Flapper in the 1920s was a term applied to a "new breed" of young Western women who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, listened to jazz, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behavior. Flappers were seen as brash for wearing excessive makeup, drinking, treating sex in a casual manner, smoking, driving automobiles and otherwise flouting 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 American jazz culture to Europe.
The slang word flapper, describing a young woman, is sometimes supposed to refer to a young bird flapping its wings while learning to fly. However, it may derive from an earlier use in northern England to mean teenage girl, referring to one whose hair is not yet put up and whose plaited pigtail flapped on her back or from an older word meaning prostitute. The slang word flap was used for a young prostitute as far back as 1631. By the late 19th century the word flapper was emerging in England as popular slang both for a very young prostitute and in a more general--and less derogatory sense--of any lively mid-teenage girl.
The word appeared in print in the United Kingdom as early as 1903 and United States 1904, when novelist Desmond Coke used it in his college story of Oxford life, Sandford of Merton: "There's a stunning flapper". By 1908, newspapers as serious as The Times used it, although with careful explanation: "A 'flapper', we may explain, is a young lady who has not yet been promoted to long frocks and the wearing of her hair 'up'". By November 1910, the word was popular enough for the author A.E.James to begin a series of stories in the London Magazine featuring the misadventures of a pretty fifteen-year-old girl and titled 'Her Majesty the Flapper'. By 1911, a newspaper review indicates the mischievous and flirtatious ‘flapper’ was an established stage-type.
Some have suggested that the flapper concept as a stage of life particular to young women was imported to England from Germany, where it originated "as a sexual reaction against the over-fed, under-exercised monumental woman, and as a compromise between pederasty and normal sex". In Germany flappers were called "backfisch", which meant a young fish not yet big enough to be sold in the market. The concept of 'backfisch' was known in England by the late 1880s, though it seems to have been understood to mean a more demure social type compared with the English flapper, who was typically rebellious and defiant of convention.
By 1912, the London theatrical impresario John Tiller, defining the word in an interview he gave to the New York Times, described a 'flapper' as belonging to a slightly older age group, a girl who has "just come out". Although the word was still largely understood as referring to high-spirited teenagers gradually in Britain it was being extended to describe any impetuous immature woman. Usage increased during World War I, perhaps due to the visible emergence of young women into the workforce to supply the place of absent men: a Times article on the problem of finding jobs for women made unemployed by the return of the male workforce is headed "The Flapper's Future". By 1918, the word could also be used teasingly of a "pleasure-loving" older woman: a Dr. Whatley, accused of adultery with the wife of Major Sydney George Everitt of Knowle Hall, Knowle, was asked in court why he had begun a verse to her with the words "There once was a flapper named Mary".
By 1920, the term had taken on the full meaning of the flapper generation style and attitudes. In his lecture that year on Britain's surplus of young women caused by the loss of young men in war, Dr. R. Murray-Leslie criticized "the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations.
The first appearance of the word and in the United States came from the popular 1920 Frances Marion film, The Flapper, starring Olive Thomas. Thomas starred in a similar role in 1917, though it was not until The Flapper that the term was used. In her final movies, she was seen as the flapper image. Other actresses, such as Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore and Joan Crawford would soon build their careers on the same image, achieving great popularity.
In the United States, popular contempt for Prohibition was a factor in the rise of the flapper. 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 also have origins in the Gibson girls of the 1890s. Although that pre-war look does not resemble the flapper style, their independence may have led to the flapper wise-cracking tenacity 30 years later.
Writers in the United States such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anita Loos and illustrators such as Russell Patterson, John Held, Jr., Ethel Hays and Faith Burrows popularized the flapper look and lifestyle through their works, and flappers came to be seen as attractive, reckless, and independent. Among those who criticized the flapper craze was writer-critic Dorothy Parker, who penned "Flappers: A Hate Song" to poke fun at the fad. The secretary of labor denounced the "flippancy of the cigarette smoking, cocktail-drinking flapper." A Harvard psychologist reported that flappers had "the lowest degree of intelligence" and constituted "a hopeless problem for educators."
