Flappers: Today’s heroes, yesterday’s villains
If there is one thing a woman values above all else aside from her family or faith, it’s her independence—a will to navigate her own path without anyone else choosing it for her. However, this was not always the case. You’ve heard about the flappers in the 1920s, the party girls from one of America’s golden ages. But did you know flappers had a bad rap? There was no honor in being a flapper, but that was the point.
1. The flapper was the original party girl
You see them every Halloween or read about them in a Fitzgerald novel, but how much do we really know about these wild flapper girls? The women who fervently danced the Charleston and loved to party until the sun came up? A lot less than you think. The flappers were the OG party girls of the 1920s.
They were the daughters of disappointed mothers or the type of woman you never brought home to mother. From her short skirt to her rouge lipstick, she was the popular bad girl who hung around bars and loved to drink and smoke like the boys. Surprising? Wait until you find out the reason for their behavior.
2. The flapper was born out of postwar prosperity
Gone was the Gibson Girl of the 1910s when World War I commenced in 1914. When all the boys left for the muddy trenches somewhere between hell and no-man’s-land, women were left to pick up where the men left off. Suddenly, women had more responsibility, including holding a job. Just like that, women were working and making bank.
When the boys came home from Europe in 1918, a mass hysteria of celebration and jubilation occurred. People were high from the victory, and with it came a movement of total carelessness, living each day as if it was the last. This is where the flapper was born.
3. Voting gave flappers a sense of freedom
A lot has changed since the coming of the 20th century. For over 80 years, women had been pushing for the right to vote. The suffragette was the first rebel of the century, and many thought them completely unladylike. Outspoken, brash, and parading the streets, many saw their efforts as extreme and unnecessary.
One witness recalled a time in her youth when a suffragette came into her classroom to talk about the women’s vote. However, that girl felt embarrassed and pitied the suffragette’s husband for having such a masculine and outspoken wife. It took years to plant the seeds of change, and the suffragettes were the first to do it.
4. What does ‘flapper’ even mean?
There are many speculations as to how the term “flapper” came to be. Historians believed the etymology of the word traced all the way back to the 17th century when “flapper” referred to a “forward young woman.” The term also referenced someone who danced the Charleston (the dance involves arm movements, like a bird flapping its wings).
In the 19th century, being called a “flapper” was equivalent to being called a prostitute or “a woman with loose morals.” However, according to one ex-flapper, the term was born in the midwest and focused on young women who didn’t button their galoshes during the winter; when they walked, their boots would “flap, flap, flap,” and therefore the flapper was born! But, why did flappers have such a bad rap?
5. They strayed from the polite conformities of the Victorian woman
For those unaware, the flapper was not a feminist symbol, it was the very opposite. The 1920s was a decade of change and transition in America. Women were expected to do one thing: get married and become a homemaker (gotta make them babies!). Their roles were defined to aide the patriarchal system, not become the system.
If a woman had an occupation, it was temporary and forfeited when she was married. A flapper was very much against this. Flappers appreciated their independence and freedom and enjoyed rebelling against the social norms expected of all American women. For instance, they smoked and drank in public, which was a huge “no-no.”
6. Smoking and drinking in public was exclusively for men
It was extremely undesirable to be a masculine woman during the Edwardian era. Smoking in public was a form of social suicide, especially if they drank anything harder than sparkling cider. It just wasn’t done. For one thing, it could affect a woman’s fair and delicate features and virtues; heaven forbid they’re corrupted with tobacco and alcohol.
Such was the mindset during the early 20th century, but the flappers just laughed over their “giggle water” and puffed smoke through their phallic-shaped cigarette holder (because hers had to be bigger than his…). If a woman were to light up at a social event, the eyes in the room would look to her with mixed emotions including admiration, envy, and disgust.
7. Getting drunk at a party was not polite
Prohibition took hold of the nation from 1920 to 1933, and with the restriction came the conception of the speakeasy. Bars hid from the law and were accessible only by the tap of a side panel. Inside was a roaring good time. Champagne was poured and was called “giggle water,” while harder liquors were called “hooch” or “bathtub gin.”
For flappers, breaking taboos was a pastime, so it was no wonder they loved to drink during the prohibition. One ex-flapper said, “It wasn’t good manners to get drunk at a party but during the prohibition? It became a dare, and then everyone got drunk…It showed you were having a good time.”
