Flappers of the 1920s were young women known for their energetic freedom, embracing a lifestyle viewed by many at the time as outrageous, immoral or downright dangerous. Now considered the first generation of independent American women, flappers pushed barriers in economic, political and sexual freedom for women.
Multiple factors—political, cultural and technological—led to the rise of the flappers.
During World War I, women entered the workforce in large numbers, receiving higher wages that many working women were not inclined to give up during peacetime.
In August 1920, women’s independence took another step forward with the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. And in the early 1920s, Margaret Sanger made strides in providing contraception to women, sparking a wave of women’s rights to birth control.
The 1920s also brought about Prohibition, the result of the 18th Amendment ending legal alcohol sales. Combined with an explosion of popularity for jazz music and jazz clubs, the stage was set for speakeasies, which offered illegally produced and distributed alcohol.
Henry Ford’s mass production of cars brought down automobiles prices, allowing the younger generation far more mobility than in earlier eras. Many people, a number of them young women, drove these cars into cities, which experienced a population boom.
With all these pieces in place, an unprecedented social explosion for young women was all but inevitable.
What Is a Flapper?
No one knows how the word flapper entered American slang, but its usage first appeared just following World War I.
The classic image of a flapper is that of a stylish young party girl. Flappers smoked in public, drank alcohol, danced at jazz clubs and practiced a sexual freedom that shocked the Victorian morality of their parents.
Flappers were famous—or infamous, depending on your viewpoint—for their rakish attire.
They donned fashionable flapper dresses of shorter, calf-revealing lengths and lower necklines, though not typically form fitting: Straight and slim was the preferred silhouette.
Flappers wore high heel shoes and threw away their corsets in favor of bras and lingerie. They gleefully applied rouge, lipstick, mascara and other cosmetics, and favored shorter hairstyles like the bob.
Designers like Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Jean Patou ruled flapper fashion. Jean Patou’s invention of knit swimwear and women’s sportswear like tennis clothes inspired a freer, more relaxed silhouette, while the knitwear of Chanel and Schiaparelli brought no-nonsense lines to women’s clothing. Madeleine Vionnet’s bias-cut designs (made by cutting fabric against the grain) emphasized the shape of a woman’s body in a more natural way.
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F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald found his place in American literary history with “The Great Gatsby” in 1925, but he had already garnered a reputation before that as a spokesperson for the Jazz Age.
The press at the time credited Fitzgerald as the creator of the flapper because of his debut novel, “This Side of Paradise,” though the book didn’t specifically mention flappers.
The credit stuck and Scott began to write about flapper culture in short stories for the Saturday Evening Post in 1920, opening up the Jazz Age lifestyle to middle-class homes.
A collection of these stories was published that year under the title “Flappers and Philosophers,” cementing Fitzgerald as the flapper expert for the next decade.
If Fitzgerald was considered the chronicler of flappers, his wife Zelda Fitzgerald was considered the quintessential example of one.
A native of Montgomery, Alabama, Zelda was a stylish, free-spirited young woman who met Fitzgerald in 1918 while he was stationed there in the military. She was 17 at the time and—as the daughter of a prominent local judge—her hedonistic escapades scandalized her family.
The pair was married in New York City one month after “This Side of Paradise” was released and soon embarked on a lifestyle of reckless partying and publicity-seeking in Europe and across America.