Costume History: Flappers and the Roaring Twenties
Flappers were a so-called new style of Western woman, and the term “flapper” was invented to describe this so-called new breed. Initiated in the 1920s, the term “flapper” described women who flamboyantly flouted their contempt for what was back then deemed as societal behavior that was conventional. Flappers were women who were characterized by their choice of bobbed hair, short skirts, and their enjoyment of jazz music. They were branded as brash for their enjoyment of casual sex, drinking, immoderate makeup, driving cars and smoking. The origins of flappers, ideologically, were seen as being rooted in liberalism.
There is debate over what the etymology of the word “flapper” really is. Some sources believe that it is merely a reference to a young bird that is just learning to fly for the first time and so flaps its wings. However, other sources feature more sinister and scandalous origins of the word “flapper.” For example, “flapper” may have been used to denote teenage girls in Northern England, or it may even have come from an older word that was used in reference to a prostitute.
After World War I, the flapper generally represented a lewd and disreputable woman who consistently flouted the conventions of society at the time of the 1920s. Still, despite the fact that a flapper’s conduct was at the time considered less than respectable, it still helped to redefine the role of women in society at large. The image of the flapper was that of a young woman who frequented jazz clubs at night to dance provocatively, smoke cigarettes, and date men indiscriminately. Other activities they indulged in were driving cars, riding bicycles, and defied Prohibition by openly drinking alcohol. These women also were fond of holding petting parties, where making out and forms of foreplay were popular and also the main event.
The image of the flapper was something of a direct result of the popular disgust among Americans at the Prohibition laws. Speakeasies got to be popular and widespread because of the widespread closure of cabarets and saloons. The ubiquitous drinking of alcohol despite the efforts of Prohibition fostered a sense of contempt for authority. As a result, the flapper lifestyle among young women began to pick up.
For all the bad press and disrepute that their lifestyle attracted, flappers were at the same time, however, being seen symbolically as apparent advantages for the women’s movement and for feminism. This was because in addition to all their notorious, social activities, they also began to have an impact on the workplace by increasingly working outside of the home, which had the effect of defying the traditional roles of women in U.S. society. Politically, they were also somewhat active in the sense that they were supporters of both women’s rights as well as voting. At the same time, flappers were being looked at as also defying Victorian gender roles that were traditional, commitment to being religious, and commitment to hard work and modesty.
Flappers and women in general began to increasingly cling to new concepts like personal choice and consumerism while ridding themselves of rigid and older ideas about the role of women. Flappers were frequently referred to in the context of a culture war of the anti-traditional versus the traditional. In this way, flappers were increasingly being regarded as a symbol of the larger, societal change that was underfoot, such as the first time women were permitted to vote in the U.S. However, for all the talk and the recognition about how flappers were part of the women’s movement and were symbolic of women’s empowerment, they also had their critics among women who asserted flappers were not really involved in politics at all.
Suffragettes, particularly older women who had sincerely fought for the eventual right for women to vote, tended to actually look down on flappers and dismiss them as superficial. Some even went so far as to believe that flappers were not even worthy of the right to vote that older suffragettes had worked so hard to win. Still others believed that what flappers were “accomplishing” was not in fact a product of their own achievement. Instead, they believed that the anything-goes attitude of flappers was just the natural follow-through from female liberation, which had already been secured in previous years. Despite the popularity of the flapper lifestyle during the 1920s, the newfound and supposed female liberation did not last long because of the hard realities of the looming economic crisis just on the horizon. The Wall Street Crash and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s ensured that the hedonism and excesses of flappers were abruptly and instantly snuffed out.
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