Flappers were a "new breed" of young Western women in the 1920s 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 liberal period of the Roaring Twenties, the social, political turbulence and increased transatlantic cultural exchange that followed the end of World War I, 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" is known to have been used for a young prostitute as early as 1631. By the 1890s 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". In 1907 English actor George Graves explained it to Americans as theatrical slang for acrobatic young female stage performers.
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 AE 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.
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". Tiller's use of the phrase "come out" means "to make a formal entry into "society" on reaching womanhood". In polite society at the time, a teenage girl who had not "come out" would still be classed as a child. She would be expected to keep a low profile on social occasions and ought not to be the object of male attention. 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.[a] The use of the word 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". Under this influence, the meaning of the term changed somewhat, to apply to "independent, pleasure-seeking, khaki-crazy young women".
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".
As the adoption of the term in America coincided with a fashion among teenage girls in the early 1920s for wearing unbuckled galoshes, a widespread false etymology held that they were called "flappers" because they flapped when they walked, as they wore their overshoes or galoshes unfastened, showing that they defied convention in a manner similar to the 21st century fad for untied shoelaces.
By the mid-thirties in Britain, although still occasionally used, the word "flapper" had become associated with the past. In 1936 a Times journalist grouped it with terms such as "blotto" as out-dated slang: "(blotto) evokes a distant echo of glad rags and flappers ... It recalls a past which is not yet 'period'."
Evolution of the image
The first appearance of the word and image[b] 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 was also a response to 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. In the English media they were stereotyped as pleasure-loving, reckless and prone to defy convention by initiating sexual relationships. 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 teenage girls were called "Backfisch", which meant a young fish not yet big enough to be sold in the market. Although the concept of "Backfisch" was known in England by the late 1880s, the term was understood to mean a very demure social type unlike the flapper, who was typically rebellious and defiant of convention. The evolving image of flappers was of independent young women who went by night to jazz clubs where they danced provocatively, smoked cigarettes and dated freely, perhaps indiscriminately. They were active, sporting, rode bicycles, drove cars, and openly drank alcohol, a defiant act in the American period of Prohibition. With time, came the development of dance styles then considered shocking, such as the Charleston, the Shimmy, the Bunny Hug, and the Black Bottom.
Overturning of Victorian roles
Flappers also began working outside the home and challenging women's traditional societal roles. They were considered a significant challenge to traditional Victorian gender roles, devotion to plain-living, hard work and religion. 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. Flappers also advocated voting and women's rights.
For all the concern about women stepping out of their traditional roles, however, some say many flappers weren't 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".[page needed]
Petting became more common than in the Victorian era. "Petting parties", where petting ("making out" or foreplay) was the main attraction, became popular. In youthful imagination, it gave the lie to the old clichés of "the only man" and "the only girl". This was typical on college campuses, where young people "spent a great deal of unsupervised time in mixed company". F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby (1925) featured character Daisy Buchanan as a flapper girl, wrote a short story in which an annoying reporter asks him:
Do you think the – ah – petting-party is a serious menace to the Constitution? And, just to link it up, can we say that your suicide will be largely on account of past petting-parties?
In the 1950s, Life magazine depicted petting parties as "that famed and shocking institution of the '20s", and commenting on the Kinsey Report, said that they have been "very much with us ever since".
Flappers were associated with the use of a number of slang words, including "junk", "necker", "heavy necker" and "necking parties", although these words existed before the 1920s. Flappers also used the word "jazz" in the sense of anything exciting or fun. Their language sometimes reflected their feelings about dating, marriage and drinking habits: "I have to see a man about a dog" at this period 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",[c] "That's the bee's knees", and the popular "the cat's meow" or "cat's pyjamas".
In 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.
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. Beginning in the early 1920s, flappers also began appearing in newspaper comic strips, most notably in Blondie but also strips such as Fritzi Ritz (later best known as Nancy's Aunt Fritzi).
Flapper dresses were straight and loose, 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. To enhance the view, some flappers applied rouge to 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.
Flappers did away with corsets and pantaloons in favor of "step-in" panties. Without the old restrictive corsets, flappers wore simple bust bodices to restrain their chest 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.
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 kohl. 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 showed off a tan after a 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 flapper
Being liberated from restrictive dress, from laces that interfered with breathing, and from hoops that needed managing suggested a freedom to breathe and walk, encouraging 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 interpreted as 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 a woman, though no more "a lady", entered a speakeasy as casually as she would go into a railroad station. Women had started swearing and smoking publicly, using contraceptives, raising their skirts above the knee and rolling their 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, the modern woman of the 1920s was an independent thinker, who no longer followed the conventions of those before her. The flapper was an example of the prevailing conceptions of women and her role during the Roaring 1920s. The flappers' ideal was motion with characteristics of intensity, energy, and volatility. She refused the traditional moral code. Modesty, chastity, morality, and traditional concepts of male and female were seemingly ignored. 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 such as the flapper who wanted 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
The flapper lifestyle and look disappeared in America after the Wall Street Crash and the following Great Depression. The high-spirited attitude and hedonism were less acceptable during the economic hardships of the 1930s.
