2022 marks the centenary of a very specific social phenomenon–1920s flapper culture. That’s right, I’m saying “centenary,” because I propose that 1922 should be formally recognized as the “Birth Year of the Flapper.” I’ve spent, err, too much time exploring this fascinating era of the early 20th century (especially when I did Flapper Month here on Silent-ology a few years ago), and after awhile I started noticing a trend. While flapper culture had been brewing and evolving for quite some time, 1922 is truly the year when the quintessential bobbed-hair flapper burst into the public consciousness. Did she ever!
Two examples of what I mean: here’s the results you get when you search for “flapper flappers” (both words at the same time) in the years 1910-1929 on the Media History Digital Library:
And if you do the same search on Chronicling America, if you narrow the search results down to a single year at a time, you will see:
1919: 12 results
1922: 533 (!)
I dunno, that’s looking pretty clear cut to me!
(If you’re curious, on Chronicling America 1923 = 67 results, and 1924 = 64. After 1922, flappers seemed to be an accepted part of life–or maybe the public was tired of talking about them so much.)
So why that specific year? As I’ve discussed in my “The History (And Mythology) Of 1920s Flapper Culture” article, a number of factors lead to the flapper’s rise. Recent memories of World War I and the Spanish flu seemed to cement people’s desire to enjoy life while they could. Automobiles were making it easier to socialize and have new adventures than ever before, and the flurry of inventions and improvements in communication fueled a steady interest in all things “modern.” More and more young women were working and making their own money. And, of course, the movies were playing a gargantuan role in spreading flapper fashions, slang, and other youthful trends.
Pert young actresses like Marie Prevost and Gladys Walton were being billed as “flappers,” and more and more actresses in general were switching to bobbed hair. All this seemed to come to a head around 1922, and newspapers and magazines quickly indulged the public’s interest by running frequent fluff pieces, poems, and other tidbits on those impetuous flappers. (Today these articles would probably be called “clickbait.”)
So what sort of flapper-themed articles were you likely to see in 1922? As you might expect, flapper culture was controversial in many ways, and there were numerous articles asking this professor or that clergyman their thoughts on where those crazy youth were heading. Here’s a syndicated article featuring artist Howard Chandler Christy, famous for his “Christy Girl” paintings and illustrations (he also painted portraits of several presidents):
Some teachers complained of new headaches in the schoolroom, apparently:
This preacher’s views were a wee bit premature:
Ya know, I don’t think this bill was successful:
But–and I think this is important–that wasn’t the only perspective back then. It looks to me like there were also many articles defending flappers, or reacting with sarcastic amusement to the more hysterical takes. For instance, this interview with the mother of a tennis star has a pretty commonsensical take on flappers:
And are we supposed to take story this 100% seriously, or chuckle?
This seems pretty anti-old-fogy, in a sly sort of way:
Now we’re getting meta:
It’s not uncommon today to run across doggedly literal interpretations of some old newspaper stories, perhaps because writers have preconceived notions of everyone being Solemnly Victorian back then (regardless of the decade in question). Or perhaps they aren’t very familiar with the more formal-sounding language used at the time–it can take a little getting used to, it’s true. But as we can see from this handful of examples, being sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek was definitely common–the print equivalent of sharing knowing “winks” with the reader.
Let me end with this neat slice of flapper culture, which I just have to share. Allow me to introduce Chicago’s first “Flapper Society,” established 100 years ago!
A transcript, if it’s hard to read:
Here are the “planks” in the platform of the Flappers’ Protective
Society, the flapper principles that must be protected:
Smoking in public.
No shifter language.
No leaning vine tactics.
Snuggle parties if desired.
Liberalism combined with propriety.
Clothes worn in conformity with individual taste
“A fig for convention, and a fig for dress, if one cares!”
That’s the motto under which Chicago flappers have banded together into
the country’s first Flappers’ Protective Society.
Miss Margaret Pursell is president of the Chicago local, which is laying plans for national representation in the principal cities for the purpose of mutual protection of flapper principles. Immediately after forming and getting under way their flapper organization, Miss Pursell and her flapper compatriots started hot and heavy after dissenting opinion launched from the city’s numerous Sunday pulpits against them. They called on Mayor Thompson in a body and wrote letters to their congressmen demanding that antagonistic “flapper propaganda” be stopped.
“We’re neither fools nor young indiscreets,” says Miss Pursell, who, besides being flapper president, also holds title to the honor of “flippant flapper,” the highest flapper recognition. “These silly people who are denouncing us are making a big mistake. They fail to comprehend that this is a new day and age and that young girls are merely trying a means to express themselves in a decent, sane manner in keeping with the times.
