The New Women of the 1920s, the flapper, was a very determined young woman who was aware of her abilities, ambitions and desires and had no qualms going after them, no matter what society thought her place should be.
“Flapper” is one of those worlds whose origin is uncertain, but it’s thought to have originated in Britain before WWI when it was used to describe gawky young teenage girls.
When we use the word flapper today, we mostly mean a middle-class, white, young American woman, probably a college student, who was a pleasure seeker and had money and time to spend having fun. That might have been accurate in the beginning. But then, the concept of flapperism exited the United States and became far more diverse and faceted.
In many respects, the flapper was the apex of the New Woman’s historical arc. She was the outcome of everything the New woman had done or aspired to before. She was the one who harvested the outcome of the many seeds the New Women had sawn. And after her, as the Great Depression blew away the excitement of the Roaring Twenties, the New Woman would not exist anymore, though much of what she had attained remained, if sometimes only in the mind of people.
Flapper fashion was in itself a manifestation of everything she had conquered.
She wore simpler, lighter clothes that allowed more mobility and less maintenance. The ‘uniform’ of the flapper was a simple frock that she could slip on or off without help. She often didn’t wear corsets of any kind. She showed her legs without shame, and her arms were often bare too. It’s hard to grasp for us today, but her dress alone was absolutely shocking for her contemporaries, who were accustomed to seeing women covered in layers and layers of fabric head to toe.
Her dress hinted at everything she could do that her mother couldn’t. She could go about town with ease, shopping and working. She could attract the men she liked. Her cropped hair allowed her to appear groomed and elegant without spending the amount of time her mother needed to take care of her mane. And what about her face? The flapper painted herself! She used makeup as only prostitutes and actresses had done only years before.
Is it any surprise that many commentators thought her appearance was the harbinger of the end of Western society?
Social meaning of the flapper
The flapper was part of that new ‘youth culture’ and shared its new values. She wanted to be financially independent and a successful professional. She gradually entered working spaces that had never been accessible to women and did things – like drinking and smoking – that had been totally taboo for her mother. She wanted to be free to choose the man she would build a family with. More daring flappers went as far as dating boys rather than the other way around.
All of this looked like the world upside-down to many older people, who thought that flappers’ independence meant they didn’t want to marry and have children. They thought flappers wanted to take jobs away from men and cared for nothing but fun. They thought them promiscuous and lustful.
In short, the New Woman of the 1920s was even more dangerous than the New Woman of the 1890s, and she would bring society to its end.
Many criticized her in newspapers and magazines, underlining her superficial characteristics. Many didn’t look deeper.
If they had done so, they would have seen that while the flapper did demand more freedom, she was not rejecting her mother’s values. Even if the flapper wanted to work and be independent, even if she wanted to choose her own life partner, even if she was willing to explore sexuality with him, in the end, she still wanted to get married, build a family and support her husband, just like her mother had done.
But she was indeed a very complex, even contradictory figure.
Although many feminists and many politically and socially involved women adopted traits of the flappers and even her fashion, most flappers were not involved in politics or social issues.
We could say that while the flapper embodied the New Woman ideals and wins, she was not an activist and, in general, didn’t advocate for women’s rights and social gains.
But because she was so closely associated with those rights, because she embodied the concept, girls – and women – who adopted the flapper look and attitude indeed disseminated the notion that women deserved those rights.
Flapper’s fashion and attitude weren’t social statements in themselves, but women who adopted them were indeed propagating the message.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977