Flapper Empowerment: Then to Now
An unmistakable symbol of the Roaring Twenties is the rebellious flapper – her dress flowing wildly, her hair chopped and bobbed, her knees exposed (gasp!). Widening eyes and ruffling feathers, her dance moves challenged the conventions of an age and upset the elder generation most profoundly.
In essence, the flapper of the Roaring Twenties became the picture of breaking the status quo, shattering glass ceilings and expressing one’s inner most desires for freedom, self-expression and equality.
From 2013 looking back, perhaps no single handful of ideals more closely resembles the remainder of the 20th century’s social movements, developments in creative expression or wildest aspirations than those embraced by flappers.
While there is certainly no single line between flappers and the remainder of all movements of female empowerment throughout the rest of the century, the dotted lines to contemporary times are hard to ignore; and if nothing else, are clearly written into the narrative of general equality and human empowerment.
Image Source: womenof1920s.wikispaces.com
Alison Maloney characterizes the Roaring Twenties quite colorfully, providing a window into the mentalities of the decade in Bright Young Things: A Modern Guide to the Roaring Twenties:
“The Roaring Twenties was an era of clinking glasses, clattering automobiles, and big, brassy jazz tunes. Flappers—donning low-cut necklines and close-cropped bobs—smoked cigarettes and sipped cocktails out of porcelain tea cups in clandestine speakeasies. It was the time of the Charleston, when debutantes and princes shared dance floors with gangsters and drug dealers…and everyone danced all night.”
Through culturally brazen fashion, dance, attitude and style, the youth of the Roaring 20s took to newfound, post-WWI prosperity with passion, fervor and a strong grip on burgeoning individuality.
From a modern perspective and one rich in equality and freedom – or at least, one far richer than 100 years prior – harkening back to the happenings of the 1920s gives one a window into our origins. That window, with some focus and examination, quickly resembles a mirror for viewing and reflecting upon the world today.
“Bright Young Things”
In the century that followed the trail blazed by the so-called “Bright Young Things” of the 1920s, it’s no secret that such sentiments of “coming into one’s own”, even against the grain of the existing culture, lives on today.
History repeats and builds upon itself: a bold but quite simple statement that proves and reproves itself with time. The cultural seeds of yesterday are therefore the buds and flowers of cultural expression and manifestation today and tomorrow.
Image Source: “Flappers” by Culture Cat on Flickr
In short, every time a generation pushes the envelope as the flappers did, they effectively sign, seal and stamp approval for the next generation to do the same. Perhaps that characterizes the decades that followed the 1920s most clearly. The “flapper mentality” helped each new generation build upon social constructs that sought the same outcome – equality, freedom and ultimately, happiness – each telling their part in the story through different means of expression.
Small Changes, Big Effects
When people from the Millennial, Gen Y or Gen X generations are told the story of flappers, the weightiness of the movement may go rather unnoticed or misunderstood.
Of course, the picture of a rebellious teen or young person challenging the status quo isn’t exactly mind-blowing (each of the aforementioned generations had their own moments of rebellion, after all). But summarizing the environment of the flapper as a simple act of rebellion would be a vast truncation and oversimplification of the true cultural phenomenon at hand.
Indeed, seemingly simple decisions that today would be perceived as easy choices of fashion were in fact far more involved, paradigm-bending acts of unmistakable change. Simple decisions, including donning the hairdo that personified the time, might have far reaching consequences.
According to Smithsonian.com in “The History of the Flapper, Part 4: Emboldened by the Bob,” the decision to chop ones locks certainly wasn’t made lightly. After summarizing the short story, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” in which a young woman of the era embraces the short do, the post continues:
“With her new do, she is castigated by everyone: Boys no longer like her, she’s uninvited to a social gathering in her honor, and it’s feared that her haircut will cause a scandal for her family.
“In the beginning of the 20th century, that’s how serious it was to cut off your locks. At that time, long tresses epitomized a pristine kind of femininity exemplified by the Gibson girl. Hair may have been worn up, but it was always, always long.
“Part and parcel with the rebellious flapper mentality, the decision to cut it all off was a liberating reaction to that stodgier time, a cosmetic shift toward androgyny that helped define an era.”
In a time when androgyny was a four letter word and society was overwhelmingly patriarchal, it becomes clear how the flapper created big waves.
Like any trail blazer, the actions of flappers transcended mere fashion or turns of creative expression – they challenged a paradigm to rewrite the future in a way they saw fit.
A Virtuous Cycle
None too little can be said about the importance of that most basic right afforded to the “New Woman” of the 1920s – women’s suffrage – as part of the overall phenomenon of female empowerment. With the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, the narrative of the flapper thus became intertwined with an extremely transformative era. (Women’s suffrage and the flapper movement were separate, but from enough distance, they logically blend into society moving one important direction.)
Inextricably tied, the physical manifestations of true freedom – women’s suffrage, free choice in music, art, dance and, dare we say, bobbing ones hair to some disapproving headshakes – are guided by the hand of social change and the felling of imposed boundaries. In return, each decision (minute and large, personal and societal) feeds into the process of creating a virtuous cycle for positively influencing and affecting change.
In so much, America in the Roaring Twenties stands eternally as a harbinger for freedoms to come in later decades. In the 21st Century, the spirit of the so-called “Bright Young Things” lives on today in a far more defined social paradigm of equality. One could certainly argue you could not have one without the other, and for that, the generations living today owe a sense of gratitude to such trail blazers and expressive pioneers.
Perhaps it’s precisely that notion of challenging the status quo that so neatly mirrors the qualities of our own envelope-pushers and thought leaders today? Whether from a point of reverence, nostalgia or just pure, good old fashioned fun at a Roaring Twenties party, the modern world remembers the lives of flappers and the changes they helped drive in the world today and is better for it.
Marlon Heimerl is a history buff and writer for HalloweenCostumes.com, one of the leading online retailers for all things Halloween. The prevailing popularity and even resurgence of Roaring 20s costumes for men and women both piqued Marlon’s interest, raising questions about how this colorful period in American history plays into the 21st Century paradigm and way of life.