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the vintage trend: getting into a flap!

“Now I am old-fashioned. A woman, I consider, should be womanly. I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a billingsgate fish woman blush!”
? Agatha Christie, Murder on the Links

“They were smart and sophisticated, with an air of independence about them, and so casual about their looks and clothes and manners as to be almost slapdash. I don’t know if I realized as soon as I began seeing them that they represented the wave of the future, but I do know I was drawn to them. I shared their restlessness, understood their determination to free themselves of the Victorian shackles of the pre-World War I era and find out for themselves what life was all about.”
? Colleen Moore

“(…)”Flapper”— the notorious character type, who bobbed her hair, smoked cigarettes, drank gin, sported short skirts, and passed her evenings in steamy jazz clubs, where she danced in a shockingly immodest fashion with a revolving cast of male suitors.”
? Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern

I have always felt I was born in the wrong era, and perhaps even lived a past life as a Flapper. The term ‘Flapper’ is said to have originated in the UK and described those who did unusual dances, such as flapping one’s arms, which became popular in the 20s thanks to the new styles of Jazz dance, and particularly, The Charleston. The Charleston was invented by African Americans on Charleston Island in the mid-19th century and was embraced by all during the Jazz age, breaking down some of the boundaries of age, sex and colour. The “new women” of the 1920s appeal to me purely because they refused to accept the restraints of previous ages and embraces hedonism, independence and a new sexuality. Flappers were inherently controversial and widely criticised by the traditional set. They dared to hold jobs, drink openly, dress fashionably, be promiscuous, dance till dawn in Jazz clubs, hold ‘petting parties’ and above all, were radical free thinkers.

Previous to that, most women in society were bound by corsets, rules and expectations and certainly were not encouraged to display any freedom of thought or independence.  Women’s hair and skirts would have been worn long. Then along came the end of the First World War, and out went the long skirts and tresses! The short floaty skirt and cute bobbed hair symbolised a blatant rebellion against the pre-war values and the idea that women were merely there to keep the home and look pretty.

The shorter skirt, hair and makeup became a potent symbol of the changing role of women in the world. Women could vote, and they had proven their immense value to the workforce during the War. They could choose their own role or occupation, make a living and be independent. They no longer had to marry for financial support. The Flapper was born, and boy did she fly!

Androgynous slimness was essential to the flapper’s look, and women began to watch their weight and diet as never before in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways. (So what has changed there?) Smoking became popular as a weight control aid, and drinking was fashionable despite (or conceivably because of) prohibition, a time in the US when alcohol was banned. Some flappers even swore and danced freely with whom they liked! The days of the refined, restrained, repressed lady were over.

Many critics at the time claimed that flappers were merely prostitutes or were just emulating men, seizing male power and freedom by looking like men. They may have indeed been like men in that they made their own choices and expressed their sexuality more freely than ever before, but they were not prostitutes. Of course, the flapper would have laughed at the ideal, chaste, Victorian maiden who considered a kiss as synonymous with a marriage proposal. But the flapper didn’t want to be a man, nor did she dress to please men. She wanted to be a woman, a New Woman, and a woman of her own creation – bound by nothing.

These radical attitudes were assured to provoke condemnation. Journalists went to great lengths to describe the flapper’s lack of modesty, propriety and other feminine virtues. As it so often does, this only served to glamourise the flapper and popularise her style. By the middle of the Twenties, the short skirt was in style for women of all ages.

This was not just a fashion statement, but a sign of deep changes in the feminine ideal across the world. The makeup, drinking, short skirts and bobbed hair were a symbol of emancipation from their previously decorative and reputable role. Premarital sex, swearing, birth control, drinking and contempt for older morals became commonplace. The New Woman flirted with the concept of gender and sexual identity and represented sexual and economic freedom. Modesty, chastity, morality, and traditional concepts of male and female were seemingly becoming invisible. Authority was being challenged. The flapper was in turn blamed for the demoralisation of society.

Flappers were associated with a number of slang words, including “junk”, “necker”, “heavy necker” and “necking parties”. Flappers also used the word “jazz”, though not explicitly in the sense of the genre of music, but more commonly of anything fun or exciting. Their language sometimes reflected their feelings about dating, marriage and drinking habits: “I have to see a man about a dog” at this time often meant going to buy whiskey, and a “handcuff” was an engagement or wedding ring.

Until the great stock market crash of 1929 brought on the Depression, the flapper ruled supreme.

Despite its popularity, the flapper lifestyle and look could not survive the Wall Street Crash and the following Great Depression. The high-spirited attitude and hedonism simply could not find a place amidst the economic sufferings of the 1930s.

Even though hemlines and hairstyles lengthened slightly in the thirties, and the curves re-emerged, they were no longer bound by a corset. Short skirts and cropped hair would return to fashion again, over and over throughout the rest of the Century and particularly in the 60s, making it perfectly clear that women had brains as well as legs, and that they were perfectly willing and able to stand on their own two feet.

Famous Flappers

  • Louise Brooks
  • Zelda Fitzgerald
  • Clara Bow
  • Anita Page
  • Joan Crawford

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