No cultural symbol of the 1920s is more recognizable than the flapper. A young woman with a short “bob” hairstyle, cigarette dangling from her painted lips, dancing to a live jazz band. Flappers romped through the Roaring Twenties, enjoying the new freedoms ushered in by the end of the First World War and the dawn of a new era of prosperity, urbanism and consumerism.

The decade kicked off with the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave white women the vote. Women also joined the workforce in increasing numbers, participated actively in the nation’s new mass consumer culture, and enjoyed more freedom in their personal lives. Despite the heady freedoms embodied by the flapper, real liberation and equality for women remained elusive in the 1920s, and it would be left to later generations of women to fully benefit from the social changes the decade set in motion.

Flappers dancing while musicians perform during a Charleston dance contest at the Parody Club, New York City, 1926.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Flappers dancing while musicians perform during a Charleston dance contest at the Parody Club, New York City, 1926.

The exact origins of the word 'flapper' remain unknown.

While the exact origin of the term “flapper” is unknown, it is assumed to have originated in Britain before World War I, when it was used to describe gawky young teenage girls. After the war, the word would become synonymous with the new breed of 1920s women who bobbed their hair above their ears, wore skirts that skimmed their knees, smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol while dancing in jazz clubs, always surrounded by admiring male suitors.

Flappers were defined by how they dressed, danced and talked.

As Joshua M. Zeitz writes in Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity and the Women Who Made America Modern, flapper fashion wouldn’t have been complete without the creeping hemline, which by 1925 or 1936 reached a shocking height of 14 inches above the ground. Sheer stockings, sometimes even rolled below the knees, completed the scandalous look.

Flappers wore their skirts shorter so they could show off their legs and ankles—but also so they could dance. They particularly loved the Charleston, a 1920s dance craze involving waving arms and fast-moving feet that had been pioneered by African Americans, first in the South and later in Harlem.

Two flapper women and their dates having a smoke
Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images
Two flapper women and their dates having a smoke.

Dancing proved challenging in traditional women’s fashion, not only with long dresses but also with traditional corsets that tightly bound a woman’s midsection and accentuated her waist. Around 1923, French designer Coco Chanel introduced what became known as the “garçonne look,” featuring not just high hemlines but dropped or nonexistent waistlines and straight, sleeveless tops. With lighter and more flexible undergarments that created a straight, slim silhouette, this new design allowed women to dance freely.

It wasn’t just their fashion that made flappers; It was also their behavior and attitude. Flappers were young, fast-moving, fast-talking, reckless and unfazed by previous social conventions or taboos. They smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, rode in and drove cars and kissed and “petted” with different men.

Women move to cities and into the workforce, but stayed in traditional 'women’s roles.'

The flapper was born out of a growing landscape in America. By 1920, for the first time in the nation’s history, more Americans (51 percent) were living in cities rather than in rural areas. As part of the nation's urbanization and economic growth, more and more women were entering the workforce. By 1929, more than a quarter of all women, and more than half of single women, were gainfully employed.

For the most part, however, the increase in working women didn’t represent a challenge to traditional gender roles. Nearly a third of working women in the 1920s were domestic servants, while the rest were clerical workers, factory workers, store clerks and other “feminized” professions. “Women are working, but they're working in what are called 'women's jobs,’” says Lynn Dumenil, professor emerita of history at Occidental College and author of The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I.

Even women who blazed a trail in politics faced barriers due to their gender: Most female officeholders worked primarily on what were seen as “women’s issues,” preventing them from acquiring too much power within their political parties. It progressed though, with a handful of women would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (none to the Senate), and many more served at the state and local levels.

Not only were women hitting a glass ceiling with job fields, but workplace discrimination and wage inequality also ran rampant throughout the ‘20s. As Gail Collins writes in her book America’s Women, the average weekly wage for men in 1927 was $29.35, compared to only $17.34 for women.

While their wages were not high, women joined the new mass consumer culture.

Their wages might not have matched that of their male counterparts, but working women used their purchasing power to join the nation’s new mass consumer culture. “The nature of domestic life changes for urban women, certainly, in the '20s,” Dumenil says. By 1927, nearly two-thirds of American homes would have electricity, and new consumer goods like the washing machine, refrigerator and vacuum cleaner were revolutionizing housework and home life. Women were the major target audience for many of the new products, including household appliances, clothing and cosmetics.

The rise of the automobile contributed to the sense of freedom and possibility that suffused the Roaring Twenties. “The car is central to Americans' lives in the 1920s, across the board,” Dumenil explains. “Not everyone can afford one, but consumer credit also expands in the '20s,” leading to a new generation of American debtors. Meanwhile, the information revolution brought about by the emergence of the radio allowed a newly vibrant, youth-centered, urban culture to spread across the United States.

The flapper lifestyle also affected marriages and sexuality.

Housework wasn’t the only factor changing for women on the home front. “The nature of marriage starts to change,” Dumenil explains. “There's more of a sense, not of equality, but more of companionship between men and women in marriage. The assumption about women's sexuality changes.” Birth control was becoming more widely available, at least for more privileged women, which helped limit family size and allowed women the freedom to explore their sexuality without facing the consequences of unwanted pregnancies.

“At least for some women, there's more freedom in their personal lives [in the 1920s],” Dumenil says. “A little less restriction. And it's not just about sex, although that's part of it, but clothing, dancing, the social world and the like.”

This freedom had limits, however, and marriage always remained the ultimate goal. As Collins writes, only about 10 percent of women in the 1920s kept their jobs after marriage, most of them working-class women whose family needed their paycheck.

Dumenil also points out that the fear of one’s reputation still worried flappers. “There's a sense that you have to be really careful about your sexual activity, for fear that you'll lose your reputation and won't get married...So the flapper's wildness is always, I would say, contained by that."

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Credit: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Getty Images / Time Life Pictures / Mansell / The LIFE Picture Collection
Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.

Zelda Fitzgerald and the end of the Roaring Twenties.

Arguably the most famous flapper of all was Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, who, before meeting and marrying the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, spent her nights whirling around country club dances (and sneaking out to drink and “neck”) with any number of young Alabama gentlemen. After their marriage in 1920, the hard-partying couple lived the ultimate Roaring Twenties lifestyle in both New York City and France. Though Zelda was an artist, a dancer and a writer herself, she would be best known as the muse inspiring her husband’s vivid stories of life in the Jazz Age, which are often credited with creating the enduring image of the flapper. By the late ‘20s, however, Scott’s drinking and Zelda’s mental illness drove them apart. In 1930, Zelda had a nervous breakdown, and she would spend the rest of her life in sanatoriums.

In some ways, Zelda’s decline paralleled that of the flapper image she embodied. The stock market crash of October 1929 effectively marked the end of the Roaring Twenties, an era F. Scott Fitzgerald would later call “the most expensive orgy in history.” By the onset of the Great Depression, Hollywood and the mass media had moved on from the flappers, and in the 1930s women’s fashion would revert to more traditional styles, with accentuated waists and longer hemlines.

The spirit of the flappers lives on.

Some changes that occurred in the 1920s endured. Though the Depression wiped out much of America’s prosperity and consumer confidence, the nation’s mass consumer culture would eventually re-emerge, stronger than ever.

In the decades to come, more and more women would pursue higher education and enter political life as activists, lobbyists or lawmakers. The transformation of sexual mores and family life that occurred in the 1920s also persisted. “Changes in the family, the movement toward smaller families, birth control, fewer restraints in private life," Dumenil says—these changes were "permanent.”