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The term flapper in the 1920s referred to a "new breed" of young women who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, listened to jazz, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behavior. Flappers were seen as brash for wearing excessive makeup, drinking, treating sex in a casual manner, smoking, driving automobiles and otherwise flouting social and sexual norms.

Flappers had their origins in the period of liberalism, social and political turbulence and increased transatlantic cultural exchange that followed the end of the First World War, as well as the export of Americanmarker jazz culture to Europe.

United States

The first appearance of the word and image in the United Statesmarker came from the popular 1920 Frances Marion movie, The Flapper, starring Olive Thomas. Thomas had starred in a similar role in 1917, though it was not until The Flapper that the term was used. In her final movies she was seen in the flapper image. Other actresses, such as Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore and Joan Crawford would soon build their careers on the same image, achieving great popularity.

In the United Statesmarker, popular contempt for Prohibition was a factor in the rise of the flapper. With legal saloons and cabarets closed, back alley speakeasies became prolific and popular. This discrepancy between the law-abiding, religion-based temperance movement and the actual ubiquitous consumption of alcohol led to widespread disdain for authority. Flapper independence may also have its origins in the Gibson girls of the 1890s. Although that pre-war look does not resemble the flapper identity, their independence and feminism may have led to the flapper wise-cracking tenacity 30 years later.

Writers in the United States such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anita Loos, and illustrators such as Russell Patterson, John Held Jr., Ethel Hays and Faith Burrows popularized the flapper look and lifestyle through their works, and flappers came to be seen as attractive, reckless and independent. Among those who criticized the flapper craze was writer-critic Dorothy Parker. She penned "Flappers: A Hate Song" to poke fun at the fad. The secretary of labor denounced the, "flippancy of the cigarette smoking, cocktail-drinking flapper." A Harvard psychologist reported that flappers had, "the lowest degree of intelligence" and constituted, "a hopeless problem for educators."

A related but alternative use of the word "flapper" in the late 1920s was as a media catch word that referred to adult women voters and how they might vote differently than men their age. While the term "flapper" had multiple uses, flappers as a social group were well defined from other 1920s fads.

United Kingdom

The term flapper first appears in an early Sports Illustrated magazine (not the same magazine in print today) in a two-page spread where the flapper spread her legs . It is commonly supposed to be in reference to a young bird flapping its wings while learning to fly; it may however derive from an earlier use in northern England to mean "teenage girl" (one whose hair is not yet put up), or "prostitute". The slang word flap was used for a young prostitute as far back as 1631; by the late 19th century the word "flapper" was emerging as popular slang both for a very young prostitute and in a more general sense of a lively mid-teenage girl.

While many in the United States assumed at the time that the term flapper derived from a fashion of women wearing galoshes unbuckled so that they could show people their bodies as they walked, the term was already documented as in use in the United Kingdom as early as 1903, when novelist Desmond Coke used it in his college story of Oxford life, Sandford of Merton: "There's a stunning flapper". By 1908 newspapers as serious as The Times were using it, although with careful explanation: "A 'flapper', we may explain, is a young lady who has not yet been promoted to long frocks and the wearing of her hair 'up'". By November 1910 the term was popular enough for the author A.E.James to begin a series of stories in the London Magazine featuring the misadventures of a pretty fifteen-year-old girl and titled 'Her Majesty the Flapper'. By 1912 the London theatrical impresario John Tiller, defining the term in an interview he gave to the New York Times, described a 'flapper' as belonging to a slightly older age group, a girl who has "just come out".By the 1920s in Britain 'flapper' was a term which could describe any impetuous immature woman, often including women under 30. Usage increased during World War I, perhaps due to the visible emergence of young women into the workforce to supply the place of absent men: a Times article on the problem of finding jobs for women made unemployed by the return of the male workforce is headed "The Flapper's Future". By 1918 however the word could also be used teasingly of a "pleasure-loving" older woman: a Dr. Whatley, accused of adultery with the wife of Major Sydney George Everitt, of Knowle Hall, Knowle, was asked in court why he had begun a verse to her with the words "There once was a flapper named Mary".

By 1920 the term had taken on the full meaning of the flapper-generation style and attitudes. In his lecture that year on Britain's surplus of young women (caused by the loss of young men in war) Dr R. Murray-Leslie criticized "the social butterfly type...the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations."


Flappers' behavior was unheard of at the time and redefined women's roles forever. Flappers went to jazz clubs at night where they danced provocatively, smoked cigarettes through long holders, sniffed cocaine (which was legal at the time) and dated freely. They rode bicycles and drove cars and drank alcohol openly, a defiant act in the American period of Prohibition. Petting became more common than in the Victorian era. Petting Parties, where petting ("making out" and/or foreplay) was the main attraction, became popular.

Flappers also began taking work outside the home and challenging women's traditional societal roles. They also advocated voting and women's rights. With time came the development of dance styles then considered shocking, such as the Charleston, the Shimmy, the Bunny Hug and the Black Bottom.


Flappers had their own slang, with terms like "snugglepup" (a man who frequents petting parties) and "barney-mugging" (sex). Their dialect reflected their promiscuity and drinking habits; "I have to go see a man about a dog" often meant going to buy whiskey, and a "handcuff" or "manacle" was an engagement or wedding ring. Also reflective of their preoccupations, they had many ways to express approval, such as "That's so Jake" or "That's the bee's knees," or a more popular one, "the cat's pajamas."

Many terms still in use in modern American English slang originated as flapper slang, such as "big cheese," meaning an important person; "to bump off," meaning to murder; and "baloney," meaning nonsense. Other terms have become definitive of the Prohibition era, such as "speakeasy," meaning a place to purchase illegal alcohol and "hooch," which means liquor.


