The Flapper: “New Style” Feminist or Simplistic Floozy? Same (sad) story, different era.

Doing some research on my character for The SpeakEasy this weekend…and came across some great history on The Flapper, or “it girl” of the time. Alternately labeled a feminist and a whore, she was celebrated and maligned for what were considered “alternative qualities” of the time:

  • Independence
  • Sexual Expression
  • Confidence
  • Free-Thinking
  • Ability to embrace The Artistic and Hedonistic side of life!

Sound familiar? Well of course it does, its on on-going theme in our society, even today; one consistently outlined by this blogger:

The celebration of intelligence and eroticism simultaneously!

So…enjoy the video, as it highlights the difference that these women embraced…and then read through the Wikipedia excerpt below, paying special attention to what the psychologists of the time thought of these women.

Why is it that intelligence and sexual expression in independent women, seem to be incompatible concepts? And a more pointed question:

Why is SEXUALITY as expressed by women, in general, ALWAYS a frightening concept in our society and an excuse to degrade and ostracize them?

Okay, so I realize the answer is perhaps more complex than the question, but that shouldn’t stop us from asking, on a regular basis…for it is only through thoughtful challenge that change can occur!

Hope you enjoy this tidbit…and that it is cause for reflection, xxx c.

The slang word “flapper”, used to mean a young woman, is commonly supposed to be a 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” (that is, one whose hair is not yet put up and whose plaited pigtail “flapped” on her back); or from an older word meaning “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 in England as popular slang both for a very young prostitute and in a more general and less derogatory sense of any lively mid-teenage girl.

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.”

In the United States, 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.

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, who 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.”

Flappers’ behavior was considered outlandish at the time and redefined women’s roles. The image of flappers were young women who went to jazz clubs at night where they danced provocatively, smoked cigarettes through long holders, and dated freely, perhaps indiscriminately. They rode bicycles, drove cars, and openly drank alcohol, a defiant act in the American period of Prohibition. Petting became more common than in the Victorian era. Petting Parties, where petting (“making out” or foreplay) was the main attraction, became popular.

Flappers also began working outside the home and challenging women’s traditional societal roles. They 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.

They were also considered a significant challenge to traditional Victorian gender roles, devotion to plain-living and hard work, religion and more. Increasingly, women discarded old, rigid ideas about roles and embraced consumerism and personal choice, and were often described in terms of representing a “culture war” of old versus new. In this manner, flappers were an artifact of larger social changes — women were able to vote in the United States in 1920, and religious society had been rocked by the Scopes trial.

Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, a noted liberal writer at the time, summed up this dichotomy by describing flappers as “truly modern”, “New Style” feminists who “admit that a full life calls for marriage and children” and also “are moved by an inescapable inner compulsion to be individuals in their own right.”
Flappers had their own slang, using terms like “snuggle pup” (a man who frequents petting parties) and “barney-mugging” (sex). Their dialect sometimes reflected their feelings about marriage and drinking habits: “I have to 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 were phrases to express approval, such as “That’s so Jake”, “That’s the bee’s knees,” and the popular “the cat’s meow” or “cat’s pyjamas.” A 1922 U.S. newspaper article lists the words “junk”, “necker”, “heavy necker” and “necking parties” as contemporary flapper slang.

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 became definitive of the Prohibition era such as “speakeasy,” meaning a place to purchase illegal alcohol and “hooch,” meaning liquor.
In addition to their irreverent behavior, flappers were known for their style, which largely emerged as a result of French fashions, especially those pioneered by Coco Chanel, the effect on dress of the rapid spread of American jazz, and the popularization of dancing that accompanied it. Called garçonne in French (“boy” with a feminine suffix), flapper style made girls look young and boyish: short hair, flattened breasts, and straight waists accentuated it. By at least 1913, the association between slim adolescence and a certain characteristic look became fixed in the public’s mind. Lilian Nordica, commenting on New York fashions that year, referred toa thin little flapper of a girl donning a skirt in which she can hardly take a step, extinguishing all but her little white teeth with a dumpy bucket of a hat, and tripping down Fifth Avenue.

At this early date, it seems that the style associated with a flapper already included the boyish physique and close-fitting hat, but a hobble skirt rather than one with a high hemline.

Although the appearance typically associated now with flappers (straight waists, short hair and a hemline above the knee) did not fully emerge until about 1926, there was an early association in the public mind between unconventional appearance, outrageous behaviour, and the word “flapper”. A report in The Times of a 1915 Christmas entertainment for troops stationed in France described a soldier in drag burlesquing feminine flirtatiousness while wearing “short skirts, a hat of Parisian type and flapper-like hair”.

Despite the scandal flappers generated, their look became fashionable in a toned-down form among respectable older women. Significantly, the flappers removed the corset from female fashion, raised skirt and gown hemlines, and popularized short hair for women. Among actresses 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.

9 thoughts on “The Flapper: “New Style” Feminist or Simplistic Floozy? Same (sad) story, different era.

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