How Flappers Worked

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.