Although its been nearly 100 years since the flappers first made their debut, there are quite a few misconceptions about flappers, what they really were, and why they were important to history.
If you think flappers were nothing more than young women dancing to the Charleston, think again!
Flappers were an important move towards the independence of women, not to mention how they actually changed the American landscape.
Let’s look at who flappers were, the flapper lifestyle, and why they were an important part of our history.
Flappers of the 1920s
There were multiple influencers that brought about the modern 1920 flapper, including World War I, changes in politics, and Margaret Sanger’s information on birth control and contraceptives.
The term flapper comes from Great Britain. This was slang which referred to a young girl or young woman who hadn’t yet fully matured but was trying to spread her wings and fly.
If you imagine a baby bird with no feathers yet flapping its wings and considering flying from the nest, then you’ll understand what this term means.
What Influenced the Birth of the Flapper Culture?
Changes that Happened During WWI
During World War I, there was a shortage of available men to work the factories and other jobs that were traditionally reserved for men only, including carpenters, mechanics, machinists, and more.
Young women took these jobs, initially to help the war effort, but once men returned post-World War I, the women didn’t really want to give up those jobs.
This younger generation liked earning their own money, rather than waiting for their husband or father to dole out some cash, and they liked the independence that having a source of steady income gave them.
The Right to Vote
In the summer of 1920, women were finally given the right to vote. This small change greatly increased a woman’s power.
Political candidates now had to pay attention to women’s rights and change their way of thinking as well as campaigning.
Women could choose female candidates, support candidates their husbands or fathers did not agree with, and seek out political candidates who were of a younger, more liberal mindset.
Information about Contraceptives
While it seems ludicrous to young women of today, at the turn of the century, doctors were forbidden from explaining how a woman’s reproductive system worked and how women could avoid becoming pregnant.
While most women understood the basic mechanics (have sex and you’ll probably get pregnant), they didn’t know about ovulation, what condoms were or how to use one, and how to avoid becoming pregnant.
Margaret Sanger changed all that when she opened the first “birth control clinic” in 1916 and was later arrested for distributing flyers that explained how women could avoid most pregnancies by avoiding sex during certain days of the month.
The combination of these changes to American society paved the way for the flapper lifestyle.
What Were Flappers Really Like?
Pre-1920, most young women were stuck at home, waiting for their parents to find them suitable husbands.
Rich women may have gone to college, not so much to be educated but to seek out and find an equally rich husband.
As the workforce opened up to these women, they began to see that by having their own source of income, they didn’t need to wait on or rely on a man to support themselves.
This meant that women were able to go places alone and spend their money as they saw fit.
Prohibition was the norm during the Jazz Age, but flappers were not going to abide by this law that sought to put a damper on their spirit and their spending.
Women began going to speakeasies, where illicit booze was sold and new music would be playing.
Many young women began to find even more freedom by imitating the clothing worn by fashion designers such as Coco Chanel. The majority of the clothing styles are mild compared to today’s fashion. For flappers, however, this fashion change meant that they could dance the high-energy dance styles of their era, such as the leg-kicking Charleston and the Shimmy, where women were encouraged to “shake their body”.
This article on 1920s flapper dress with sleeves will give you an idea about the flapper look.
Of course, flappers didn’t wear those fringed and rhinestone-covered dresses every day. Depending on their job, they would wear mid-calf-length dresses with a dropped waist.
Sweaters and pleated skirts were also good for shopping or most office jobs. Cloche hats and gloves were popular, but the floor-length dresses that covered a woman from neck to ankles, like the ones their grandmothers wore, were now a part of history.
Women’s clothing changed, along with morals. Before this era, “decent” women would never dream of smoking or drinking in public. Perhaps in the privacy of their own home, but never out in the open.
To gain the attention of young men, the new American woman would wear less clothing and act more masculine than ever before. Bobbed hair, lots of jewelry, cigarette holders, and scandalous dancing became the norm at Jazz clubs all over the country.
Men’s clothing styles changed very little during this period. You can see some men’s clothing from the 1920s in this Great Gatsby outfits for men.
What Was the Significance of the Flapper in the 1920s?
Despite their funny-sounding name, flappers were the first generation of independent women.
Young women of this generation were breaking all the rules and norms that had been applied to their sex for several hundred years.
The Victorian Era officially ended in the 1920s, along with its rigid rules and women’s traditional roles in the home.
Corsets, girdles, and pantaloons went out the window and women began wearing panties and bras. The rounded hourglass figures that had been popular for nearly a century were replaced by stick-thin models. Even hair that used to be worn long but was pinned up in a bun was now chopped off into a bob.
This was all designed so that a young woman could move and dance freely. Flapper fashion included plenty of flash (think beaded dresses, fringed hems, and sequined busts), but more than anything else, it is remembered for being shorter. Shorter in every way—skirts were just below the knee, necklines were quite low, and some dresses were backless!
Flappers also reevaluated their role in the home. No longer did a woman wait for men to come to her parent’s house to court her. Flappers danced with complete strangers in a speakeasy, and if no one ever proposed marriage, a flapper was just fine with it.
