Scandalous flappers of the Roaring 20s…

If you look at enough pictures online of the wild girls of the 1920s, the flappers, you start to imagine yourself at one of their parties. At least, I do…

World War One had been pretty bad on everyone. It was time to let loose...

World War One had been pretty bad on everyone. It was time to let loose...

The term “flapper” is erroneously said to have originated from the flapping sound these girls’ unbuckled galoshes made when they were walking around, an image depicted by a popular artist of the time, John Held Jr. Yes, you read that right–unbuckled galoshes, worn so inelegantly in rebellion against the decorum of the earlier generations of their mothers, the more straight-laced (yet curvaceous) women personified by the Gibson Girls of the early 20th century.

...but Gibson Girls knew how to play their men!

...but Gibson Girls knew how to play their men!

The femme fatale assumes the guise appropriate to her era.

The femme fatale assumes the guise appropriate to her era.

In fact, the term flapper was in use as early as 1912 or 1913 in Britain, referring to baby birds flapping their wings and attempting to fly out of the nest long before they were capable of actual flight. It was a metaphor for feisty young girls.

In reality, human flappers of the 1920s were quite capable of flight of the alcohol-swilling, drug-taking, and erotic varieties. F. Scott Fitzgerald said the perfect age for a flapper was about nineteen, and he was one guy definitely qualified to say so, since he immortalized the scene in his fiction.

Flappers smoked openly. Cigarettes were called "gaspers," for obvious reasons.

Flappers smoked openly. Cigarettes were called "gaspers," for obvious reasons.

The death and devastation of World War One had left the younger folks with a bitter aftertaste that made both guys and gals want to live as if there were no tomorrow. Females threw off the restrictions of corsets and long clothes. By 1926-27 hemlines were inching above the knee. Some women actually rouged those knees. Makeup, once the tool of actresses and floozies, now became the province of all women except the elderly. They wore Cupid’s bow lipstick (preferably kissproof) and dark-rimmed eyes. Long hair was cut, or “bobbed” or “shingled.” It had to be short for the girls to wear the round, tight “cloche” hats that were popular. Breasts were squished into flatness with bands of cloth to give a boyish figure. Waistlines dropped below the hips. Girls looked boyish but were decidedly not masculine; they flirted and “necked ” (all action above the neck), or flirted and “petted” (below the neck, but not necessarily under the skirt). Alcohol was outlawed in those days of Prohibition, so these daring flappers drank from hip flasks that they kept in their gartered stockings. Or they went to speakeasies, those illicit hidden saloons, and danced the Charleston, the Shimmy, or the Black Bottom. They wore filmy underwear like camisoles, and panties known as “step-ins” instead of the rigid corsets of a generation earlier. If they absolutely had to slim down synthetically, they wore girdles of a fabric called Lastex. They wore stockings rolled up to the middle of their thighs. The liberation of women meant new markets for commercial exploitation, and new markets (as for hosiery) propagated more liberation.

There was a new freedom to women's bodies under their skimpy dresses.

There was a new freedom to women's bodies under their skimpy dresses.

Flappers smoked cigarettes in public (their mothers hadn’t), often with cigarette holders, and they didn’t go for the perfumed brands made especially for them but preferred the same tough stuff that men liked to enjoy. So tobacco manufacturers also had a good reason to promote the cause of the flapper.

This is a clever item that I wish would come back in vogue. "Do you have the time, sweetheart?"

This is a clever item that I wish would come back in vogue. "Do you have the time, sweetheart?"

In their defiant attitudes, the flappers seem to the modern sensibility (or at least, to mine) a little like today’s punk or goth girls, but without the tattoos or piercings and certainly without quite the same amount of sexual license. It’s hard to ascertain just how much actual sex (in the penetrative sense) took place back in the 20s between flappers and their “flaming youths” as their men were called. But there was lots of necking and petting, and that counts too.

No doubt about it, though, flappers must have been damn shocking. At least the free-love hippie chicks of the 60s had paved the way for goth girls of the 90s and 2000s, but the flappers must have seemed to spring almost out of nowhere, and some of the more staid minds of the Roaring 20s were truly boggled by their antics, judging by the documents of the time.

