Nov 21, 2014 | by Ellen Dial
We all have those periods in history and fashion that spark our imagination, I have a couple and for me, the 1920’s are definitely “the bees knees”. Why? Women enjoyed new found freedom, they could finally vote. The brutal war was over and the horrible flu pandemic had flown. Plus, the clothes were simply sublime. The couture houses of Lanvin, Poiret, Molyneux were flourishing – let’s not forget the up and comer Chanel and her LBD that were taking Paris by storm!
Young, Wild and Free | The Flapper
As vintage fashionistas, so often we see the word flapper used to describe items from this time period. Is this accurate? What was a flapper? Were all women flappers? Were they as wild and unfettered as we think? Or are we just stereotyping?
By today’s standards flapper girls seem pretty tame. We think of a young woman who wore daring dresses, smoked in public, drank bootleg gin and rolled her stockings. Her speech was liberally peppered with the colorful vernacular of the day – with hair sleekly bobbed, the flapper danced the Charleston night and day. Always in the company of a dapper young man, we see the flapper as the epitome of the beautiful young thing. Swaning through life in gorgeous couture and without a care in the world.
But who were they really?
The Paris Hilton of their day or just increasingly independent young women – spreading their wings in new found freedoms, living without the confines of Victorian/Edwardian society that governed much of the 19th century?
Let’s take a quick look at flappers.
Flappers | Seeds of Change
At the onset of WWI, our brave men marched off to the horrors and trenches of Europe. As a result women stepped into their jobs – someone had to keep the country and commerce going! They worked as office supervisors, were trolley conductors and even police officers. Doing a “mans work” and doing it well, might I add.
As the war in Europe came to a close and the men came marching home, women were expected to return to their traditional, pre-war roles – the home and more acceptable women’s work [domestics, teacher, nurse]. Bottom line?. The men wanted their jobs back. These returning war fighters resented the women who kept their war-time responsibilities – thinking the well employed woman was taking or keeping jobs from them. Friction ensued.
Well, the women in this post Armistice world had tasted the freedom of a life outside the home. Earning a decent wage for their work efforts. They had held positions of responsibility, kept the country moving forward and gained new self confidence. Additionally, the Suffrage movement was in full-swing, pushing for the vote and other rights for women. Something else we might consider, approximately 6 million young men (over 100,000 in the US) were lost in the incredible violence of “The War to End All Wars”, and the ensuing flu pandemic – many, many of the young men were gone forever – there was more competition!
How did they respond?
Hemlines headed north. The Suffrage Movement went into overdrive. University enrollment increased – at this time, more women had high school diplomas than men and more were pursuing higher education. They began to push back against the accepted social view of the demure, modest and devout woman. The socially ideal woman didn’t smoke, drink or curse. She wasn’t “fast”. Didn’t show her legs – and kept her body well covered and controlled when in public. The young women of this new decade wanted something very different.
The flapper lifestyle was the answer…
Flappers | Definition
There are many definitions floating out there in the ether. Some say it came about because young women didn’t fasten their rain boots appropriately, thus the boots “flapped” when they walked. Another references the fact that these young women didn’t wear proper foundation garments, i.e. corsets, so their bosoms were much more mobile than before (outrageous!).
Primarily though, the flapper was thought of as lewd wild woman – she bobbed her hair, painted her face and flouted the 18th Amendment (Prohibition – passed in 1919 – Temperance was one aspect of the Suffrage Movement). She, horror of all horrors, hosted “petting parties” and danced the Charleston. A great definition of the word resides here. She WAS the free-wheeling, free-thinking party girl of our imagination. For the most part.
Much to the disgust of the older, more conservative generation – flapperhood was embraced as a lifestyle – flappers had their own magazine “Flapper”, not for old fogies. This “wild”, younger generation also had a whole vernacular they employed [surely to further outrage the old fogies and to lend an even deeper aura of intrigue into the mix], check out this flapper dictionary ! We still use many of the phrases and words today – some will make your eyebrows shoot up, as the meanings and usage of some words have changed considerably over time.
The young writer Ellen Welles Page, in her December 1922 essay for “Outlook” magazine, “A Flappers Appeal to Parents” puts it most eloquently . There are three levels to flapperhood and yes, even she sees it as a passing phase -much like the syncopated jazz of the times – according to Ms Page, not all women were flappers, and of those where were, few are “super-flappers” [the level that most maps to our stereotype] – the majority fall into the definition of semi-flapper or flapper. She readily admits to a love of dancing, attending parties and other social/sporting events at mens colleges [scandalous!] – but she does not, let me be clear, wear rouge, pluck her eyebrows or engage in petting with young men – who were a large part of and embraced the flapper lifestyle as well, frequently referred to as sheiks.
I loved her essay and was somehow moved by the innocence of it all – oh honey, if you could see young women now – your bobbed hair would stand on end! Sexting, dropping the “f” bomb and dressing like I don’t know what. You all were tame in comparison.
Flappers | The Climax and Denouement
The mid 1920’s epitomized the pinnacle of flapperhood, think Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel “The Great Gatsby”. Non-stop partying, bootleg gin, piles of money and the 1920’s version of free love.
This period of the Jazz/Flapper Age saw the shortest skirts [though infrequently above the knee! Sorry costume makers!], the wildest of the wild and greatest prosperity all around. America was booming – the short skirted flappers and their dashing sheiks were all the rage and talk – speakeasies were at their greatest popularity too, as Americans became increasingly disgusted and disenchanted with Prohibition. There were huge Hollywood scandals . Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino ruled the pre-sound, pre-code screen.
This slice of time embodies what we think of as the 1920’s.
As the roaring ’20’s wound down and the nation spun towards The Crash of 1929 – hemlines began to head south, dresses were shapelier and less tubular. The wildness and abandonment of flapperdom began to fade. Reality eventually rears it’s ugly head – we wake up in our make up, as it were. The novelty of something new wears off and it becomes rote. Perhaps also, we collectively came to the realization that it couldn’t last and felt the winds of great change beginning to blow.
What strikes this writer the most, is the fact that nothing is new. Not one thing. History is constantly repeating itself. War is frequently the catalyst for change – fueling the abandonment of worn out paradigms. Women stepped up and forward; to not only keep the home fires burning and support our brave men on the front – but took over economic responsibility as well.
The older generation is appalled by the dress, attitude, music and behavior of the younger – the younger generation is convinced that the older had it all wrong and knows nothing. Not terribly different from today, but without the carnival barker mentality of the 24/7 news cycle and those hideous reality shows – with their total disregard for taste and lack of filters. But that, my friends, is a whole other issue!
Were all the women – primarily young women – flappers in the 1920’s? No not really, not in the way we think. We can see from Ms. Page’s essay, women were still fairly modest, their skirts were below (many times well below) their knees, they didn’t flash their garters or pet. Many didn’t even bob their hair! But they did dance, have fun and ride in cars with boys. So perhaps it is unfair to stereotype every aspect, behavior and fashion trend of this period with the flapper moniker – we see this period of history as presented in mainstream media and Hollywood. But as vintage devotees, perhaps we should step back and view it as more of a vibrant, transitional period of time – the fashion, art and attitude proclaimed freedom and prosperity, but society was still pretty conservative and gender roles still quite traditional. While the flapper was the touchstone of the times, not all women fell into the stereotype.
To our dear readers: what are your thoughts on flappers? Were they wild or just simply trail-blazers?
Thanks to Wikipedia, The Harry Ransom Center, The Ultimate History Project, TCM, 1920-30.com, Smithsonian Magazine, Ms Magazine, and those who freely post their images on the Internet