Political, cultural and technological factors led to the rise of women’s independence and the flapper era. In WWI women entered the workforce in large numbers, receiving the higher wages that working women would later demand. Just after WWI, the classic flapper image was that of a stylish young party girl who shocked her parents’ older morality.
Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper
written by Linda Simon
During this period of change and rebellion,
the first Art Deco fashion icon, the flapper, charleston-ed her way
In Aug 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote! And in the early 1920s, Margaret Sanger supported contraceptive rights for women! The 1920s also saw Prohibition, the result of the 18th Amendment ending legal alcohol sales. Combined with an explosion of jazz music and jazz clubs, speakeasies emerged.
Flappers were famous for their confident dress of the 1920s. Skirts were shortened and the ideal figure became formless and androgynous, with the waistline dropped to the hips. Nylon, satin, silk and crepe were the most popular materials used to make shaped dresses. Tubular dresses, cigarette holders, cloche hats, plucked eyebrows, diamond bracelets and dangling earrings were loved. The young flapper went to parties unchaperoned, smoked cigarettes and drove cars.
Designers like Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Jean Patou ruled flapper fashion. Jean Patou’s invention of knit swimwear and women’s sportswear inspired a freer, more relaxed silhouette, as did Chanel and Schiaparelli’s knit wear. Madeleine Vionnet’s bias-cut designs emphasised the woman’s natural shape.
Artist Tamara Lempicka’s women wore fashionable flapper dresses of shorter, calf-revealing lengths and lower necklines: straight and slim was the preferred silhouette. Her flappers never wore corsets!
Independence came from Henry Ford’s mass production of cars which lowered prices, allowing younger women far more mobility. Young women drove these cars into cities for newly-created jobs while radio, planes, cinemas and department stores transformed their lives.
The first advertising executives to use sex appeal as a marketing technique to women.. regularly used Vanity Fair and Life magazine covers. Elizabeth Arden was one of the industry’s pioneers, opening her 1st salon in New York. As soon as some women had their own disposable incomes, advertising courted their interests beyond household items: soap, perfume, cosmetics and fashion accessories.
F Scott Fitzgerald had gained the reputation as a spokes-person for the Jazz Age, so he began to write about flapper culture in short stories for the Saturday Evening Post in 1920. A collection of these stories was published as Flappers and Philosophers.
Wife Zelda Fitzgerald became the quintessential example of a stylish, free-spirited young woman, the hedonistic 17 year old daughter of a judge. They were married in New York a month after his novel This Side of Paradise was released, and they soon embarked on a life of partying in Europe and America. Zelda was the model for many of Scott’s female heroines eg Daisy in The Great Gatsby (1925). Then this party-girl started writing about flapper lifestyle herself.
Artist Georgia O’Keeffe was born on a Wisconsin farm, so she moved to New York as soon as possible to study at the Art Students League. She embraced abstract art, and her early work attracted Alfred Stieglitz who showed her art at his 291 Gallery. She married him in 1924, but objected to his sexist approach to her art; Stieglitz liked showing her art by photographing her nude in front of it. In the mid-1920s, O’Keefe shifted from abstraction art and in 1929, she moved to New Mexico - alone!
Salonista Neysa McMein epitomised women’s rise to independence in the 20s. A successful commercial artist, she painted cover illustrations for Saturday Evening Post and McCall’s. She became famous for hosting extravagant salon events in her 57th St flat-studio. In the years that her Round Table flourished (1920-6), famous people were found at her gatherings - Noel Coward, Irving Berlin, Charlie Chaplin and George Gershwin. Dorothy Parker was always the centrepiece at McMein’s Round Table since Neysa had a full gin-bathtub, in Prohibition times! Her artistic world mixed literary wit and the theatre with a cosmopolitan spirit!
Screen writer Anita Loos’ book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and its sequel But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes were famous satires of the flapper world. The books focused on flapper Lorelei Lee and her male conquests. The popularity of movies exploded in the 1920s, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928), though the screen-flappers were typically more modest than in the real world. The first popular flapper movie was Flaming Youth (1923) with gorgeous Colleen Moore. And the image of Louise Brooks and her precise bobbed hair became the archetypal vision of a flapper. Her film career helped fuel the modern look.
Clara Bow was The It Girl, referring to her 1927 film It. She was a very successful screen flapper, beloved for her modest roles and her sex appeal. Clearly dancing was a crucial part of flapper culture. The Charleston and the Black Bottom were popular and more suggestive than earlier moves. The noted 1923 British play The Dancers, with Tallulah Bankhead, examined the dance obsessions of 2 flappers.
Many disapproved of women’s newfound sexual freedom and big spending. Utah, Virginia and Ohio attempted to pass legislation controlling women’s clothes. Women who visited beaches in “inappropriate” bathing suits were escorted off the beach by police or arrested. Elegant hostesses and some
clergymen ranted against vulgar fashions.
Happily smoking in public
Independence came with a car
Flappers of the 1920s were considered the first generation of independent American women who pushed barriers in economic, political and sexual freedom. Few women were born to great wealth, but economic independence was essential for any woman to forge her own life, and the 20s offered more possibilities than ever before. At least until the age of the flapper ended suddenly in Oct 1929, with the stock market crash and the Great Depression! This made the hedonism of the Roaring 20s seem very remote from new, grim economic realities. And the Hays Code in 1930 limited sexual themes in films, making independent flappers impossible to portray onscreen.