“And right now I want to define a flapper. Lots of grown-ups think she is a girl with plenty of speed and some control, but that isn’t so. A flapper is just a twentieth century woman who is honorable and courageous. She prefers doing what she does do in the open, not behind people’s backs.
“We stand—all of us—for moral living, but we also think that many of the present-day conventions are obsolete and should be discarded.”
Just now Miss Pursell and her cohorts are angry.
“We’ve been lied and lied about,” they say. “So please tell the world that we’re out in earnest this time and mean to show it.”
All of the two dozen members of the society in Chicago agree with Miss Pursell. They take the organization and intent of their society seriously and are pushing vigorously to extend it to other cities
Very interesting, no?
So my friends, let’s raise a glass to 100 years of flapper culture! And I’d encourage you to look through old articles and such on your own time–there’s a lot of unusual perspectives, funny observations, jokes that haven’t aged well, thoughtful discussions, less thoughtful discussions, and other cryptic 1920s tidbits to be found.
I always wonder how many of those flappers ended up later in life? Did some cringe at it all like it was a youthful phase or did others look back on it with pride? At any rate, the flapper phenomenon is just so fascinating. There were even mentions of flappers in some materials from the early 1930s– I recall even a Mickey Mouse comic from around 1930 or 1931 that described Minnine Mouse as “a frivolous flapper.”
You know, I wonder about that too! I’ll bet there’s newspaper articles from the ’40s and ’50s with former flappers, that would’ve fit right in with all the ’20s nostalgia that was going on back then.
Kudos, Lea, on digging up all this fascinating info in your research of the Flapper Phenomenon. Got a big laugh from Howard Christy Chandler’s interview where he absolves himself from blame and places it where it belongs: “No artist is responsible for the flapper!” “But you draw flappers, don’t you?” “Oh, yes, I have to …”Implying that THEY make me. And another laugh from evangelist Rader: “Men don’t want flappers for the mothers of their children.” To which I counter, MAYBE some men, MAYBE some of the time, and MAYBE when they’re old and gray and in their dotage, but Hollywood knew men were keenly interested in flappers and so they made a dozen or more movies weekly to satiate the desire of the male who wanted to see – not just dream – of flappers up close, if not personal. And often in these movies the male married the flapper – after he reformed her so she would be a proper mother for his children.
Maybe the flapper phenomenon of the wild and wicked 20s is complicit in altering the culture and thereby making possible the deluge of sludge and slop on our theatre and TV screens today. Looking back to the “good old days” of the silent movie era, flappers seem pretty tame – undeniably tame after 5 years of that viperous vamp, Theda Bara. But I do see the dilemma of a flapper’s worried father, hoping as he was that a clean-cut, sober young man with prospects would marry his daughter and take her out of his house, out of his wallet, and off his hands. These frivolous flappers couldn’t boil an egg let alone get dinner on the table at 6 sharp, so how was a flapper going to accomplish a girl’s most important job – catch a man. And it takes more than Fire Engine Red Lipstick to snare the good ones. My favorite flapper is, and always will be, Clara Bow, the untamable redhead from Brooklyn. Watch ‘Dancing Mothers’ and you’ll see why she was Paramount studio’s top star for half a decade.
“Maybe the flapper phenomenon of the wild and wicked 20s is complicit in altering the culture and thereby making possible the deluge of sludge and slop on our theatre and TV screens today.”
Perhaps, but I think that’s all more rooted in the changes brought about by the 1960s than anything, when the production code finally died its slow, agonizing death brought on by little nudges throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, before the cultural shift of the counterculture came to a head around 1966. After all, while movies were becoming more violent and open about certain themes in the late 1920s and early 1930s, there was a backlash that inspired Hollywood to finally enforce the production code and keep movies from getting too overtly explicit.
I agree that flappers seem tame compared to all that came later– or even to the Edwardian vamp! I have to wonder if the tameness of the cinematic flapper was more a condition of the way movies were made in Hollywood. You can have a main character who smokes, flirts, and wears knee-length skirts, but she can’t be too naughty and alienate less permissive members of the audience. If I remember correctly, this is the case in Our Dancing Daughters: Crawford’s flapper is vivacious and free-spirited but chaste until marriage, while Anita Page is totally amoral while outwardly appearing to be the traditional feminine ideal.But there are some flapper movies which point out the double standard regarding feminine behavior: I love the scene in Why Be Good? where Colleen Moore (very much a chaste flapper despite her flirtiness) upbraids her boyfriend for claiming to prefer “good girls” who “darn socks” as marriage material while really wanting girls who party.
I’ve always been fascinated by that duality: the Hollywood flapper as modern, independent, and daring, but not so much that she overtly offends certain traditional ideas about appropriate sexual behavior. That could be a blog post in and of itself, though.
