How Flappers Worked

Flapper culture reached a fever pitch in 1926.
Flapper culture reached a fever pitch in 1926.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

In 1915, two years before the United States became involved in World War I, H.L. Mencken introduced the word "flapper" into popular media. The term traces back to British slang for a teenage girl, but Mencken reclaimed it with more specificity. Writing for the literary magazine, "The Smart Set," he described a new sort of female identity emerging in the United States: a woman who consumed music, literature and periodicals voraciously, taking her cues for behavior and style from the media in front of her, rather than the moral codes of decorum [source: Desser and Joweth]. When Mencken published this essay, "The Flapper," American women were still a decade away from the knee-length dresses and bobbed hairdos that would characterize the quintessential flapper look, but he clearly recognized the shifting attitudes in young women and their thirst for worldly knowledge that would eventually fuel the flapper fashion and sensibility.

During the 1910s, though, the delicate Gibson Girl epitomized the feminine ideal. Created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, Gibson Girls swept their long hair into loose, lovely up-dos. Waists were cinched with corsets, conforming silhouettes to the Edwardian S-curve torso shape (accentuating bosoms and hips), and hemlines brushed the floor while necklines tickled the throat. But as the decade drew to a close, the stifled Gibson Girl found the impetus to loosen up a little and let her hair down -- or cut it all off in high flapper style.

World War I and the 1918 Flu Pandemic that followed killed about 60 to 80 million people around the world combined [source: Sagert]. In addition to the widespread losses, the War also shook up gender dynamics on the home front. With millions of doughboys shipping out -- many of whom would never return home -- women were left to pick up the slack stateside, opening up more employment prospects, alongside broadening educational opportunities. Rather than pursuing the domestic life, more young women began entering college and emigrating from rural areas to the big cities. Shrugging off the Victorian era limitations placed on women, a New Woman emerged, jostling for the right to vote and agitating for the early feminist cause [source: Lavender].

Then, in 1920, with the post-War economy booming and the United States back on its feet, a feisty, more apolitical offshoot of the New Woman was born: the flapper. And for a decade, those libertine gals would Charleston, shimmy and tango around speakeasies and dancehalls, breaking every ladylike rule in the book.

Ain't We Got Fun: Flappers in the 1920s

The car revolutionized life for the young flapper.
The car revolutionized life for the young flapper.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although flappers were more concerned about fashion and fun-seeking than government legislation, Washington D.C. played an integral role in setting the cultural tone for the Roaring '20s by enacting the 18th and 19th Amendments in 1920. Ratified in January of that year, the 18th Amendment, also known as the Volstead Act, outlawed the sale of alcohol and kicked off the Prohibition era. Of course, legally banning alcohol only drove it to the underground, with covert bars called speakeasies springing up in cities across the country -- as many as 100,000 in New York City -- fully stocked with bathtub gin [source: National Archives]. Then in August, the 19th Amendment gave the New Women and their flapper cohorts the right to vote. With that new freedom and recognition, more women began to reject the Victorian code of obligatory piety and domestication. The home, in fact, was the last place many flappers wished to be, and for that reason, the vehicle that really drove flapper culture into high gear was the car [source: Mental Floss].

Car ownership during the 1920s soared, from 6.8 million American car owners in 1919 to 122 million in 1929 [source: Sagert]. Just as the bicycle had previously provided women with a form of transportation emancipation, the car became the flapper's golden ticket off the homestead and into city life. The availability of cars spurred the romantic transition from calling on a girl at her house to taking her out on a date. Naturally, older people wrung their hands at the physical interactions that could occur in an automobile, but they couldn't put the brakes on the four-wheeled trend. And as early as 1922, etiquette maven Emily Post declared women -- and therefore flappers -- driving unaccompanied perfectly appropriate [source: Gourley].

If these socially liberated flappers had adopted a mantra, it would probably be these lyrics from a popular 1920s foxtrot: "Ev'ry morning, ev'ry evening/Ain't we got fun?" While New Women and their suffragette predecessors may have been more socially and politically minded, flappers made social and political statements inadvertently as they challenged the gender norms with their actions. Flappers openly smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol -- two activities reserved only for men by Victorian standards. The fact that they wore makeup also flagrantly violated rules of propriety, since at the time rouge and other cosmetics were associated with prostitutes and low-class actresses.

