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How Flappers Redefined Womanhood (Hint: It Involved Jazz, Liquor and Sex)

September 17, 2018 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Young women with short “bob” hairstyles, cigarettes dangling from their painted lips, dancing to a live jazz band, explored new-found freedoms.


Flappers dancing while musicians perform during a Charleston dance contest at the Parody Club, New York City, 1926. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

No cultural symbol of the 1920s is more recognizable than the flapper. A young woman with a short “bob” hairstyle, cigarette dangling from her painted lips, dancing to a live jazz band. Flappers romped through the Roaring Twenties, enjoying the new freedoms ushered in by the end of the First World War and the dawn of a new era of prosperity, urbanism and consumerism.

The decade kicked off with passage of the 19th Amendment, which finally gave women the vote. Women also joined the workforce in increasing numbers, participated actively in the nation’s new mass consumer culture, and enjoyed more freedom in their personal lives. Despite the heady freedoms embodied by the flapper, real liberation and equality for women remained elusive in the 1920s, and it would be left to later generations of women to fully benefit from the social changes the decade set in motion.

The exact origins of the word ‘flapper’ remain unknown.
While the exact origin of the term “flapper” is unknown, it is assumed to have originated in Britain before World War I, when it was used to describe gawky young teenage girls. After the war, the word would become synonymous with the new breed of 1920s women who bobbed their hair above their ears, wore skirts that skimmed their knees, smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol while dancing in jazz clubs, always surrounded by admiring male suitors.


Two flapper women and their dates having a smoke. (Credit: Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images)

Flappers were defined by how they dressed, danced and talked.
As Joshua M. Zeitz writes in Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity and the Women Who Made America Modern, flapper fashion wouldn’t have been complete without the creeping hemline, which by 1925 or 1936 reached a shocking height of 14 inches above the ground. Sheer stockings, sometimes even rolled below the knees, completed the scandalous look.

Flappers wore their skirts shorter so they could show off their legs and ankles—but also so they could dance. They particularly loved the Charleston, a 1920s dance craze involving waving arms and fast-moving feet that had been pioneered by African Americans, first in …read more

Source: HISTORY

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