These women changed the American scene by being much more independent than their mothers or grandmothers ever dreamed possible.
Popular contempt for prohibition also contributed to the rise of flappers, with both men and women believing that the law was a bad one, and through heavy drinking, flappers were effectively thumbing their nose at the law.
Flappers were enjoying having control over their own lives and enjoying freedoms (including sexual freedom) that previously had only belonged to men.
How Were Flappers Treated in the 1920s?
Of course, most mothers, grandmothers, and aunts were shocked by what they saw as scandalous and “bad” behavior.
While flappers were tolerated, and those who were more subtle with their actions could slip by (think of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby), most of these young women were looked down on by society in general. People saw a flapper as a somewhat foolish girl.
That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some young men who admired flappers and believed in their fight to break away from old-fashioned dress and manners. Especially in high- society, flappers were thought of as reckless and without morals.
As one of Scarlet O’Hara’s girlfriends said at Ashley Wilkes’s engagement party, “Men flirt with girls like that, but they don’t marry them.”
Who Was the First Flapper Girl?
That would probably be Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald once called his wife “America’s first flapper”. Zelda Fitzgerald was trained in ballet but was also prominent painter and author.
Zelda Fitzgerald wrote articles for women’s magazines and was well-known for her fashion style, going against the norms of her time.
A rich socialite, Zelda cut her hair and would drink unabashedly at whatever party she was attending. She was covered by newspapers and magazines that were simultaneously delighted at her clothing style and shocked by her behavior.
Some believe that Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby is based on Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda.
You can find out more about Daisy Buchanan character traits here.
What Were Flappers Rebelling From?
What were flappers rebelling against? Just about everything.
The roaring twenties started off by allowing women to vote. This allowed women to have some control over their lives, even if it was very small.
By giving women the right to vote, a woman could choose local, state, and even federal candidates who were more in line with what they wanted from their country.
Young people nearly always want to be free from what is considered the “old fashioned” ways of their parents and grandparents. However, these rebellions tend to be small and take decades to change and be accepted by society.
Flappers didn’t want to wait decades for a small change. They wanted change now, and they took the bull by the horns, so to speak.
Women were tired of having to deal with the constrictions of corsets, girdles, pantaloons, hoops, and wearing several petticoats and bustles. How could a woman be expected to work in a factory wearing those tight, difficult-to-maneuver pieces of clothing?
A young girl wanted freedom. Freedom to move, freedom to dance, freedom to see whomever she wanted, not the beau her parents had chosen for her, freedom to vote, drink, smoke, and do what she liked. After all, she had her own money, so why should she be tied down to anything or anyone?
The flapper image is of the scantily clad female, drinking, dancing, smoking, and attending parties like there was no tomorrow.
While some women surely lived up to that kind of lifestyle (especially girls in big cities), most other women were less extreme. They might cut their hair and lose the floor-length skirt but avoid speakeasies, public drinking, and smoking.
Who Were Famous Flappers of the 1920s?
Besides Zelda Fitzgerald, perhaps some of the most famous women of the 1920s from the younger generation include:
- Clara Bow– She was an American actress who was sometimes called the “it” girl, because she was so “with it” when it came to fashion. Not only did Clara Bow dress like the ultimate flapper during her film career, she was also irresistible to both men and women. Clara Bow came across as independent, energetic, and self-assured. She was the same on camera and off, causing many young women to imitate her, and many young men to try to attain their own “Clara Bow”.
- Colleen Moore– Moore was called the “perfect flapper”, and she was also a star of the silent motion picture industry. A film called Flaming Youth, released in 1923, was a scandalous film that Moore starred in. She reinvented herself for the role, bobbing her hair and wearing the typical flapper dress, becoming the beautiful girl who defies her parents and finds everlasting love.
- Louise Brooks– You may not have heard her name, but you’ve probably seen her photo. During the jazz age, flapper fashion was considered something for a foolish girl. Louise Brooks took the flapper culture and made it mainstream and sexy. Brooks was a former Broadway dancer who didn’t just bat her eyes at the big screen, she actually acted out her role, despite it being a silent picture. This gave Brooks, with her big eyes and hourglass figure, a film career that others only dreamed about.
Sexual freedom, flaming youth, and the music of the Jazz Age brought flappers front and center until society could no longer ignore them.
Everything came tumbling down on October 29th, 1929, with the crash of the stock market.
The Great Depression caused millions to lose their jobs, so funding the flapper lifestyle was no longer possible.
Prohibition ended, and speakeasies went out of business.
However, flapper culture will live on through history, documenting how a “slightly unconventional young thing”, such as the American woman, could change the world with nothing more than a dress and a song.
Written by Kerry Wisby – GatsbyFlapperGirl.com
Owner & Founder of GatsbyFlapperGirl.com
Kerry Wisby, a former teacher with a BA in English, is the founder of GatsbyFlapperGirl.com. With a passion for all things 1920s, including The Great Gatsby novel, her website is the ultimate source for Roaring Twenties fashion, history, and party ideas. Read more about Kerry here.