Flappers of the 1920s were young women known for their energetic freedom, embracing a lifestyle viewed by many at the time as outrageous, immoral or downright dangerous. Now considered the first generation of independent American women, flappers pushed barriers to economic, political and sexual freedom for women.
Multiple factors—political, cultural and technological—led to the rise of the flappers.
During World War I, women entered the workforce in large numbers, receiving higher wages that many working women were not inclined to give up during peacetime.
In August 1920, women’s independence took another step forward with the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. And in the early 1920s, Margaret Sanger made strides in providing contraception to women, sparking a wave of women’s rights to birth control.
The 1920s also brought about Prohibition, the result of the 18th Amendment ending legal alcohol sales. Combined with an explosion of popularity for jazz music and jazz clubs, the stage was set for speakeasies, which offered illegally produced and distributed alcohol.
Henry Ford’s mass production of cars brought down automobile prices, allowing the younger generation far more mobility than in earlier eras. Many people, a number of them young women, drove these cars into cities, which experienced a population boom.
With all these pieces in place, an unprecedented social explosion for young women was all but inevitable.
What Is a Flapper?
No one knows how the word flapper entered American slang, but its usage first appeared just following World War I.
The classic image of a flapper is that of a stylish young party girl. Flappers smoked in public, drank alcohol, danced at jazz clubs and practiced sexual freedom that shocked the Victorian morality of their parents.
Flappers were famous—or infamous, depending on your viewpoint—for their rakish attire.
They donned fashionable flapper dresses of shorter, calf-revealing lengths and lower necklines, though not typically form-fitting: Straight and slim was the preferred silhouette.
Flappers wore high heel shoes and threw away their corsets in favor of bras and lingerie. They gleefully applied rouge, lipstick, mascara and other cosmetics, and favored shorter hairstyles like the bob.
Designers like Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Jean Patou ruled flapper fashion. Jean Patou’s invention of knit swimwear and women’s sportswear like tennis clothes inspired a freer, more relaxed silhouette, while the knitwear of Chanel and Schiaparelli brought no-nonsense lines to women’s clothing. Madeleine Vionnet’s bias-cut designs (made by cutting fabric against the grain) emphasized the shape of a woman’s body in a more natural way.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald found his place in American literary history with “The Great Gatsby” in 1925, but he had already garnered a reputation before that as a spokesperson for the Jazz Age.
The press at the time credited Fitzgerald as the creator of the flapper because of his debut novel, “This Side of Paradise,” though the book didn’t specifically mention flappers.
The credit stuck and Scott began to write about flapper culture in short stories for the Saturday Evening Post in 1920, opening up the Jazz Age lifestyle to middle-class homes.
A collection of these stories was published that year under the title “Flappers and Philosophers,” cementing Fitzgerald as the flapper expert for the next decade.
If Fitzgerald was considered a chronicler of flappers, his wife Zelda Fitzgerald was considered the quintessential example of one.
A native of Montgomery, Alabama, Zelda was a stylish, free-spirited young woman who met Fitzgerald in 1918 while he was stationed there in the military. She was 17 at the time and—as the daughter of a prominent local judge—her hedonistic escapades scandalized her family.
The pair was married in New York City one month after “This Side of Paradise” was released and soon embarked on a lifestyle of reckless partying and publicity-seeking in Europe and across America.
Both publicly claimed that Zelda was Fitzgerald’s inspiration for all his female characters, bringing her in as much demand for her insight as he was. She was soon writing articles about the “modern” flapper lifestyle.
Lois Long was another writer chronicling flapper culture in print. Using the pseudonym Lipstick, Long began writing for The New Yorker shortly after its inception.
Her work chronicled the life of a flapper and recounted her real-life adventures of drinking and dancing all night long. She typically wrote her column—first named “When Nights Are Bold” and “Tables For Two,” launched in 1925—directly after her nights out, typing into the wee hours.
Flappers in Advertising
Recognizing that women now had disposable incomes of their own, advertising courted their interests beyond household items. Soap, perfume, cosmetics, cigarettes and fashion accessories were all the subjects of ads targeting women.
Helen Lansdowne Resor was the most powerful woman in advertising at the time. The head of women’s advertising at the J. Walter Thompson Agency, she worked her way up from secretary thanks to her keen understanding of selling to women. She was the first advertising executive to push sex appeal as a method of marketing to women, often focused on getting male attention.
Flapper style regularly graced the covers of magazines like Vanity Fair and Life, drawn by artists like John Held and Gordon Conway.
Flappers on Film
Anita Loos’ book “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and its follow-up “But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes” were famous satires of the world of flappers. The books focused on flapper Lorelei Lee and her male conquests. The first film version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was released in 1928 (another version was released in 1953, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell).
The popularity of movies exploded during the 1920s, though the screen versions of flappers were typically less permissive than the real-world versions. The first popular flapper movie was “Flaming Youth,” released in 1923 and starring Colleen Moore, who was soon Hollywood’s “go-to” actress for playing flappers onscreen.
Louise Brooks auditioned for a part in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” but failed. Nonetheless, the image of Brooks and her precise bob has become the archetypal vision of a flapper. The Hollywood portion of her film career featured several starring flapper roles before she moved on to more serious dramas.
The ‘It’ Girl
Clara Bow’s nickname was “the It Girl,” referring to her 1927 film “It,” which was adapted from a magazine article by Elinor Glyn. Bow was the most successful screen flapper, beloved for the unpretentious manner of her portrayals and her frank sex appeal.
Anna May Wong broke barriers as the first Chinese-American movie star. Her image as a flapper off-screen was encouraged by movie studios to increase her appeal beyond the exotic roles in which they cast her.
Dancing was a crucial part of flapper culture. The Charleston and the Black Bottom were popular and considered more suggestive than any moves that had come before. The acclaimed 1923 British play “The Dancers,” which starred Tallulah Bankhead, examined the dance obsessions of two flappers.
Criticism of Flappers
Not everyone was a fan of women’s newfound sexual freedom and consumer ethos, and there was inevitably a public reaction against flappers.
Utah attempted to pass legislation on the length of women’s skirts. Virginia tried to ban any dress that revealed too much of a woman’s throat and Ohio tried to ban form-fitting outfits.
Women who populated beaches in bathing suits that were deemed inappropriate were escorted off the beach by police or arrested if they refused.
Popular Washington, D.C., hostess Mrs. John B. Henderson attempted to start a mass movement against what she considered vulgar fashions, appealing to prominent women’s clubs and colleges for help.
Clergymen like Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Baptist pastor Dr. John Roach Straton became known for their tirades against young women’s fashions.
Flappers also received criticism from women’s rights activists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Lillian Symes, who felt flappers had gone too far in their embrace of licentiousness.
End of the Flappers
The age of the flapper came tumbling down suddenly on October 29, 1929, with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. No one could afford the lifestyle any longer, and the new era of frugality made the freewheeling hedonism of the Roaring Twenties seem wildly out of touch with grim new economic realities.
Many film-star flappers had already met their end two years earlier with the advent of talking film, which was not always kind to them. The Hays Code in 1930, which severely limited sexual themes in movies, made independent women in the flapper mold almost impossible to portray onscreen.
Flapper. Joshua Zeitz.
Flappers: A Guide To An American Subculture. Kelly Boyer Sagert.
Flappers and the New American Woman. Catherine Gourley.
A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America. Jenna Weissman Joselit.