Now, this is one of the very first Varga (or Vargas) girls, a painting of silent movie star Olive Thomas.

A somewhat idealized version of the real Olive Thomas...

A somewhat idealized version of the real Olive...

The painting hung in the office of her lover, impresario Flo Ziegfeld, who gave the world a vision of American beauty in the “Ziegfeld Girls” who populated his Broadway revues The Ziegfeld Follies. The last movie Olive Thomas made was called The Flapper, in 1920, the title of which introduced the term to the broader American public. She died a horrible and slow death that year after ingesting her husband’s syphilis medicine…whether by accident or by suicide has never been definitively known. It was an early Hollywood scandal. (Read more about it at the excellent site Bright Lights Film Journal.) She was a wild, outspoken, hard-living flapper when the lifestyle was just beginning. She apparently could swear like nobody’s business, too.

Those eyes reveal the defiance within the curly-topped sweetheart.

Those eyes reveal the defiance within the curly-topped sweetheart.Olive looks ready to raise a little hell! A skill she apparently had in real life.

She only lived to be twenty-six.

She only lived to be twenty-six.

These flappers liked to have “cigarette parties’ and “petting parties.” The latter don’t sound too much different from the “make-out” parties we had during my adolescence in the 1960s.

Well, maybe I can find a couple of hot flappers to have fun with me, as I spend a little time back here in the 20s. Somebody feisty and up for fun—perhaps the movie superstar of the time, Clara Bow?

A shot from her lost 1927 film, Round House Rosie!

A shot from her lost 1927 film, Round House Rosie!

I love the boxing gloves and high heels and rolled stockings on her. And two crossed ribbons on her insteps. Yeah, I have a feeling Clara is my kind of flapper…she’s even bringing a blond friend along for extra fun. (Rumor has it Clara once dated Bela “Dracula” Lugosi!)

"You gotta meet this time traveler guy...a little weird, but fun!"

I have an inkling that the petting party is about to begin!


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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Herr Traveler:

    It has taken me several days of contemplation, but I finally remembered a question that seized me during my initial perusal of this jewel of erotic couture arcana: While I know full well that many young ladies of the 20s wore bands across their breasts to flatten them for the slim-cut sheaths favored by the flappers, isn’t it also true that those women who were more modestly endowed simply went braless? I have long believed this to be true. What do you think?

    Count von Pauli

  2. My dear Count: nowhere in my researches did I find reports of bralessness, although it may well have occurred. The general fact is that bras were not yet distinguished by the finer points of cup size (developed in the 1930s), and many were (according to Pauline Weston Thomas at the excellent site more like camisoles with no support, or bandeau-style bras with a net lining. So busty girls flattened themselves (sometimes with a side-lacing device called the Symington Side Lacer), while flatter girls merely wore something to minimize whatever “wobble” was visible.

  3. Herr Traveler,

    After a brief scan of your recommended site,, I realize that I will now have to do some painful prioritizing of my online reading. This is a veritable treasure trove of historical fashion information! Most valuable of all, it provides a mother lode of inspiration for future mental images. It may even supplant my well-used packet of vintage pictures of Coco Chanel, Mae Murray and Zasu Pitts in assorted erotic poses–complete with appropriate footwear.

    Count von P.

  4. Glad to be of assistance, Count.

  5. you’re creepy

  6. That’s a lovely image. Unless you object, I’m going to lift if for some captioning…

  7. Iam an 8th grader. ur website was very helpful for my history project.

  8. My Great Grandmother was born in 1900 and told me they didn’t wear bras at the dances and that they where called flappers because of the sounds there breasts made as they danced.. She was very disgruntled with her peers though as she never drank.

  9. Sorry for my slow reply, Numinous, I don’t get to this blog as much as I used to! More’s the pity, because I enjoyed writing it quite a lot.

    Anyway, thanks for the first-hand info from your great-grandmother! Makes my “horny time-traveling” feel even more vivid! 😉


  11. Thanks, glad you enjoyed the piece!

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