the population was female college students. By 1920, 47.3% of the entire college population was females. In the 1920’s, overall, women took home about 1/3 of all graduate degrees earned. As previously mentioned, this was also a large contributor to the importance put on women’s friendships. Also, it added to their independence because going to college meant living away from home. Having a higher level of education really pushed women to think for themselves and have opinions. Women were now so confident with this new found self-belief that they started to entire male-dominated work fields. There were a growing number of women in the law and medicine disciplines. Furthermore, women helped pave the way for fairly new domain of social work.
Because a lot of the flappers had a higher level of education, some of them had some experience in the work force before finally settling down to marry. In fact, some flapper women were so attracted to the single lifestyle it was often difficult for them to choose if they did in fact want to marry and if so, to whom? The life of a flapper was all about the pursuit of pleasure; obligations could wait. Due to the declining popularity of marriage and settling down in general, there was a large importance placed upon dating in a flapper’s life. A mild form of promiscuity also was born in this time period, thanks in large part to the way a flapper dated. Often times these women would date more than one man and “[exchange] caresses” with a lot of them. If a flapper did decide to marry, she was certainly looking for someone that could provide her with “companionship and good sex.”
The decline of marriage was certainly something that can be attributed to the changing lifestyles of women. Flappers in particular were women that found sex and companionship outside of marriage and certainly embraced the single life. Women were also finding that the people, places, and activities in their lives were so fulfilling that they did not need specific male camaraderie. Also, some flappers were thought to be homosexuals and therefore could have been fulfilling their needs through their equals. If a flapper woman did indeed want to pursue a marriage, it was not thought to be an easy transition. A famous novel published in1925 called The Flapper Wife (by Beatrice Burton) painted a good illustration of the difficult evolution that took place when a flapper attempted married life. Beatrice Burton, the novel’s main character, has an awkward time trying to get her husband to meet the demands of her flapper lifestyle and end up miserable towards the end of the book. Although the story ends well, the heroine of the story is not portrayed in a good light the entire time. This novel really depicts the fears that may have lied underneath the brave, courageous, and fearless women that were flappers.
Perhaps almost as intriguing as the sex lives of the flappers was their appearance. Flappers were positively defined by the look they had and are still known today for the image they built. Flappers not only influenced other women, but also the entire nation in regards to their image. Everything made an impact; from the length of her hair, what the material of her stockings were made out of, and how she wore each article of clothing was of great importance to each and every flapper. In retrospect, we can see now that being a flapper back then was almost like being famous today; every aspect of their behavior is important to their image and therefore has to be taken very seriously. In fact, “the ‘flapper look’ suggested far more than fashionable… taste in clothing. It comprised of a pose, a posturing, a contrived demeanor- in short, a performance.”
So what was the appearance, exactly? Overall, there was a popular movement to completely forget the old Victorian ways of corsets and full skirts to a less shapely, more conformist body. Although the flapper movement was all about defying conventionality and challenging society, the look to achieve was that of tall, thin, and un-curvaceous. As far as clothing and overall appearance goes, in the changing times “… skirts [had] shortened from the ground to the knee and the lower limbs [had] been emphasized by sheer silk stockings; more of the arms and neck [were] habitually exposed, while the increasing abandonment of petticoats and corsets reveal[ed] more of the natural contours of the body.” Generally speaking, women were embracing all things new. They were donning shorter hair that was slicked down, short, shapeless dresses, and a chest that was “as flat as a board.” These women were taking more social gambles and applying make-up in public, smoking with long cigarette holders, and being as shapeless as possible.