A related but alternative use of the word "flapper" in the late 1920s was as a media catch word that referred to adult women voters and how they might vote differently than men their age. While the term "flapper" had multiple uses, flappers as a social group were distinct from other 1920s fads.
Flappers' behavior was considered outlandish at the time and redefined women's roles. The image of flappers were young women who went by night to jazz clubs where they danced provocatively, smoked cigarettes through long holders, and dated freely, perhaps indiscriminately. They rode bicycles, drove cars, and openly drank alcohol, a defiant act in the American period of Prohibition.Petting became more common than in the Victorian era. Petting Parties, where petting ("making out" or foreplay) was the main attraction, became popular.
Flappers also began working outside the home and challenging women's traditional societal roles. They advocated voting and women's rights. With time, came the development of dance styles then considered shocking, such as the Charleston, the Shimmy, the Bunny Hug, and the Black Bottom.
They were also considered a significant challenge to traditional Victorian gender roles, devotion to plain-living and hard work, religion and more. Increasingly, women discarded old, rigid ideas about roles and embraced consumerism and personal choice, and were often described in terms of representing a "culture war" of old versus new. In this manner, flappers were an artifact of larger social changes — women were able to vote in the United States in 1920, and religious society had been rocked by the Scopes trial.
For all the concern about women stepping out of their traditional roles, however, some say many flappers weren't necessarily particularly engaged in politics. In fact, older suffragettes, who fought for the right for women to vote, viewed flappers as vapid and in some ways unworthy of the enfranchisement they had worked so hard to win. Others argued, though, that flappers' laissez-faire attitude was simply a natural progression of feminine liberation, the right having already been won. Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, a noted liberal writer at the time, summed up this dichotomy by describing flappers as "truly modern", "New Style" feminists who "admit that a full life calls for marriage and children" and also "are moved by an inescapable inner compulsion to be individuals in their own right."
Flappers had their own slang, using terms like "snuggle pup" (a man who frequents petting parties) and "barney-mugging" (sex). Their dialect sometimes reflected their feelings about marriage and drinking habits: "I have to 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 were phrases to express approval, such as "That's so Jake", "That's the bee's knees," and the popular "the cat's meow" or "cat's pyjamas". A 1922 U.S. newspaper article lists the words "junk", "necker", "heavy necker" and "necking parties" as contemporary flapper slang.
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 became definitive of the Prohibition era such as "speakeasy", meaning a place to purchase illegal alcohol and "hooch", meaning liquor.
AppearanceIn addition to their irreverent behavior, flappers were known for their style, which largely emerged as a result of French fashions, especially those pioneered by Coco Chanel, the effect on dress of the rapid spread of American jazz, and the popularization of dancing that accompanied it. Called garçonne in French ("boy" with a feminine suffix), flapper style made girls look young and boyish: short hair, flattened breasts, and straight waists accentuated it. By at least 1913, the association between slim adolescence and a certain characteristic look became fixed in the public's mind. Lilian Nordica, commenting on New York fashions that year, referred to
a thin little flapper of a girl donning a skirt in which she can hardly take a step, extinguishing all but her little white teeth with a dumpy bucket of a hat, and tripping down Fifth Avenue.
At this early date, it seems that the style associated with a flapper already included the boyish physique and close-fitting hat, but a hobble skirt rather than one with a high hemline.
Although the appearance typically associated now with flappers (straight waists, short hair and a hemline above the knee) did not fully emerge until about 1926, there was an early association in the public mind between unconventional appearance, outrageous behaviour, and the word "flapper". A report in The Times of a 1915 Christmas entertainment for troops stationed in France described a soldier in drag burlesquing feminine flirtatiousness while wearing "short skirts, a hat of Parisian type and flapper-like hair".
Despite the scandal flappers generated, their look became fashionable in a toned-down form among respectable older women. Significantly, the flappers removed the corset from female fashion, raised skirt and gown hemlines, and popularized short hair for women. Among actresses closely identified with the style were Olive Borden, Olive Thomas, 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.
