13 February 2021

The wonderful decade of American flappers 1919-29

Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper
written by Linda Simon
Published 2017

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.

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.


Andrew said...

I don't ever recall seeing a flapper on tv who was anything else but slim. My slim sister in law has the perfect flapper figure and the only time I've seen her in a dress she looked like like a flapper.

Train Man said...

Henry Ford's ads in 1925-1926 feature well dressed young ladies having a lovely life. Smart man

Fun60 said...

There was no mistaking that style although I didn't realise the dresses were that short (next to last photo). I always assumed the short dress arrived in the 60s with the mini skirt.

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Hels said...


Because the ideal figure became androgynous and flat, anything uber feminine like large breasts or back damaging corsets were rejected. Flappers wanted to be unconstricted, casual, boyish and even sporty, so body fat would have been an impediment.

Hels said...

Train Man

*nod* I too think Henry Ford's advertisements in the mid 1920s were very appropriate for the flapper era. The women looked young, very well dressed, independent and properly employed.

Hels said...


Some of the women wore such short or split skirts, you could practically look up onto their navels. In fact I have seen French posters where the women's tops were more naked than their legs eg https://i.pinimg.com/originals/ac/e3/03/ace303eedd198af094d5ddb5e2f51610.jpg

Hels said...


Flappers were not anti male; some were married and had children.

But they were very interested in independence, employment, freedom and modernity.

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Luiz Gomes said...

Bom dia Hels, a matéria ficou muito especial.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The cartoonist John Held, Jr. really defined and epitomized the 1920's flapper and her male counterpart, together with their lifestyle, with his characters Betty Coed and Joe College. These cartoons are still very enjoyable and recapture that era.

Hels said...


many thanks. It is interesting that the first decade of Women's Liberation (1960s) looked back to the 1920s as a role model. For my generation born when our dads came back from World War Two, the flapper decade was indeed a special story.

Hels said...


my grandmother married in 1923, so I was always fascinated to hear her stories about the 1920s. Her marriage was arranged by her mother, a very old fashioned custom. But her new husband was happy for her to wear modern clothes and work in a modern shop. A strange mixture.

Hels said...


Bless John Held! I had never seen Betty Coed and Joe College before, but they were more than just enjoyable. All the attention was put on flappers' clothes and social behaviour, including by me. But if we think about it, tertiary education and training were by far the most important aspects of true equality for women.

Especially when straight after the Flapper Decade, we were faced with The Great Depression, the spread of Nazism in Europe and the growth of right-wing control in the USA eg Hays Code and later McCarthyism.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Darling Hels,

We read somewhere that the L'Oreal group [whoever that may be] predict that the post-pandemic years will be just as the 1920s. As people regain their freedoms, they put forward the view that they will take every opportunity to live life to the full.

They are predicting a boom in make-up sales and all manner of beauty and fashion products as women get ready to party again and put lockdowns behind them. We shall see. It would be a pity if the only lessons learned over the past year are shown more outwardly than inwardly. We shall see....

bazza said...

Interesting how the Jazz Age correlates quite closely with Prohibition (1920 - 1933). I suppose people were looking for a diversion from the restrictions. And I think Jane & Lance's comment raises a genuine possibility of what comes next. In truth no one knows!
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Hels said...

Jane and Lance

the pandemic hasn't killed or seriously injured as many people as WW1 did, but the impact has been similar - isolation, depression, poverty, unemployment and collapsing health care systems. So hopefully we can expect that women and minority communities will claim equal rights, once the pandemic is over.

But I think that half of Africa, and important sections of Eastern Europe and Asia are increasingly coming under control of dictators, army generals or unrepresentative governments. Will freedom and modernity ever return in those countries?

Hels said...


Prohibition was the most bibzarre response, coming straight after the War To End All Wars. It didn't help the suffering working classes and it did encourage illegal stills, illegal speak easies and brutal gun wars. I too would have been participating in Jazz Age music, literature, films and clothing as much as possible!

Hank Phillips said...

The expression itself is hard to define. Brits across the pond drawing on deeper pools of linguistic pedantry confidently defined flappers by analogy with unfledged birds not quite able to fly and leave the nest on their own. The Charleston, on the other hand, is a deeper mystery. More closely guarded than the 1929 Bank of America trial for conspiracy to finance industrial bootlegging at Atlantic Highlands (just north of the Boardwalk Empire at Atlantic City) is the Manly Sullivan case. Manly was a Charleston lawyer and car dealer busted for bootlegging, then tax evasion. The 5th Amendment, he told the court, made it unconstitutional to demand he declare illegal income. The Circuit court agreed but federal prosecutor Mabel Willebrandt appealed before the Supreme Court and struck down most of that nitpicking 5th. Nobody knows the date Sullivan was first arrested and tried, and even his name is spelled variously. But the dance, I'd wager, was in honor of the town in which he was busted, fought back, and won on appeal.

Hels said...


Thank you. I was also very interested in the term, Charleston. Of the many explanations in the literature, my favourite derived from the fact that African-Americans were suffering in the south and moved by the thousands to the north, before and especially after WW1. While working in New York nightclubs frequented by former southerners, pianists adapted music and dance to match the rhythms they had known at home.

Also coming from the rural South, the Black Bottom was likewise adopted by mainstream American culture, by both black and white flappers.

mem said...

I wonder if the rise of Facisim was in part a response to the rise of women and a feminizing of society . It seems to me that all through the 20th century the alt right has risen up headed by some macho narcist to pull all the change makers back into line . Look at what happened after Obama.

Hels said...


Even well before the flappers appeared, every movement that aimed to strengthen women's rights was vigorously opposed by Parliament, the Church and the courts. Women wanted to be able to divorce, as men could. Suffragettes wanted the vote. Married women couldn't control their own property. Mothers lost the children, post-divorce. Oxbridge universities accepted women students, but they weren't allowed to take a degree.

Those didn't have to deal with Fascism, to be sure, but the women were often gaoled, force fed, shamed, ridiculed or lost their children.

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Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I know so little about that era - yes the very basics ... flapper, courture, art and art deco ... but I enjoyed the read through ... stay safe - Hilary

Hels said...


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Hels said...


After the tragedy and losses of WW1, the flappers thrived for a short but an intensely creative era. Just have a look at my favourite artist from that decade, Tamara Lempicka:

If the banks had not collapsed in 1929, I wonder if the women would have continued being modern, employed and creative?