- Jazz Age
- Betty Boop
- Hawksian woman
- Modern girl
- New Woman
- United Kingdom general election, 1929, "the flapper election"
- Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Flappers in the Roaring Twenties". About.com. Retrieved April 4, 2010.
- Evans, Ivan H. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (rev. ed.) New York: Harper & Row, 1981 ISBN 0-06-014903-5
- "flapper", Online Etymology Dictionary, Reference, April 26, 2007.
- Mabbe, James. Celestina IX. 110 "Fall to your flap, my Masters, kisse and clip"; 112 "Come hither, you foule flappes."
- Barrere; Leland (1889), Dictionary of Slang, "Flippers, flappers, very young girls trained to vice".
- Savage, Jon. Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 202. ISBN 978-0-670-03837-4
- Lowsley, Barzillai. A glossary of Berkshire words and phrases 1888 (E.D.S.): "Vlapper,.. applied in joke to a girl of the bread-and-butter age."
- Oxford English Dictionary, 1989.
- "The Comedy Old Man and His Troubles". The New York Times (interview with English comedy actor George Graves). February 3, 1907. "What are 'flappers'? Why, they are the young girls with their hair still hanging down their backs. They are the sort that can climb up ropes hand over hand and pose at the top."
- The Times (38574), February 20, 1908, p 15, col F.
- James, A. E. "Her Majesty the Flapper". London Magazine (1910)
- "review of the 1911 comedy Lady Patricia", The Times (39540), March 23, 1911, p 10, col C, "Now the 'flapper' is Miss Clare Lesley, the Dean's tomboy daughter..." In the play a mature married couple, Patricia and Michael, vainly pursue slang-talking teenagers Billy and Clare, and so "Clare, out of the charity of youth for enamoured maturity, indulges Michael with a little mild flirtation" before at the end finding real love with Billy, who is her own age. The actress playing the flapper is characterized as "full of youth and 'go'".
- "Some facts about the ballet", The New York Times, March 31, 1912, "Mr. Tiller explained the difference between a "pony" and a "flapper". A pony, he said, is a small dancer who may be of any age. A flapper is a girl who has just "come out". She is at an awkward age, neither a child nor a woman, and she is just as likely to develop into a show girl as a pony."
- Oxford English Dictionary
- The Times (40576), July 15, 1914, p 1, col B, "The father of a young lady, aged 15 – a typical "FLAPPER" – with all the self assurance of a woman of 30 would be grateful for the recommendation of a seminary (not a convent) where she might be placed for a year or two with the object of taming her. It is not EDUCATION she requires, she has too much of that already..."
- "£600 Damages For Breach of Promise", The Times (40344), October 16, 1913, p 15, col D, "I cannot bear to think of my flapper without an engagement ring."
- Daily News. November 11, 1918. p. 4. "One day, at noon, I was in a departmental office of the Ministry of Munitions... very young girls and flappers, and young women, and women who were elderly, came out to their lunches..."
- The Times (42232), October 16, 1919, p 7, col B
- The Times (42326), February 5, 1920, p 9, col A.
- "Flappers flaunt fads in footwear" The New York Times (January 29, 1922). The article alleges the origin of the fashion was a Douglas Fairbanks costume in the film The Three Musketeers, in which he wore his boot-tops turned down.
- Basinger, Jeanne (2000), Silent Stars, Wesleyan.
- Strong, Marion in Brady, Kathleen (2001), Lucille: The life of Lucille Ball, Billboard, "The more noise the buckles made, the better they flapped, that's why we were called flappers".
- The Times (London, England): "Delivering Drunkards", December 2, 1936, p. 15
- The New Brunswick Times, February 24, 1910, "And over in England, as I learned, they call a girl of about fifteen a "flapper."..."
- "Memories of Olive", Olive Thomas, Assumption.
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- De Castelbajac 1995, p. 35.
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- Zeitz 2007, p. 6.
- Praga, Mrs. Alfred (July 29, 1917). ""Sporting" girls and the risks they run. An open letter to "The Flappers" of England". The Weekly Dispatch: 7. "My dear "Flappers" – I wonder if any of you in your gay youthfulness ever realise what a lot of harm you are doing to your future happiness by the way you sometimes cheapen yourselves in the eyes of your men "pals", as you love to call them..." The article goes on to describe flappers haunting public venues in order to "get off" with men.
- Graves, Robert; Hodge, Alan (1994), The Long Week End: a Social History of Great Britain, 1918–1939, pp. 33–34.
- "Backfisch", Wiktionary (in German), Wikimedia.
- "Backfisch", Wikipedia (in German), Wikimedia.
