The term flapper is most associated with a set of attitudes, behavior, and fashion ascribed to some women of the 1920s. Though most think that the original flapper is an American creation, the UK actually coined the term before that decade. This person was a young woman trying to leave the nest, flapping her wings in awkward fashion as she tried to reach maturity.
For many, the flapper was associated with the many illegal clubs that sold alcohol during prohibition, but she was much more than simply a woman who drank and frequently smoked. In many ways, she symbolized the young woman of the early '20s, rejecting conventional feminine behavior.
This was most obvious in clothing and hairstyles. This young woman shed the restrictive garments of corsets and instead favored a boyish figure in dress styles and undergarment styles. She might wear teddies or bras that actually pushed the breasts inward to minimize her figure.
The hemlines of dresses fell just below the knee, and waistlines were often completely absent. Such clothing and the lack of ironclad undergarments were often considered shocking. Later, however, dresses with higher hemlines and a-line construction became quite normal wear. As well, few went back to corseting, and as a result, women enjoyed more physical freedom and easier breathing.
Hairstyles were also quite “unconventional” at first. The bob, a short, almost mannish cut that was usually chin length, was a trade-up on long, long hair that had to be pinned and placed by maids or by extensive personal effort. Make-up was used to excess, some thought, with dark lips and heavy eyeliners and powder.
Flappers were open to more physical intimacy than women preceding them by a decade. In fact, petting and kissing was considered relatively normal behavior. Many at the time called this very loose and questionable morality, but this was often as far as early sexual behavior went, and many women still waited until marriage to have intercourse. As in any generation, pattern of sexual behavior was varied.
F. Scott Fitzgerald greatly popularized the movement in many of his short stories. In particular, “Bernice Bobs her Hair,” discusses the decision as to whether a woman will succumb to the style and give up her pretty tresses. Furthermore, certain actresses like Clara Bow were examples of flapper actresses.
The movement and the gay times that went with it were considered over by 1929 with the onset of the Great Depression. In fact, displays of conspicuous consumption, like those by the pleasure-seeking flappers were greatly discouraged. Though these young women were often thought of as hedonistic and silly, their legacy was the pervading thought that women did not have to behave conventionally. Actually, unconventional behavior might be celebrated rather than despised.