Born out of The Gibson Girl or New Woman, the Flapper became that iconically cool young western woman of the Roaring 1920s who wore shorter skirts, cut her hair into a bob, listened to jazz and partied all night long.
The term was in use in the 1900s and 1910s to refer to young girls in general or seemingly immature women who had recently come out to society or even to refer to young prostitutes. After WWI, there was a surplus of women who now found themselves out of work again. The war and the Spanish Flu pandemic inspired an attitude that 'life is short'. Women wanted to be out enjoying it rather than stuck at home or waiting to be married. The achievement of suffrage began a new era of women's desire to be social equals with men. The rise of automobiles and an economic boom meant that women could travel more freely. Flappers frequented speakeasies which became prolific during prohibition.
Olive Thomas in The Flapper
In May 1920, a silent film called The Flapper was released starring Olive Thomas which was the first film to portray the new Flapper lifestyle of the time. Other actresses such as Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, Louise brooks and Colleen Moore would build their careers on the same image.
American writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anita Loos popularized the flapper lifestyle through their work. She came to be seen as attractive and independent. The backlash to these women living freely was that they were brash, vulgar, unintelligent and unmarriageable.
Ruth Taylor as Lorelai Lee in the 1928 film adaptation of Anita Loos' novel 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'.
Banks brought in dress codes for young female employees to follow which included how short hemlines and sleeves could be.
For all the concern about women stepping out of their traditional roles, however, many flappers were not engaged in politics. In fact, older suffragettes, who fought for the right for women to vote, viewed flappers as vapid and in some ways unworthy of the enfranchisement they had worked so hard to win. Despite this, they are now seen as the first generation of independent American women.
With a new style of dress that allowed women to move freely for the first time, the dawn of a new emancipated age was manifested through dress.
Largely influenced by the pioneering work of Coco Chanel, flappers were seen as appearing young and boyish (they were referred to as 'Garconne' in France.) Without the use of corsetry, breasts lay flat and the waist was straight without nipping it in or accentuating the hips.
Flapper dresses were straight and shapeless, had dropped waists, hemlines just below the knee, often leaving the arms bare. Robe de Styles with their fuller skirts also became popular due to designers like Jeanne Lanvin and the Boué Soeurs. T-strap high heels and Mary Janes in black, gold, silver or nude became popular footwear.
Lanvin Robe de Style 1926, Vogue
Lingerie included step-in panties, the Symington side-lacer bra intended to flatten the chest and soft shapewear.
Art Deco jewelry and layers of beaded necklaces completed the look.
As the 20s progressed, the flapper look became fashionable in the mainstream and even older respectable women took on a version of the look.
The Wall Street crash and the onset of the Great Depression brought an end to this opulent era of fun.
The It Girl
British novelist Elinor Glyn, sister of Lady Duff Gordon/ Lucile, wrote a book entitled 'It' which was adapted into a feature film by Paramount in 1927 starring Clara bow. Glyn is seen as being responsible for the invention of the 'It girl' concept in the 1920s. The It girl can denote a young woman who has wealth, fame, beauty and a glamorous lifestyle. Many socialite heiresses have been referred to as It Girls. In modern uses, it can be applied to popular reality TV stars or influencers. Evelyn Nesbit, Edie Sedgwick, C.Z Guest, Kate Moss and Chloe Sevigny have all been It Girls.
The film turned Clara Bow into a huge movie star and resulted in her becoming a screen legend of the 1920s.
Her fashion, makeup, and hairstyles helped define the flapper look, but her attitude both onscreen and off also became synonymous with the term.
The cartoon character Betty Boop is modelled after her, as was the lead character in 2011's The Artist and Margot Robbie's character in 2022's Babylon.
It (the film) is in the public domain as of January 2023. The costumes were designed by Travis Banton, who apparently was not a fan of Clara or her ‘boyish’ looks, preferring to dress tall, lean, elegant ladies. Despite this, his costumes still killed it, particularly the little black dress that appeared at a time when Chanel’s LBD was trying to take off- ‘It’ gave the style a big push and helped get it into mainstream fashion, making the picture a truly important fashion film.
Notable Socialites of The Jazz Age
The quintessential flapper girl and queen of glitz, Zelda was also a novelist, playwright and painter. She married F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920 after the success of his novel This Side of Paradise and the couple were catapulted to fame. They were known for their wild antics and were dubbed the 'Infants Terrible' of the era.
She is remembered as one of the greatest fashion icons of the 20th century and helped to establish the image of the Flapper, which has endured into modern times. Her life was dramatized in the 2017 TV series 'Z: The Beginning of Everything', where she was played by Christina Ricci. The costumes were designed by Tom Broecker who used 80% vintage clothing on the show.
The Happy Valley Set/ Kenya Clique
The Happy Valley set were a group of hedonistic British and Anglo-Irish Aristocrats who settled in the "Happy Valley" region of the Wanjohi Valley in Colonial Kenya and Uganda between the 1920s and 1940s. The group were alleged to have engaged in sexual promiscuity, drugs and a generally decadent lifestyle. Two members worth mentioning were Kiki Preston & Alice de Janzé.
Alice "Kiki" Gwynne-Preston was a grand-niece of Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, the Gilded Age Matriarch. She was said to have had an affair with Prince George, which resulted in a secret child. Her drug addiction earned her the nickname "the girl with the silver syringe". Preston was a fixture of high social circles in Paris and New York City. She was plagued by mental health issues her whole life and committed suicide at age 48. She appears as a character in the play African Nights.
Alice de Janzé
Alice Silverthorne de Janzé was born in New York, one of the most prominent socialites of her day. She moved to Paris in 1921 to briefly work for Jean Patou's atelier as the director of the model department before marrying into French aristocracy. In 1925, she and her husband were invited to Kenya by the 22nd Earl of Erroll. Even among the scandalous residents of Happy Valley, Alice was soon known as "the wicked Madonna" for her beauty, sarcastic sense of humour, and unpredictable mood swings. She was connected with several scandals, including the attempted murder of her lover in 1927 (who she later married and divorced), and the 1941 murder of the aforementioned Lord Erroll. She died by suicide in 1941. She is portrayed by Sarah Miles in the 1988 film White Mischief. It is speculated that she served as inspiration for the character of Maria Wallis in Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night.
Fashion designer Edward Finney's Spring/Summer Collection 2012 was inspired by Alice's flapper wardrobe and lifestyle.
Alice's elder daughter Nolwén, later Lady Clark, became a fashion designer after WWII and became president of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers in the 1950s.