Flappers from the 1920s are described as young women who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, and danced, smoked, drank illegal alcohol, and partied throughout the Roaring Twenties. These brief descriptions in history curriculum materials paint a one-sided picture of how changes in fashion and behavior are outward signs of a much longer and more interesting story of social change.
History of the Word Flapper
The word flapper did not originate in the 1920s. It first appeared in English in the late 1880s and 1890s to describe an immoral girl or a young prostitute. By 1900, flapper could also mean a teenage girl who was silly or who still wore her hair down long in an era when “putting up” one’s hair signaled womanhood.
According to Linda Simon, author of Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper, young women in their teens were asking new questions about their futures in a changing society. In the late 1800s, changes in technology and the economy opened new education and career opportunities for women. Progressive experts were telling girls they were just as smart as boys, they could exercise and play sports like boys, and they could earn their own money outside the home. On the other hand, conservative voices claimed exercise and too much education created physical and mental problems for girls and ruined their chances of becoming wives and mothers.
Photo: iStock by Getty Images / Morse Code Communications Woman
New Opportunities for Women
New opportunities enabled women to participate in the economy and politics in the early twentieth century. Over two million new jobs for women as clerks, typists, telephone operators, factories, and more opened between 1900 and 1910. More university programs opened to women. The Nineteenth Amendment allowed women to vote.
A world of new social possibilities appeared for girls in the first two decades of the twentieth century. New movie theatres featured silent movies—drama, action, crime, adventure, romances, and westerns. The heroines were often spunky young women who were smart, cute, and brave and sported the latest styles in clothing. Young women read about their favorite movie actresses, such as Mary Pickford, in dozens of fan magazines and newspaper columns. Public dance halls welcomed men and women of all ages and social classes for a small fee. Women and men mixed and mingled, danced the newest dances (like the turkey trot), and observed the newest fashions.
By the 1920s, the business world had fully recognized the opportunity to profit from the changing opportunities for women and the flapper phenomenon. Flappers of all degrees appeared in fiction, movies, magazines, cartoons, and advertising, “selling” the flapper image. Women of all ages who wished to be fashionable were encouraged to purchase the products needed to become the ideal flapper. New long corsets, diets, and treatments promised to transform out-of-style curvy women into slim, flat-chested, and hipless girls. Cosmetic manufacturers advertised makeup and other products needed for a youthful look. Factories produced affordable flapper dresses, stockings, hats, and accessories at every price range, and sewing pattern companies offered patterns to create their own flapper outfits at home.
Photo: John Held, Jr. / Liberty Magazine 1931
Was Every 1920s Woman a Flapper?
Only the most daring of girls became the iconic 1920s flapper portrayed by artists such as John Held Jr. and writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald. The wildest excesses of flappers existed mostly in fictional depictions and in the minds of those opposed to new freedoms for women. However, these young party girls have become the most memorable symbols of the decade. Many real women who rejected flapper excesses of partying, drinking, smoking, necking, and petting were flappers in another sense of the word. These real-life women were embracing new economic and political opportunities. The traditional expectations for women—marriage and motherhood—did not disappear. In real life, many women juggled both traditional expectations with new fashions and opportunities.
Explore More with Classroom Activities
Challenge your students to test their knowledge of flappers with this short preview quiz: “What Do You Know about Flappers?”
Students analyze primary sources to compare and contrast relationship advice for courtship and dating from the late 1800s to the 1920s in this activity.
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Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper by Linda Simon
Cynthia W. Resor is a social studies education professor and former middle and high school social studies teacher. Her dream job? Time-travel tour guide. But until she discovers the secret of time travel, she writes about the past in her blog, Primary Source Bazaar. Her three books on teaching social history themes feature essential questions and primary sources: Discovering Quacks, Utopias, and Cemeteries: Modern Lessons from Historical Themes; Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies and Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies.