Bad Girls of the 1920s: What You Didn’t Know About Flappers

Ching Yee Lin
  Known for her carefree personality and boisterous behavior, the flapper represented a new generation of women who defined the Roaring Twenties in the United States. Amid widespread socio-political changes, these women began embracing a lifestyle characterized by smoking, alcohol, partying, and sexual freedom in the 1920s. Having ditched the traditionally desirable feminine qualities, these women were often painted in a negative light. But were they genuinely as problematic as they were made out to be? What was a day in the life of a flapper like, and how have these women contributed to the public conception of womanhood during the 1920s? Here are a few things you might not have known about the true icon of the Roaring Twenties.   Before Flappers, There Was the Gibson Girl Picturesque America, anywhere in the mountains by Charles Dana Gibson, 1900, via Library of Congress, Washington   Some years before the flapper revolutionized femininity in the 1920s, the Gibson Girl had kickstarted the modern girl movement in the early 1900s. Then the definition of the new woman, the Gibson Girl embodied the ideal look and styles of American girls at the turn of the century. Sporting an S-curved torso complete with heavy bosoms and large hips, she was the brainchild of renowned illustrator Charles Dana Gibson.   Often depicted as independent and active in sporting and social activities, the Gibson Girl reinvented womanhood and left a profound influence on society and how it viewed women. In a sense, the Gibson Girl kickstarted what would become a uniquely American style rather than one that adopted and followed European standards of beauty. More importantly, the Gibson Girl laid strong foundations for the emerging flapper thereafter as the momentum of change and breaking free from tradition took root.   Origins of the Term Flapper  American dancer Violet Romer sporting a flapper style, 1910-1915, via Library of Congress, Washington   Prior to the First World War (1914–1918), the term flapper in non-slang use was associated with gawky teenage girls in Britain. Painting an image of a fledgling bird, it referred to girls who had yet to come of age. While seemingly embodying the idea of innocence, colloquial use of the term in the 17th century reflected an association with young sex workers. By the turn of the 20th century, the word flapper gained widespread use in theatre as a way of identifying female characters who were young and flirtatious. In some ways, this bore a closer association to the definitive meaning of the word as we know it today.   By the 1920s, the name flapper became synonymous with a new breed of women who would send shockwaves across conservative American society. On top of bobbed hairstyles, they favored a lifestyle characterized by cigarette smoking, drinking, dancing, casual sex, and a lack of care for social norms. As boisterous as they were, these women would go on to embody the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties and become definitive figures contributing to the feminist crusade, albeit in their own rebellious ways.   The Clothes That Make a Flapper Grace Coolidge’s Blue Sequined “Flapper” Dress, year unknown, via National Museum of American History, Washington   In a bid to ditch the shackles of traditional notions of femininity, flappers adopted a Garconne or little boy look. Popularized by Coco Chanel, this style shifted focus away from the curves of a woman’s body which had long been seen as feminine and desirable. Instead, it flattened the chests, dropped the waistline to the hips, and emphasized shortened hemlines. The flappers also replaced corsets and pantaloons with underwear called the step-ins which would not hamper movement, something useful on the dancefloors these women frequented. What would also set the dancing flapper apart was the exquisite details her dress boasted. On top of the tubular shape and loose fit characteristic of the flapper dress, it featured eye-catching sequins and beadwork typical of the Art Deco style.   Introducing the Bob – A Breath of Fresh Hair! Dancing flappers living on the edge, photographed atop Chicago’s Sherman Hotel by George Rinhart, year unknown, via Smithsonian Magazine   As flamboyant and stylish as a flapper’s dress might be, nothing would complete the look as much as a bobbed hairstyle would. Originally known as the Castle bob, it was first sported by a ballroom dancer called Irene Castle in 1916. Soon, the bobbed hairstyle was emulated by women across America in the 1920s and became an iconic flapper look.   Unlike the long tresses of the Gibson Girl, the flapper preferred a straight round cut leveled with the ear lobes, a shockingly provocative look according to the sensibilities of the time. In an era where chopping off one’s locks could significantly frustrate her chances at marriage, the rebellious flapper thought it appropriate to make a daring fashion statement. Not only did this mark a deliberate attempt at androgyny, it also represented a seismic shift in the understanding of femininity.   Different variations of the Bob hairstyle by the American Hairdresser, 1924, via The Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, New Jersey   The widespread appeal of the Bob hairstyle also generated positive economic outcomes. It was said that by 1924, there had been over 21,000 hairdressing shops, up from a mere 5,000 in 1920, which specialized in bobbing hair. Accessories such as headbands and bobby pins also hit the markets and sold like hotcakes given the rising popularity of the Bob.   