8. They were ‘floozies’
It’s hard to imagine someone as old as your grandma saying something as daring! Old biddies talking about being rebels in a time of such social conformity sounds so…unreal. This rebelliousness applied not only to drinking and smoking but romance too. No longer was it the age of the chaperone; instead, girls rode in cars with boys and drove wherever the road took them.
Most of the time it was just to get to the nearest speakeasy and drink themselves silly. However, being a flapper wasn’t always glamorous. Many turned up their noses at flappers, mainly because of the attention they drew to themselves. They were bold and brash, but we can all agree not all party girls were coveted.
9. They attended “petting parties”
Yes, it’s exactly what you’re thinking. Flappers were not just the party pioneers of the 1920s, but they were also the generation that discovered what goes on between the birds and bees. In the 1920s, abstinence before marriage was the social norm, however, the new-century girls believed it was completely old-fashioned.
Flappers went to some racy parties, particularly “petting parties” where men and women gathered in secluded places to commence in “kissfests.” Think middle school: you kissed, got to second base, but never struck a home run. It was a safe space for both men and women to explore *ahem* their carnal desires without going “all the way.” These parties were referred to as “snugglepupping.”
10. Their skirts were too short
So you think being sent home for not “following dress code” is an issue today? How about having the fashion police on your tail whenever you want to sport a new frock that’s just a tad too high above the knees? Especially on the local beach scene! If your swimsuit was not up to code, you were thrown into a paddy wagon and essentially arrested.
That’s right ladies, you were arrested for having inappropriate swimwear. The Washington Post in 1907 wrote, “These apologies for skirts endanger the morals of the children. The police must interfere and stop the outrageous proceedings.” Authorities have stuck to this moral truth through the decades, but flappers were complete rebels.
11. Wearing a short swimsuit was a statement
For decades, there has been a domestic swimwear war amongst women and moral authority. What business was it of theirs what women were wearing? It wasn’t immoral or distracting. One flapper by the name of Louise Rosine had this to say in 1921: “The city has no right to tell me how I shall wear my clothes. It is none of their darn business. I will go to jail first.”
Women were no longer quiet and soft-spoken. They were outspoken and wanted the obvious double standard to stop. By the 1930s, the swimwear debate slowly ebbed. Once the bikini was created, the swimsuit was no longer about morality, but a fashion statement.
12. Their lipstick was more than petty vanity
A flapper only had one goal: being the center of attention. A flapper was showy and loved to draw attention to herself. And the loudest way to draw attention? Wearing makeup. Before, wearing makeup was reserved for women of the night, not for respectable young girls. But thanks to the efforts of the suffragette, makeup was a hot commodity in the 1920s.
In fact, it was suffragettes who brandished red lipstick for the cause. They wore red as a statement for women’s rights and came up with colors such as “fighting red,” “patriot red,” and “grenadier red.” By the 1920s, the color stuck, but it was made for a different statement.
13. Red was the color meant for the bold
Wearing red lipstick was another way for a young woman to proclaim, “I am a flapper, hear me roar!” It was a signature stamp, in addition to mascara and blush. Because women were wearing more makeup, cosmetic industries were evolving into the cosmetics we know and love today.
For instance, a tube of lipstick was created solely due to high demand. The rolling lipstick was perfect for those who wanted to touch up and could do so at the dinner table. However, many mothers would rather scrape the color off their daughters’ faces. Just because it was accessible did not make it acceptable.
14. They wanted to be seen
In some shape or form, every young woman wants to be seen. Whether it’s at the local watering hole or at the club, there’s a delicate ritual associated with the preparation for a night out. For flappers it was no different: “She wore clothes a little short, a little tight, she slept around, she had a good time,” ex-flapper Lola said.
She said it matter-of-factly and without an ounce of regret in her aged face. She even had a ghost of a smile while saying it. Because of their boisterous personalities, flappers knew they were bad and loved it: “We did it because it wasn’t the nice thing to do.”
15. They were ‘one of the boys’
Because of their bad-girl reputation, flappers were androgynous in appearance and blended in with men. It was during the 1920s when sports opened for women. Before that time, a woman could only play golf, tennis, swimming, and field hockey. But by the 1920s, hiking and basketball were added to the mix.
Whether society was ready for her or not, she had more freedom, which allowed her to become more independent. She even had a job, a concept unheard of in the middle-class setting. Working was for men. The only women working were those in the lower class. However, soon it was acceptable for a woman to work as a nurse, secretary, librarian, teacher, and social worker. She was placing her bid in a man’s world.
16. They ditched their girdles
Many women in the 1920s were sticklers about one thing: girdles. Flappers absolutely abhorred girdles. Women today find bras a total pain in the chest, but for young girls in the 1920s, a girdle was downright uncomfortable and lame. To put them on was one thing, having to dance in them is another.
One testimony from a former flapper recalled when parents took their daughters to school dances in girdles or a corset. However, when they arrived, the young women would remove their girdles and hang them in the coat closet with their jackets and wraps. Their mothers saw the girdle as ladylike, but young women saw the girdle as a repellent for boys.
17. Boys didn’t dance with girls who wore girdles
The reason why many young girls ditched their girdles was simple (according to one testimony): boys. The moment a girl threw off her Spanx, she suddenly became the “it” girl. Boys didn’t want to dance with girls who wore girdles. They preferred soft-bodied women who could cut loose (because it’s all about them, right…?).
It was a popular trend considering the fashion presented during the decade. A lot of the dresses held no shape, and they were often very loose-fitted, unlike the cinch of a woman’s waist. Women were taking control. They were setting their own rules on their own terms.
18. They had birth control
In conjunction with women receiving the right to vote, women also had (some) control over their bodies. Birth control was finally available. It opened a whole new world for those who were a little curious about the motions in their oceans without the results of being in “the family way.”
Don’t get too excited. Oral contraceptives weren’t introduced until the 1960s. In the 1920s, the IUD and diaphragm cap came into use. Some contraceptives were even presented in edible chews that acted as a spermicide. Women were having more hanky-panky than their mothers ever did, and birth control paved the way. It’s actually thanks to flappers that we even have oral contraceptives.
19. The movies encouraged the flapper movement
It was hard to dissuade women from the fast life of a flapper when the silver screen was pushing for the trend. In fact, the flapper movement may have begun due to film. Women like Louise Brooks, Norma Talmadge, and Clara Bow strutted their stuff as the iconic flapper rebels. Especially Clara Bow, aka the “it” girl of the silver screen.
But we have to give it to Olive Thomas for beginning the movement in the film “The Flapper.” After that, the flapper stereotype was born and girls were fawning over actresses who played the part of the legendary flapper. If the actresses were flappers, so were their audiences.
20. First trendsetters
Because flappers were fast, they thought of only the “now” and believed that living in the moment was all that mattered. They constantly thought about what was “new” and what was “it.” Sound familiar? The flappers were the first trendsetters.
As postwar prosperity bloomed, the middle class began to reap the benefits of consumerism. Something new was available that allowed regular hard-working Americans to measure up to the upper class: credit. With credit accounts open, suddenly the middle-class was being catered to. Department stores began to open, and a new fashion swept the nation. With it, came the iconic flapper dress.
21. They’re not your mother’s Victorian lady of society
The fashion world changed with the arrival of the flapper. As stated before, their dresses were just that much shorter, and no longer about the desired small waist—in fact, it became the opposite. It was fashionable to look masculine and boxy. Women began to wear canvas bras to give the illusion of a flat chest, which helped them appear androgynous.
With her short hair and rolled-up stockings, she changed fashion (that, and Coco Chanel’s jersey dress was taking the world by storm). They traded corsets for bras and lingerie, and for the first time, made high heels the norm. Being a flapper meant dressing like one too.
22. Jazz was the ‘devil’s music’
Well, they didn’t call it the “Jazz Age” for nothing! Because of their carefree attitude and their love for the new, they paid little attention to the racial barriers standing between youth and entertainment. Yes, race was a heavy subject during the 1920s, however, there was one thing that the Roaring Twenties couldn’t escape: jazz.
The older generation called it the “devil’s music,” but it didn’t matter to the youth. They loved the satisfaction of having something to marvel at, and to them, it was born on the dance floor: the Charleston. Their bodies moved erratically and their feet swung and kicked to the front and side. All they ever wanted to do was dance, and that’s all they cared about.