- The New Brunswick Times (article), February 24, 1910, "...a typical German girl of the well to do class between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. Before she gets to be fifteen she is simply a 'kid' as we say in this country. But for those two years she is a backfisch pure and simple." The article implies the girl is so designated to prevent someone no longer a child attempting to assume the airs of an adult woman: "These German frauleins dare not do so, because they know they are mere backfisches." The article concludes "And over in England, as I learned, they call a girl of about fifteen a 'flapper'. If I were still but fifteen I am sure I would prefer being a backfisch."
- Pall Mall Gaz 3 (2), August 29, 1891, "Let us introduce the word 'Backfisch', for we have the Backfisch always with us. She ranges from fifteen to eighteen years of age, keeps a diary, climbs trees secretly, blushes on the smallest provocation, and has no conversation.", in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.), 1989.
- du Puy, President of the League of American Pen Women, Mrs William Atherton (October 15, 1921), "Let Girls Smoke, Mrs Dupuy's Plea", The New York Times, "Yes, girls do smoke, and there is no harm if they don't go to excess. It is not like the rush of girls to the cafés to drink which happened twenty years ago. It was that which brought about prohibition.".
- Zeitz 2007: "Here was where the modern culture could prove threatening to the Victorians. The ethos of the consumer market glorified not only self-indulgence and satisfaction, but also personal liberty and choice. It invited relativism in all matters ranging from color schemes and bath soap to religion, politics, sex and morality."
- "Mothers Complain that Modern Girls 'Vamp' Their Sons at Petting Parties", The New York Times, February 17, 1922. An earlier article in the same newspaper rebutted an attack on the behaviour of American girls made recently in the Cosmopolitan by Elinor Glyn. It admitted the existence of petting parties but considered the activities were no worse than those which had gone on in earlier times under the guise of "kissing games", adding that tales of what occurred at such events were likely to be exaggerated by an older generation influenced by traditional misogyny:Dupuy, Mrs William Atherton (October 15, 1921), The New York Times.
- McArthur, Judith N; Smith, Harold L (2010), Texas Through Women's Eyes: The Twentieth-Century Experience, pp. 104–5, "The spirit of the petting party is light and frivolous. Its object is not marriage – only a momentary thrill. It completely gives the lie to those sweet, old phrases, "the only man" and "the only girl". For where there used to be only one girl there may be a score of them now."
- Drowne, Kathleen Morgan; Huber, Patrick, The 1920s, p. 45
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- "Shifters No Longer Appeal to Slackers", The New York Times, March 26, 1922, "...The epithets she has evolved from her own lexicon are "junk", "necker" and "heavy necker". "Junk" is anything she considers unimportant or unworthy of consideration. A "necker" is a "petter" who puts her arms around a boy's neck. A "heavy necker" is a "petter" who hangs heavily on said neck. "Necking parties" have superseded "petting parties"".
- Oxford English Dictionary, online ed., March 2012.
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- "The Short Skirt Misconception of the Twenties", Flapper fashion 1920s, Fashion era, "Shortness is a popular misconception reinforced by the availability of moving film of the Charleston dance which shows very visible knees and legs on the dancing flappers."
- "Mme Nordica Buys No Paris Gowns", The New York Times, January 1, 1913.
- "Mme Nordica Buys No Paris Gowns", The New York Times, January 1, 1913, "...when a lady of uncertain age and very certain development attempts the same little costume because it looks well on the thin little girl, well – " And Mme. Nordica left the result to the interviewer's imagination."
- "Evolution of the flapper fashion", Flapper fashion 1920s, Fashion era.
- The Times, December 23, 1915: 11, "…the jaunty little toque"
- "Pantomime At The Front, Soldier "Heroines"", The Times (41050), December 30, 1915, p 7, col E, "There was, for instance, a Maid Marian in the cast, who was described as a "dainty dam'sell" because she was a sergeant. There was something ridiculously fascinating about that sergeant, for he was in blue short skirts, a hat of Parisian type and flapper-like hair; and when she was instructing Ferdinand, a Bad Lad... in the use of the "glad eye", the great audience shouted with laughter."
- Fritzi Ritz Before Bushmiller: She's Come a Long Way, Baby!, Hogan's Alley #7
- Lowry, Helen Bullitt. "On the Knees of Our College Girls" The New York Times (February 2, 1922)
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- Hudovernik, Robert. Jazz Age Beauties: The Lost Collection of Ziegfeld Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston. 2006. ISBN 978-0-7893-1381-2
- Latham, Angela J. Posing a Threat: Flappers, Chorus Girls, and other Brazen Performers of the American 1920s. 2000. ISBN 978-0-8195-6401-6
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- Zeitz, Joshua (2007), Flapper: a madcap story of sex, style, celebrity, and the women who made America modern, Random House, ISBN 978-1-4000-8054-0.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Flappers.|
- "1920s Flapper: Young Women in a Modern World", 1920s fashion & music.
- Slang of the 1920s, AACA.
- "Flappers and fashion", Rambova.