Of course, flappers needed some musical accompaniment for their speakeasy antics, dance parties and dates. Although they might venture out to jazz clubs to enjoy live music, 1920 marked a milestone that gave them more options. That year, the first public radio broadcast beamed out of station KDKA in Pittsburgh, and by 1924, more than 600 commercial channels had sprouted around the country [source: PBS]. Radio was only one example of the mass media boom that influenced flapper culture. Americans flocked to the movies by the millions, and girls could see the flapper look and lifestyle glamorized on the silver screen. Also in 1920, Olive Thomas starred in "The Flapper," but Clara Bow's 1922 movie debut in "Beyond the Rainbow" cemented the iconic flapper look. Hollywood tabloids published endless photos of Bow's bobbed and shingled hair and rouged pout, fostering a new celebrity culture, as well as popularizing the flapper style in the United States.

Off-screen, one couple embodied this madcap era, also known as the Jazz Age: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The couple married soon after the 1920 publication of "This Side of Paradise," which made F. Scott and his 19-year-old flapper wife into national celebrities. The media fever the hotel-hopping and champagne-guzzling couple attracted reflected a shift away from social issues toward human interest. For instance, magazines such as Saturday Evening Post and Colliers began publishing more profile stories than ever before [source: Zeitz]. Relishing in her newfound fame as America's real-life "It" girl, Zelda Fitzgerald eagerly played the role of the ultimate fun-seeking, drinking, smoking and fashionable flapper.

Cloche Hats & Eton Crops: Flapper Fashion and Hairstyles

Flappers changed fashion from the inside out.
Flappers changed fashion from the inside out.

Glamorous Zelda Fitzgerald and her sensational flapper contemporaries left behind a legacy of style. Whereas the Victorian silhouette exaggerated the feminine hourglass shape, flapper fashion swung the other way by glorifying the boyish figure. With French designer Coco Chanel leading the way, waistlines relaxed and dropped, and corsets became a bygone wardrobe relic. Looser lingerie called step-ins replaced tight-laced corsetry, and minimizing brassieres kept curves under wraps [source: Gourley]. Sack-like shift dresses became the flapper uniform, and the simplistic design allowed women of all socioeconomic rungs to make their own and remain on-trend. Flappers literally walked around lighter than Victorian era woman, considering, for example, that the average flapper dress consisted of around 7 yards of fabric, compared to 20 yards for a Victorian gown [source: Gourley].

Despite the popular notion that flapper hemlines quickly rose above knee-level and stayed there throughout the 20s, that’s revisionist fashion history. In actuality, the typical flapper shift dropped down to mid-calf, and only inched up above the knee from 1926 to 1928 [source: Thomas]. Those three years represented the climax of flapper fashion, with brave women sporting shorter dresses to better accommodate animated dance styles, including the Charleston, Fox Trot and Black Bottom. In additional to bared ankles and calves, flappers also put their bare arms on display, often dressing up naked wrists with multiple bracelets. Long strands of pearls or pendant necklaces accentuated the long, straight lines of Art Deco-influenced flapper shifts [source: Jailer-Chamberlain]. And while these dresses were easier for lower and middle class women to whip up at home, wealthier flappers nevertheless stood out with finer silks, georgette and lamé, as well as lavish beading and embroidery bedazzling their finery.

The Jazz Age was also the era when women traded in their black woolen stockings for sheerer hosiery. Many flappers also rolled down their hosiery, resembling makeshift knee-highs. And rather than boring black hosiery, flappers sprang for patterns and pastels, transforming hosiery into a fashion accessory rather than a mere undergarment [source: Jailer-Chamberlain]. T-strap and buckled heels -- not too high to prevent dancing, however -- were the preferred footwear.

The tightest item a flapper would probably step out of the house in would be her must-have cloche hat. The slight brim of these close-fitting hats covered the forehead, and the shape advertised the flapper's close-cropped hairdo. Indeed, flappers had no desire for long tresses and soft Gibson Girl up-dos. In yet another rebellion against their Victorian foremothers, flappers copied their silver screen idols like Louise Brooks and chopped their coifs into bobs. The especially short Eaton crop was all the rage, and women would also apply pomade to their hair to slick it even closer their scalp [source: Gourley].

But the American economy went south much faster than it took to grow out those brash bobs. The stock market crash on October 29, 1929, suddenly silenced the celebratory roar of the '20s. Financial collapse also signaled the end of the flapper era, as Americans faced widespread unemployment and poverty. Nevertheless, the legacy of those brazen, rule-breaking flappers remains one of the most iconic chapters in women's and fashion history.

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