What is a Flapper? - Definition, Attire & Slang

Instructor: Ashley Kannan

Ashley has taught history, literature, and political science and has a Master's Degree in Education

The flapper is one of the most essential parts of the 1920s. She represented a 'new' type of woman. Whether in attitude, attire, or slang, the 1920s flapper demonstrated how women could actively transform what is into what can be, something that is a part of the modern construction of women's identity.

What's the Deal with the Flapper?

The flapper was a symbol of the 1920s. Defined as an essential part of 'The Roaring Twenties', the flapper was how young women sought to define themselves. She was a woman who enjoyed to be seen in public, liked to be considered part of the 'in' social setting, and openly embraced flouting more traditional definitions of femininity.

The Historical Background of the Flapper

The history that preceded helps to explain how the flapper came into being. Prior to the 1920s, American women were seen in a very traditional light. They were meant to remain in the background. Their dresses and fashion were intended to cover all parts of the body.

Before The Roaring Twenties and the age of the flapper, women dressed conservatively
1911 fashion

Women were told to follow the traditional and subservient roles. To a great extent, the role of women became defined by the onset of World War I in Europe. In this wartime setting, the role of women was to serve men and to uphold social expectations.

With the ending of the war, Europe was in ruins. America became seen as the center of the world's stage, as the only nation to not experience massive physical, economic, and institutional destruction. In contrast to Europe, America, and in particular, American women, were experiencing widened contours of freedom. The war caused many American women to take factory jobs as a result of men enlisting in the war effort. The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution had been passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote. More women were attending institutions of higher education, and as mass production of automobiles had generated another aspect of freedom, more women began to drive. The end of World War I had brought with it a widened sense of possibility and redefinition of identity. As a result of this changing social dynamic, the emergence of the flapper began to take place. The flapper was the embodiment of the 1920s woman who understood that her time was at hand.

The Operational Definition of the Flapper

The flapper wanted to 'flap' her social wings. The flapper was social, and one who enjoyed the partying lifestyle intrinsic to the 1920s. She enjoyed being out and about at parties or at the 'speak easy'. The Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s gave rise to these underground 'gin joints', where it was fashionable to be seen. It was in this setting where 'being bad was good' and 'being good was bad'. As a result, the flapper loved to engage in such attitudes that would be seen as 'scandalous' and 'shocking'. The flapper embraced freedom in how she carried herself. One of the best examples of the flapper was Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda Fitzgerald argued that one of the defining elements of the flapper was that she was not boring because the flapper was able to do what she had always wanted to do. This liberated sense of woman was essential to defining the flapper.

Flappers were social butterflies, making appearances at parties with scandalous outfits

The 'Armor' or Attire of the Flapper

The attire of the flapper played a vital role in defining her. In contrast to the previous decade where clothes covered the entire body and were meant to constrict, the flapper's fashion was transformative. The flapper wore short dresses, not intended to 'blend in', but rather 'stand out'. The flapper used accessories as part of her attire. Stockings, head bands, the feather boa, as well as jewelry were all part of the flapper attire. Part of the flapper attire revolved around hair style, which often resulted in a 'bob' type of cut, which was a radically shortened and flattened notion of hair design. 'New' accessories like makeup became part of the attire.

Flappers often wore attention-grabbing dresses and smoked cigarettes
Flapper fashion

In his iconic writing about the 1920s, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald described Daisy Buchanan in terms that would apply to the flapper of the time period, one who walked about rippling and fluttering. The attire of the flapper sought to capture this feeling of freedom.

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