There was a lot of discussions in newspapers about flapper “morality” or what have you, and common response from young people seemed to be: “We’re always being portrayed as immoral and frivolous, that’s unfair, the older generation just doesn’t get it!” Flapper culture, if you boiled it down to its essence, seemed ultimately about being adventurous, confident, and free. Freedom for some involved lots of partying, of course, but there was more than one way to be a flapper. That’s what I’ve been gleaning, anyways.
I’m guessing studios had to keep the cinematic flapper more “tame” to keep from getting censored, mainly, but that duality you mentioned also jibes a lot with the discussions I just talked about. That would definitely make a good article topic!
I agree that the 1960s were probably the biggest influence on society’s moral norms today. But I do sympathize with Judy’s point of view that draws a line from flapper culture the modern times. It may be a faint, wobbly line, but it does seem to be there.
“I agree that the 1960s were probably the biggest influence on society’s moral norms today. But I do sympathize with Judy’s point of view that draws a line from flapper culture the modern times. It may be a faint, wobbly line, but it does seem to be there. ”
Oh yes, the influence is definitely there– the model of the independent modern woman goes back even farther I think– to the New Woman of the 1890s. But I think the fun-loving flapper would be a more immediate figure for us moderns.
It’s definitely all food for thought, how the culture of previous ages transforms and echoes over time.
This was a lot of fun and the examples were most interesting to read. Yes, I think you got the date of inception nailed. 😀 When I read the teacher’s complaint about the “baby look,” I immediately visualized Clara Bow; she could do that look like no other. lol
A couple of questions: What do you think they meant by “No shifter language”? And I really like that illustration at the very end. Could you say what it is, or where it came from?
So I just looked into this, and at first I thought a shifter was supposed maybe a two-faced person, someone who talked behind people’s backs, etc. But it looks like a shifter was a distinct kind of flapper, at least for a short time. They had their own clubs and apparently wore distinct hats with paper clips on the brims show whether they were ready or not to flirt or kiss or what have you–a secret language sort of thing. This article summarizes it pretty well:
It also happens to have that image you asked about! Which is a coincidence, I swear. 😀 I found it on Google Images. It’s a painting by the artist Russell Patterson called “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire.”
Thank you, that’s quite interesting! My guess was that maybe it was reference to flappers being obsequious and not speaking their minds, i.e., “shifting” what they really wanted to say into something that would placate the “old fogies”—and so the FPS would frown on this as a hindrance to their freedom. But boy, was I on the wrong track! 😀 So now I’m wondering: what might have been the objection of the FPS to this code language? And thanks for the image info, too!
Maybe they didn’t like the idea of “shifters” trying to show off being in an “exclusive” club with its own lingo? Something like that, I know that’d annoy me. 😀
I think the flapper is a good focal point in the progression of womens rights and 1922 sounds like the right date for the apex of its discussion before its gradual acceptance. And dont forget that two years earlier women were given the right to vote, so maybe the flapper should have been expected. I loved the Gladys reference in your post. I found an article from Feb 1922 were Gladys Walton was asked about what she thought of the flapper and She stated this “She is merely a product of the time. She’s merely misunderstood by the old-timers, who have been unable to readjust their minds. She is a type of adolescent development and, don’t worry, she’ll come out all right. “A few years ago we heard of ‘coy maidens,’ and we we are always being told to hark back to grandma’s time to recall the ‘shy and blushing maid.’ “they were typical of their times and the ‘flapper’ is no different. She is misunderstood, and, hence, misrepresented.” In that same article it was mentioned that Websters dictionary had a definition of the flapper in 1922 and Gladys mentioned that there were actually different fashion trend variations for flappers across the country. She mentioned that in Newport there skirts were a little longer but she preferred the shorter ones. Keep up the good work Lea.
Great quote Robert, it fits in with the above discussion too! Thanks. I can definitely see how there’d be different flapper clothing trends in different parts of the country, wonder if anyone’s done a deep dive on that kind of fashion research.
Agree with Robert that “the flapper is a good focal point in the progression of women’s rights.” It was the women’s rights movement that made the flapper possible. And Coco Chanel was in the forefront of the movement. It was she who changed the way women dressed and freed them from the physical restrictions fashion imposed on them pre-WW1. Without Chanel’s influence, without her insistence that women’s clothes should be comfortable, that they should be loose rather than binding, there would have been no flappers. It’s impossible to visualize a 1915 woman playing the daughter in ‘Dancing Mothers.’ If Chanel had not changed the way women dressed, had not given women permission and confidence to do as they pleased, there would have been no Clara Bow or Colleen Moore or Joan Crawford flapper films.
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