It’s impossible to talk about the 1920s without talking about the iconic “flapper.” These beautiful young women had bobbed hair, dramatic makeup, and short dresses. They were fun, fabulous, and fashion-forward. 1920s Flappers also smoked, drank, stayed out all night, and rode in cars with men. Now, their actions are tame. But at the time flappers pushed boundaries.
These radical women lived the high life…but they also changed the way women were looked at in society. They were feminists, trend setters, and fashion icons. No matter how you look at it, the world today would look very different if it wasn’t for Flappers.
How Flappers Changed Womanhood
Women’s Roles During the Victorian Era
Before we can understand what a flapper is, let’s talk about what she isn’t. During the Victorian Era - which lasted from 1837 - 1901 - gender roles were strict. Women had a very limited and specific role within society. According to an article about the lives of Victorian women written by Charles Petrie,
“From infancy all girls who were born above the level of poverty had the dream of a successful marriage before their eyes, for by that alone was it possible for a woman to rise in the world.”
Women spent their entire young life preparing to be a “perfect” wife. A woman was expected to be feminine, innocent, and modest to meet a proper husband. Victorian women wore tight corsets and giant dresses. These garments created an hourglass figure while limiting her movements and making her look modest.
The Victorian woman was defined only by her household skills and shy attitude. Servants were expected to complete household tasks. The husband paid for the home. Her milky white skin and white gloves signified that she never did manual labor like sewing or mending.
A New Era Begins
The 20th century was a brand new era. The Edwardian Era replaced the Victorian Era. Societal rules began to loosen. Men and women had free time thanks to the invention of the automobile and an economic boom. Soon, everyone was taking trips to the shore, swimming in the ocean, or travelling to other cities. Women suddenly became more active in society. They played sports like golf and tennis. They were even allowed to compete for the first time in the 1900 Olympic Games.
The ideal of beauty during this time period was no longer a modest woman. Instead, it was a healthy, carefree young lady who was athletic and social. This was shown by the “Gibson Girl” - who appeared in a series of illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Strikingly beautiful, she wore her long hair piled atop her head. She went to the theater and played popular sports. “The Gibson Girl” was the feminine standard of beauty until the start of World War I.
Before the 1920s, another important event took place right. The 19th amendment was ratified after “decades of agitation and protest,”. Women finally could vote. This was another step towards equality for women.
Flappers in the Roaring Twenties
After the end of World War I, people became more impulsive. Because so many men had endured a close brush with death during The Great War, they wanted to live life to the absolute fullest when they came home. Popular activities included dancing, jazz music, and drinking alcohol.
Women became more active in society. Still, there were certain rules they were expected to follow. Women were still expected to live a modest life. Keeping up a “proper” image required long hair and effortless grace. Flappers rejected these old fashioned notions. Just like the soldiers that returned from WWI, they also wanted to live a life full of excitement.
The Flapper Lifestyle
Writers have said the flapper was a
“somewhat foolish girl, full of wild surmises and inclined to revolt against the precepts and admonitions of her elders.”
Flappers lived a modern lifestyle. They drank, smoked, and drove cars like men. Flappers also went to Jazz clubs and danced wild, popular dances like “The Charleston.”
Flappers completely rejected usual beauty standards. Heavy makeup was stylish. Short “bob” hairstyles replaced long hair. Flirting and “petting” men was popular. Fast-talking flappers rejected old femininity. They decided to life on their own terms.
The Message Behind Flapper Fashion
1920s Flappers are famous for their fashion. For the first time in history, women weren’t wearing long dresses that covered them. Flappers wore dresses with a hemline that extended to the middle of the calf. In the 1920s, this was shocking.
Flappers wanted dresses that they could move freely in. Their clothing also became far less structured and no longer emphasized their feminine figure. Coco Chanel popularized this androgynous “garconne” look in France. Rejecting feminine silhouettes symbolized the fact that women were equal to men.
What Flappers Wore
During the day, flappers wore casual dresses that featured relaxed, drop-waist silhouettes. Known as “Day Dresses” or “Afternoon Dresses,” these lightweight garments featured slender, column-like skirts and scooped necklines. They were made from jersey, wool, knits, rayon, or crepe fabrics. They featured cap sleeves during summer months. Nautical, sailor elements like a tie at the neckline or collar also were popular
These dresses paired well with costume jewelry and other accessories. Flappers rarely left home without a bell-shaped cloche hat. Another “must have” item was a low heeled pump that was comfortable enough for running errands.
Women frequently participated in sports during the 1920s. Although their sportswear was still feminine, they wore variations of the “uniforms” men wore for sport. They wore long skirts and knitted tops when they played tennis. They opted for long sleeved cardigans and trousers that gathered below the knee when they played golf. Saddle shoes were essential for any woman who participated in sport during the 1920s. They were stylish and incredibly comfortable.
1920s Flapper Evening Wear
Dresses worn by flappers for evening events were more glamorous than Day Dresses. These gowns were made from luxurious fabrics like velvet, silk, and satin. These fabrics would also be accented by beads or other embellishments for a little sparkle. They featured dramatic necklines, low backs, sheer overlays, and a drop-waist silhouette.
Art Deco design was incredibly popular. The jewelry paired with these dresses featured brightly colored gemstones, geometric shapes, and repetitive patterns. Clips, brooches, or pins were added to dresses to enhance their allure. Women rarely wore hats during the evening. When they did, it was a shimmering turban-style hat or an embellished headband.
The Flapper Slang
Flappers didn’t just look different from traditional women - they also sounded different. Women during this time invented slang words to further set themselves apart. Some phrases like “the cat’s pajamas” and “the big cheese” are recognizable today. Other popular slang terms didn’t last quite as long as others.
There were plenty of slang words that revolved around men and women. A “Petting Party” referred to parties where people would drink and hook up. They referred to engagement rings as “handcuffs” to show their contempt for marriage. If you got a divorce they said you were “out on parole.” A married woman was referred to as a “Fire Bell.” A divorced woman was a “Fire Alarm.”
They also had many nicknames. A “Goof” or a “Blue Serge” was a significant other. If someone stole someone else’s girl, they were known as a “Weasel.” Any man that was out looking for a wife was a “Forty-Niner. And even though they were fans of “petting,” if you had been unfaithful the “bank was closed.”
This slang may seem silly today. But these old phrases are no different than the short-hand we use in today’s text messages. Their language - just like their styling choices and fashion - showed everyone that flappers weren’t like other people. They were “modern” women who had the same rights men did. Without their influence, the world would look very different.