23. Short hair wasn’t a trend—it made a statement
The length of a woman’s hair measured her value. The longer it was, the more virtuous she appeared. Women were painfully aware of what their hair signified. It represented their femininity, however, the new party girl of the decade didn’t want to be associated with the past Gibson Girl who was dainty and fragile.
Flappers combated the social expectations of women and cut their hair in a boyish bob. It was not a popular look for mom and dad. Young girls came home only to give their mother’s a heart attack. Back then, a woman’s hair was essentially everything. To a flapper, it was a statement: “I am not just my hair.”
24. She called it a ‘bob’
Many were shocked by the drastic transformation from the Gibson Girl to the flapper. And for those at home who have no idea what a Gibson Girl is, think of the Victorian woman with her hair long and neatly pinned to the top of her head, delicate-featured, no makeup, and dressed fashionably in skirts that flowed all the way to her feet. The flapper was the anti–Gibson Girl.
The drastic shift was incredible. And when women cut their long hair, they cut it into what was known as a “bob,” then later as the “shingle” or the “Eton” cut. You may recognize the shingle cut, which was slicked at the sides and had a curl just beside the ear.
25. ‘Excuse me for being so intellectual. I know you would prefer something nice and feminine and affectionate.’
Aside from Clara Bow, who was the very face of flappers on-screen, perhaps the most famous of them all was the wife of one of America’s famous writers: her name was Zelda Fitzgerald. Sure, the silver screen starlets could portray the flapper, but Zelda lived the life of one.
In fact, her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald used his wife for multiple female characters in his novels, the majority being main characters. Zelda was the original flapper and was notorious for being brazenly witty, bold, and for her party habits. She was known by her friends as the wild child and was famous for jumping into fountains fully clothed. Her husband considered her the first American flapper.
26. They were called vamps
Aside from being called flappers, the young women of the 1920s were also considered “vamps.” What’s a vamp? Simple. It’s short for vampire. But not the kind of vampire who sucks blood and drains you dry, not in a literal way at least. A vamp was a woman who could suck the life out of a man and destroy him with just one look.
She carried the kind of power and prowess that every woman either hated or coveted. Vamps were the women who dripped sex appeal and weren’t ashamed of their assets. They were proud to flaunt themselves in front of men and women alike. Remember, these girls loved to be seen.
27. They lived for the moment
They had no goals. It wasn’t something to think about, they lived solely for the moment. For most women during the 1920s, the only thing they had lined up was marriage. And because many women joined the workforce during WWI, many were hesitant about returning to their assigned roles as women.
Less than 10% of women continued to work after marriage, and even fewer wanted to pursue a career. When men returned from the war, women had tasted the freedom of independence and had no desire to enter the marriage bed. Their desires were laid out in dance halls and grand parties. However, that all ended in 1929.
28. The day flappers died
It’s all fun and games until the stock market crashes. It’s true. On October 30, 1929, the worst happened. Wall Street saw the biggest stock market crash in American history and suddenly what was once the golden age for America turned into soot. Gone were the parties and the champagne and in came the bread lines.
Having a great time in the wake of such financial ruin was silenced when men and women scrambled to find work to pay off their debts. So the flapper hung up her gloves and pretty dresses and went into the workforce. It was the only thing to do.
29. The flappers weren’t bad after all
Despite their bad rap and their “immoral” acts of partying, for what it’s worth, America needed the flapper. It was because of these brave young women that it wasn’t strange to see a woman break the social norms like drinking and smoking openly in public. Because of the flapper, it’s not strange to dress in pants and a dress shirt or work.
Older women during the decade would say the flapper brought a rude change to gender roles, but we look back and roll our eyes considering the generation we now live in. However, there is still a social constraint in today’s society. It mimics the flapper’s uprise and continues to do so in future generations.
30. Baby Boomers vs. millennials
Oh yes, we went there. Today, we can compare the 1920s to the 21st century. In the 1920s, it was the “older generation” vs. the flapper. Today, it’s the baby boomers vs. the millennials. We are in a time of great transition and the older generation is struggling to keep up while the youth are quickly adapting.
The novelty of how the younger generation sees the world may be strange and immoral to our predecessors, however, it is vital. Change is essential. And we can guarantee that as time continues to progress, the millennials too will have something to gawk and gasp about when a new generation arrives and stake their claim in the world.