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Flappers in the Roaring Twenties

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Flappers on the cover of Life Magazine

The cover of Life Magazine showing a flapper dancing with an older man. Published 18th February 1926.

(Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

In the 1920s, a new woman was born. She smoked, drank, danced, and voted. She cut her hair, wore make-up, and went to petting parties. She was giddy and took risks. She was a flapper.

The "Younger Generation"

Before the start of World War I, the Gibson Girl was the rage. Inspired by Charles Dana Gibson's drawings, the Gibson Girl wore her long hair loosely on top of her head and wore a long straight skirt and a shirt with a high collar. She was feminine but also broke through several gender barriers for her attire allowed her to participate in sports, including golf, roller skating, and bicycling.

Then World War I started. The young men of the world were being used as cannon fodder for an older generation's ideals and mistakes. The attrition rate in the trenches left few with the hope that they would survive long enough to return home. They found themselves inflicted with an "eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die spirit."1 Far away from the society that raised them and faced with the reality of death, many searched (and found) extreme life experiences before they entered the battlefield.

When the war was over, the survivors went home and the world tried to return to normalcy. Unfortunately, settling down in peacetime proved more difficult than expected. During the war, the boys had fought against both the enemy and death in far away lands; the girls had bought into the patriotic fervor and aggressively entered the workforce. During the war, both the boys and the girls of this generation had broken out of society's structure; they found it very difficult to return.

They found themselves expected to settle down into the humdrum routine of American life as if nothing had happened, to accept the moral dicta of elders who seemed to them still to be living in a Pollyanna land of rosy ideals which the war had killed for them. They couldn't do it, and they very disrespectfully said so.2

Women were just as anxious as the men to avoid returning to society's rules and roles after the war. In the age of the Gibson Girl, young women did not date, they waited until a proper young man formally paid her interest with suitable intentions (i.e. marriage). However, nearly a whole generation of young men had died in the war, leaving nearly a whole generation of young women without possible suitors. Young women decided that they were not willing to waste away their young lives waiting idly for spinsterhood; they were going to enjoy life.

The "Younger Generation" was breaking away from the old set of values.

The "Flapper"

The term "flapper" first appeared in Great Britain after World War I. It was there used to describe young girls, still somewhat awkward in movement who had not yet entered womanhood. In the June 1922 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, G. Stanley Hall described looking in a dictionary to discover what the evasive term "flapper" meant:

[T]he dictionary set me right by defining the word as a fledgling, yet in the nest, and vainly attempting to fly while its wings have only pinfeathers; and I recognized that the genius of 'slanguage' had made the squab the symbol of budding girlhood.3

Authors such F. Scott Fitzgerald and artists such as John Held Jr. first used the term to the U.S., half reflecting and half creating the image and style of the flapper. Fitzgerald described the ideal flapper as "lovely, expensive, and about nineteen."4 Held accentuated the flapper image by drawing young girls wearing unbuckled galoshes that would make a "flapping" noise when walking.5

Many have tried to define flappers. In William and Mary Morris' Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, they state, "In America, a flapper has always been a giddy, attractive and slightly unconventional young thing who, in [H. L.] Mencken's words, 'was a somewhat foolish girl, full of wild surmises and inclined to revolt against the precepts and admonitions of her elders.'"6 Flappers had both an image and an attitude.

Flapper Image

The Flappers' image consisted of drastic - to some, shocking - changes in women's clothing and hair. Nearly every article of clothing was trimmed down and lightened in order to make movement easier.

It is said that girls "parked" their corsets when they were to go dancing.7 The new, energetic dances of the Jazz Age, required women to be able to move freely, something the "ironsides" didn't allow. Replacing the pantaloons and corsets were underwear called "step-ins."

The outer clothing of flappers is even still extremely identifiable. This look, called "garconne" ("little boy"), was instigated by Coco Chanel.8 To look more like a boy, women tightly wound their chest with strips of cloth in order to flatten it.9 The waists of flapper clothes were dropped to the hipline. She wore stockings - made of rayon ("artificial silk") starting in 1923 - which the flapper often wore rolled over a garter belt.10

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