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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!)
I have an inkling that the petting party is about to begin!