Flapper dresses were straight and tight, leaving the arms bare (sometimes no straps at all) 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 leg to be seen when a girl danced or walked through a breeze, although the way they danced made any long loose skirt flap up to show their legs. It is a common misconception that flappers rouged their knees. Popular dress styles included the Robe de style. High heels also came into vogue at the time, reaching 2–3 inches (5–8 cm) high.
LingerieFlappers did away with 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, softer and suppler corsets that reached to their hips, smoothing the whole frame, giving women a straight up and down appearance, as opposed to the old corsets which slenderized the waist and accented the hips and bust.
The lack of curves of a corset promoted a boyish look. Adding an even more boyish look, the Symington Side Lacer was invented and became a popular essential as an every-day bra. This type of bra was made to pull in the back to flatten the chest. Other women envied flappers for their flat chests and bought the Symington Side Lacer to enhance the same look; large breasts were commonly regarded as a trait of unsophistication. Hence, flat chests became appealing to women, although flappers were the most common to wear such bras.
Hair and accessories
Boyish cuts were in vogue, especially the Bob cut, Eton crop, and Shingle bob. Finger Waving was used as a means of styling. Hats were still required wear and popular styles included the Newsboy cap and Cloche hat.
Jewelry usually consisted of art deco pieces, especially many layers of beaded necklaces. Pins, rings, and brooches came into style. Horn-rimmed glasses were also popular.
As far back as the 1890s, French actress Polaire pioneered a look which included short, dishevelled hair, emphatic mouth and huge eyes heavily outlined in mascara. The evolving flapper look required 'heavy makeup' in comparison to what had previously been acceptable outside of professional usage in the theatre. With the invention of the metal lipstick container as well as compact mirrors bee stung lips came into vogue. Dark eyes, especially Kohl-rimmed, were the style. Blush came into vogue now that it was no longer a messy application process.
Originally, pale skin was considered most attractive. However, 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. Women wanted to look fit, sporty, and, above all, healthy.
Semiotics of the flapperLiberated from restrictive dress, from laces that interfered with breathing, and from hoops that needed managing suggested liberation of another sort. The new found freedom to breathe and walk encouraged movement out of the house, and the flapper took full advantage. The flapper was an extreme manifestation of changes in the lifestyles of American women made visible through dress.
Changes in fashion were signs of deeper changes in the American feminine ideal. The short skirt and bobbed hair were likely to be used as a symbol of emancipation. Signs of the moral revolution consisted of: premarital sex, birth control, drinking, and contempt for older values. Before the war, a lady did not set foot in a saloon; after the war she entered a speakeasy as thoughtlessly as she would go into a railroad station. Women had taken to swearing and smoking, using contraceptives and raising their skirts above the knee and rolling her hose below it. Women were now competing with men in the business world and obtaining financial independence and, therefore, other kinds of independence from men.
The New Woman was pushing the boundaries of gender identity, representing sexual and economic freedom. She cut her hair short and took to loose-fitting clothing and low cut dresses. No longer restrained by a tight waist and long trailing skirts and the need for a man’s help at every turn, the modern woman of the 1920s was an independent thinker, who no longer followed the ordinances of those before her. The flapper epitomized the prevailing conceptions of women and her role during the Roaring 20s. The flappers' ideal was motion with characteristics being intensity, energy, and volatility. She refused the traditional moral code. Modesty, chastity, morality, and traditional concepts of male and female were seemingly becoming invisible. The flapper was making an appeal to authority and was being attached to the impending “demoralization” of the country.
The Victorian American conception of sexuality and other roles of men and women in society and to one another were being challenged. Modern clothing was lighter and more flexible, better suiting the modern woman. Rather than keeping herself busy with the need to appear decorous and reputable, the flapper wanted to be well suited to engage in active sport. Women were now becoming more assertive and less willing to keep the home fires burning. The flappers' costume was seen as sexual and arose deeper questions of the behavior and values it symbolized.
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.
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