In addition to their irreverent behavior, flappers were known for their style, which largely emerged as a result of jazz and the popularization of dancing that accompanied it. Called garçonne in French ("boy" with a feminine suffix), flapper style made them look young and boyish. Short hair, flattened breasts, and straight waists accentuated the look.

Despite all the scandal flappers generated, their look became fashionable in a toned-down form among even respectable older women. Most significantly, the flappers removed the corset from female fashion, raised skirt and gown hemlines and popularized short hair for women. Among the actresses most closely identified with the style were Olive Borden, Olive Thomas, Dorothy Mackaill, Alice White, Bebe Daniels, Billie Dove, Helen Kane, Joan Crawford, Leatrice Joy, Norma Shearer, Laura La Plante, Norma Talmadge, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Colleen Moore.


The flapper look required 'heavy makeup' in comparison to what had been acceptable. Flappers tended to wear 'kiss proof' lipstick. With the invention of the metal lipstick container as well as compact mirror bee stung lips came into vogue. Dark eyes, especially Kohl-rimmed, were the style. Blush came into vogue now that it was no longer a messy application process.

Originally, pale skin was considered most attractive. However, tanned skin became increasingly popular after Coco Chanel donned a tan after spending too much time in the sun on holiday - it suggested a life of leisure, without the onerous need to work. Women wanted to look fit, sporty, and, above all, healthy.

Hair and accessories

Boyish cuts were in vogue, especially the Bob cut, Eton crop, and Shingle bob. Finger Waving was used as a means of styling. Hats were still required wear and popular styles included the Newsboy cap and Cloche hat.

Jewelry usually consisted of art deco pieces, especially many layers of beaded necklaces. Pins, rings, and brooches came into style. Horn-rimmed glasses were also popular.

Flappers did away with corsets and pantaloons in favor of "step-in" panties. Without the old restrictive corsets, flappers wore simple bust bodices to make their chest hold still when dancing. They also wore new, softer and suppler corsets that reached to their hips, smoothing the whole frame giving women a straight up and down appearance, as opposed to the old corsets which slenderized the waist and accented the hips and bust. Without the added curves of a corset they promoted their boyish look, and soon early popular bras were sold to flatten and reduce the appearance of the bust.


Flapper dresses were straight and loose, leaving the arms bare and dropping the waistline to the hips. Silk or rayon stockings were held up by garters. Skirts rose to just below the knee by 1927, allowing flashes of knee to be seen when a girl danced or walked into a breeze, although the way they danced made any long loose skirt flap up to show their knees. Flappers powdered or put rouge on their knees to show them off when dancing. Popular dress styles included the Robe de style. High heels also came into vogue at the time, reaching 2 inches high.

End of the flapper era

Despite its popularity, the flapper lifestyle and look could not survive the Wall Street Crash and the following Great Depression. The high-spirited attitude and hedonism simply could not find a place amid the economic hardships of the 1930s. More specifically, this decade brought out a conservative reaction and a religious revival which set out to eradicate the liberal lifestyles and fashions of the 1920s.

See also

Further reading

  • Chadwick, Whitney. The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars. 2003. ISBN 978-0813532929.
  • Latham, Angela J. Posing a Threat: Flappers, Chorus Girls, and other Brazen Performers of the American 1920s. 2000. ISBN 978-0819564016.
  • Zeitz, Joshua. Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern. 2007. ISBN 978-1400080540.
  • Fass, Paula S. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. 2007. ISBN 978-0195024920.
  • Hudovernik, Robert. Jazz Age Beauties: The Lost Collection of Ziegfeld Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston. 2006. ISBN 978-0789313812.
  • Lauber, Ellie. Fashions of the Roaring '20s. 2000. ISBN 978-0764300172.
  • Gourley, Kathleen. Flappers and the New American Woman: Perceptions of Women from 1918 Through the 1920s (Images and Issues of Women in the Twentieth Century). 2007. ISBN 978-0822560609.


  1. Memories of Olive.
  2. Long, Bruce (editor). Taylorology: A Continuing Exploration of the Life and Death of William Desmond Taylor. Arizona State University.
  3. Zeitz, Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, p. 6.
  4. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 26 Apr. 2007.
  5. James Mabbe, Celestina IX. 110 "Fall to your flap, my Masters, kisse and clip. Ibid. 112 Come hither, you foule flappes."
  6. Barrere & Leland, Dictionary of Slang: "Flippers, flappers, very young girls trained to vice" (1889)
  7. Lowsley, Barzillai, A glossary of Berkshire words and phrases 1888 (E.D.S.):"Vlapper,..applied in joke to a girl of the bread-and-butter age."
  8. Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 edition.
  9. The Times, Thursday, Feb 20, 1908; pg. 15; Issue 38574; col F
  10. JAMES, A.E., Her Majesty the Flapper, London Magazine, 1910.
  11. "Mr. Tiller explained the difference between a "pony" and a "flapper". A pony, he said, is a small dancer who may be of any age. A flapper is a girl who has just "come out". She is at an awkward age, neither a child nor a woman, and she is just as likely to develop into a show girl as a pony." 'Some facts about the ballet', New York Times, March 31, 1912.
  12. The Times Thursday, Oct 16, 1919; pg. 7; Issue 42232; col B
  13. "Was that Mrs Everitt?" - "Yes." Why did you call this married woman with two children a flapper?"-"It is impossible to give a reason." The Times, Thursday, Oct 30, 1919; pg. 5; Issue 42244; col A
  14. The Times, Thursday, Feb 05, 1920; pg. 9; Issue 42326; col A

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