You Need to Put on That Lipstick! An advertisement for Winx cosmetics published in Cosmopolitan, 1924, via Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York   Make-up in the 1920s became something that was supposed to be explicitly seen, as opposed to the Gibson Girl’s subdued, natural look. Most prominently, the iconic flapper make-up took the world by storm with those smoky dark eyes, velvet red lips, defined mascara, and bright nail colors. Compact powder cases, pocket-sized lipsticks, and rouge were invented to allow the flapper to touch up her look when needed. As the industry expanded, cosmetics no longer remained an entitlement of movie stars and socialites. Make-up became something everyday women could carry in their handbags, further fueling the popularization of the flapper look.   The Flapper Slangs Two women are seen reading Picturegoer in the 1928 film Shooting Stars by Eric Gray, 1928, via British Film Institute National Archive   A reflection of their lack of care for norms, the flappers invented their own slang which would put the proudest Gen Z to shame today. The linguistic versatility of the flappers saw them creating a clever, often humorous vocabulary that alluded to the drag of everyday life. For example, a fire extinguisher supposedly referred to a chaperone who was regarded as a killjoy to the partying flapper. Engagement rings, a symbol of the promise of marriage, were called handcuffs by the forward-looking flapper who clearly did not subscribe to traditional gender roles.   As comical as some of these terms might sound, a handful has actually made it into our current vocabulary. For example, the flapper’s favorite catchphrase bee’s knees are also known to us today, as representing something excellent or of an extremely high standard. Similarly, someone who showed up at a party uninvited was known to the flappers as a party crasher, the same term we would use today to describe someone whom we do not expect to see at a social event.   Control the Birth, But Not the Hormones! Flappers with their dates in Chicago, 1928, via History   Like the inventive nature of their slang, the flappers viewed sexuality and abstinence with unprecedented liberalism. They broke the rules of their Victorian predecessors by normalizing snugglepupping, a term for making out at popular petting parties. Known to raise more than a few eyebrows, these gatherings took place in dance halls, college campuses, and even on public streets, all for the goal of physical pleasure. From cuddling to kissing and heavy petting, these activities stopped short of full sexual intercourse but were still enough to alarm conservative parents and moral vigilantes. With a more casual attitude towards sexual relations outside of marriage, the flappers too were known for using contraceptives like diaphragm caps and intrauterine devices. This normalization of using contraceptives also coincided with the emerging birth control movement which advocated for better access to these important devices.   Being a Flapper Is a State of Mind Modern girls, or modan gārus, sauntering down the streets of Tokyo, 1928, via CNN   While a flapper girl is best remembered as an icon of the Roaring Twenties in the United States, she has also existed in many parts of the world, far beyond the Western hemisphere and Europe. In Asian societies like Japan, China, and Singapore, the flapper style was replicated by modern women seeking to disassociate from traditional beliefs in the 1920s. In tandem with the momentum of progress, there was a universal desire for independence and freedom to embrace one’s sexuality, as well as a modernized interpretation of societal and gender norms.   A watch advertisement in Singapore which featured the Modern Girl in an iconic bobbed hairstyle and low-cut, shoulder-baring dress, 1927, via National Library Singapore   Like the modeng xiaojie (Miss Modern) in China, the modan gāru (Modern Girl) in Japan was making waves and headlines in societies bound by tradition. Like their American counterparts, these vocal women adored the latest cosmetics and participated actively in social activities such as dancing and partying. In other words, being a flapper was really more of a state of mind than anything else. With the right mentality, a flapper girl could exist anywhere, at any time, and in any culture.   Did the Flapper Era End with the Great Depression? Women working on sewing machines, 1937, via History   The hedonism, decadence, as well as vibrant spirit of consumerism, came to a screeching halt in 1929 when the Great Depression hit. Almost overnight, millions of Americans were jobless as a result of the Wall Street Crash. Thanks to excessive stock market speculation and the availability of easy credit, the United States descended into a dark period of economic downturn, with its effects spreading across to other continents. Against the backdrop of economic hardships and the looming war in the 1930s, the flamboyant and loud flapper lifestyle was inevitably silenced. Gone were the heavily embellished party dresses, eye-catching bobbed hairstyles, and the couldn’t-care-less, cavalier attitudes in life. In their places were dropped hemlines, clothes made of generic artificial fabrics, and a general sense of prudence and solemnity.   Today, more than a century has passed since the world first met the flapper. Wherever the discourse and debate might end up, it is undeniable that the flapper style left an inalienable mark on history and popular culture. And thanks to the enduring popularity of books like The Great Gatsby (1925) and films like Midnight in Paris (2013) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994), the flapper will most likely continue to dazzle for centuries to come.
© Davy Mellado, 2022. All rights reserved.