Flapper girls in 1920s America

Free Spirit Flapper

Written by Rehana Akudi,
5th January 2020

The Roaring Twenties of America saw a break from the traditional view of women. This new style known as flappers derived from Britain which featured a different way of living and so the ‘new woman’ was created. WW1 had resulted in a shift of many women entering the workforce working in factories. This break in society’s traditional structure meant it became impossible to return to the old values and traditional way of life post-war. The tragedy of WW1 meant many young men had lost their lives. Young women were now without suitors for marriage and growing to be independent. A generation of young women were embracing a new lifestyle which was considered immoral, dangerous, sexual and outrageous. The flappers sought to alter the role of women by pushing for political, economic, social and sexual freedoms for women.

Redefining womanhood

“The corset is as dead as the dodo’s grandfather… The petticoat is even more defunct…”

An Extract from “Flapper Jane”, article from The New Republic, 9th September 1925.

Flappers had a distinctive appearence by wearing short skirts which fell just below the knee, short bob haircuts, wearing more make-up which was previously only done by loose-women, and dancing the uninhibited Charleston. The Roaring Twenties were also known as the Jazz Age. The craze of jazz music required women to dance freely. The very daring smoked and drank alcohol in public. Conservatives disliked such ‘flappers’. The University of Florida President alarmed by the styles said,

“The low-cut gowns, the rolled hose [stockings] and short skirts are born of the devil and are carrying the present and future generations to destruction.”


Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of the author of The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald, declared the flapper girls to be,

“reckless and unconventional, because of their quest in search of self-expression.”

Liberation meant to these young women the freedom to dress how they desired and defy the accepted norms of feminine behaviour.

Famous Flapper Girls
Some of the most well known and iconic flapper girls were Josephine Baker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Colleen Moore, Norma Shearer, Marie Provost, Joan Crawford and Clara Bow.

Clara Bow


Clara Bow was known as the ‘It girl’ (‘It’ with connotations of sex appeal). She specialised in flapper roles and many young women who had seen her films wanted to dress, behave and look like her. It was usual for women to be asking for the Clara Bow cut at the hairdressers.

Minority Experience


The most famous African-American flapper was Josephine Baker, nicknamed the “Black Pearl” who was a dancer and singer. However, many educated African-American rejected the flapper movement as they did not want any controversy in order to win respect for equality. Therefore a lot of ethnic minority women tended to be more conservative.

Limitations
It appears on the surface that the flapper movement would turn into a golden opportunity to revolutionise the role of women but as we look past the sparkling Hollywood advertisements, we know this is not to be the case. The media boom of the Roaring Twenties provided plenty of images of young flappers who had broken the traditional mould wearing new styles and behaving in a masculine fashion. However, these images were only a representation of the minority of women and not the majority. Women during this time continued to be respected for taking on the domestic role.

Significance of the movement

Overall, Historian Vivienne Sanders argues that the Roaring Twenties had a limited impact on women politically and socially. The flapper movement was only a small movement and not embraced by all women. Only a minority of urban women were flappers. According to Sanders, one survey found that only 7% of 2000 middle-class women surveyed had had premarital sex. Also 89% of girls in Middletown said they would like to work but not after they were married.

Married women entering the workforce rose in the 1920s from 22.8% to 28.8%. But not all jobs were available to women. Middle class educated women with degrees and doctorates often took on limited roles and tended to traditional female occupations such as teaching or library work.


Websites for Further Reading

https://www.history.com/news/flappers-roaring-20s-women-empowerment

https://www.thoughtco.com/flappers-in-the-roaring-twenties-1779240

BBC Clara Bow, The Original ‘It Girl’

Famous Flappers and Summary

Films/Books

The Great Gatsby (Available to watch on Netflix)

Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper

YouTube clips

https://youtu.be/npB9ltho-NE – Flapper’s style

https://youtu.be/DcnsXnzIvHg – Clara Bow film clip

10 thoughts on “Flapper girls in 1920s America

  1. I love the ‘Roaring Twenties’. If I could have lived in any other era, I would have chosen that time.
    Many thanks for following my blog, which is very kind of you.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. A time after a world war was release from worry and sadness at loss as it affected every living soul that survived. Youth must have its way and energy to dance and laugh must have been so exciting for all. The older ones always see sin in what youth do.The world had changed not for the better in most cases but changed. It was thrilling and not evil as said by critics. The most exciting days ever Id say.Then A stupid evil mayor of NEW YORK banned drinks and in came the gangsters in floods and ruined the dance and the peace I would say. Thank you dear for reading my blogs. Kind of you indeed. Sir Kevin.

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  3. Despite the fact that flapper girls brought attention to a new found freedom and lifestyle that many women felt the should be able to experience, they did little for the women’s liberation movement in practicality. This is due to the fact that flappers were only a small minority of women and they’re lifestyle could not be applicable for many women in everyday practice and therefore didn’t do much for the movement. However saying this flapper girls did bring more public attention to the fact that women wanted more freedoms in America, that would eventually help the movement in long term.

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  4. Flapper girls, though high-profile and outrageous compared to contemporary social attitudes, had little effect on mainstream America. Many girls may have aspired to be like them, however few were and flappers symbolised a privileged elite who were largely free from social constraints and the conservative attitudes of the time period.

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  5. Flapper girls were classed as the ‘new women’ as they broke the stereotypical role and lifestyle of a woman. Flapper girls would wear short skirts, makeup and short hair. This ‘freedom’ lifestyle was a contrast against the typical stay at home housewife however not all women were flapper girls. Also after World War Two, women were expected to stay at home for very low wages instead of working in the factories like they did during the war. However after the war, women were stopped from been employed in certain jobs such as teaching and nursing.

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  6. Flapper women made the most of their independence during the 1920s, however not all women followed this life. After WW2 most married women who had to work were obliged to work at home for very low wages. Some jobs such as teaching, were barred to married women and many employers made it a rule not to employ them. It was the lives of the single, well-off ,mostly white women that were most open to change.

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  7. Although flapper girls were breaking the typical stereotype of women in the 1900s, women in work also went against the idea of a stay at home mum and wife. During the second world war, women stepped into men’s roles such as working in manufacturing factories, they struggled to look after their children and be the only source of income. Not every woman lived the appealing flapper girl life.

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  8. Flapper women were a new generation of women who went against the stereotypes of typical women, this may be due to them wanting to ‘rebel’ after being restricted and regimented during the war as they had to do the men’s work. However this didn’t apply to all women, as not all women had the opportunity to have this freedom and lifestyle. It was also very short lived as by the end of the 20s this era was over, so it wasn’t as special as often remembered.

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