It would be a fine thing for this generation if the word “flapper” could be abolished. Its prewar definition was “a sprightly and knowing miss in her early teens.” Its after-war significance entangled itself with the ” dreadful” side of youth — with jazz, short skirts, bobbed hair and glistening legs; with the “immodest” passing of corsets; with cigarette smoking; with petting parties and gasoline-buggy riding; with psychoanalysis, Greenwich Village follies and Ziegfeld chorus girls; with one-piece bathing suits; with so-called modernism in art; with the intellectual manners of Mrs. Asquith; with the exposing and slandering of old fogies; with birth control and eugenics; with Bolshevism, both the parlor variety and the Russian experiment; or with anything else that the newspapers happened to be full of and the elder generation of the ultraconservative sort didn’t approve.
In the beginning, the word “flapper” really meant something. It signified something of youth that had charm and attraction. Now it has come to mean so much that it is practically meaningless. You have to qualify it with adjectives and adverbs or let your passions go and rise into superlatives. It has been worked threadbare and anaemic just as “aesthetic” was a generation ago. It is being used unfairly by all the elders who want to keep youth out of the game of running things, so that they may maintain an everlasting, doddering grip on modern progress.
It was refreshing to read what Sir James Barrie had to say to the youngsters in his rectorial address at St Andrews University last May and to find that not once did he drag “flapper” into his discourse. Barrie was at his best in this address. He let youth into some delightful secrets as to their betters — the old dodoes who have been mismanaging about everything for the past decade or so.
An international league of youth
“Beware your betters bringing presents,” he said. “What is wanted is something run by yourselves. You have more in common with the youth of other lands than youth and age can ever have with each other; even the hostile countries sent out many a son very like ours, from the same sort of homes, the same sort of universities, who had as little to do as our youth had with the origin of the great adventure.
“Can we doubt that many of these on both sides who have gone over and were once opponents are now friends? You ought to have a league of youth of all countries as your beginning, ready to say to all governments, ‘We will fight each other, but only when we are sure of the necessity.’ Are you equal to the job, you young men? If not I call upon the red-gowned women to lead the way.
“I sound to myself as if I were advocating a rebellion, though I am really asking for a larger friendship. Perhaps I may be arrested on leaving the hall. In such a case I should think that I had at last proved myself worthy to be your rector.”
A well-known woman writer came back from Europe the other day and said that we were exalting and worshiping our flappers and giving them too much attention. She referred to the flapper’s concave mind and concave chest just by way of adding a little more venom and meaninglessness to this hybrid noun. In Europe she had found the flapper’s betters getting the attention and adulation they deserved.
This lady and Barrie evidently do not hit it off. The creator of Peter Pan says: “Doubt all your betters who would deny you that right of partnership. Begin by doubting all such in high places—except, of course, your professors… If it necessitates your pushing some of us out of our high places, still push; you will find it needs some shoving. But the things courage can do!”
Middle age is cheating
it looks to us as if Barrie had all the best of the argument. American youth may have had an undue share of attention recently, but very little of it has been flattering or worshipful. We have tagged them with the epithet “flapper” and shoved them aside. We cheat them by calling ourselves young when we have passed into middle age, by wearing youthful clothes in our fifties, by fox-trotting in our sixties and seventies. How much of youth — honest-to-gracious youth under thirty — is represented in our great organizations of women? Or in the national committees of our two old and established political parties? We did have a young political party under Roosevelt at one time, but its betters eventually gobbled it up and sent the juveniles out to pasture again.
Those of the youngest set in New York society have astonished their elders in the past few years by the really serious purpose with which they have imbued their Junior League. The Junior League reached its full service during the war, when a lot of youngsters who came into the world with everything arranged for them to emulate the lily threw themselves into the most energetic activities imaginable and maintained them over a period of several years. They found a zest for work and thought which in a great many instances completely reshaped their characters. They were extraordinarily fortunate in finding, within their own social sphere, leaders who have sustained them in their purposes — Mrs Willard Straight, Mrs Harry Payne Whitney, Mrs Vincent Astor and others.
Some of these leaders may have seemed to be extremists on the liberal side of modern thought, but they have, nevertheless, accomplished much in making it more fashionable to think than to frivol. They have really elevated to a level that was never contemplated a generation ago the standards for the youngest set in what was probably the richest and gayest social group in the world.
The New York Junior League is finding and with surprising facility is forming good taste in art, in literature, in music, in dramatics and in common behavior. In many cases they have been shocking and bewildering their elders, as Barrie put it, by their superior grasp of modern social and economic problems, which in the old days were held jealously within the exclusive province of the mellowed and mature.
This New York Junior League has built up an object lesson that might well be followed in practically every great and small community in the United States. If it can be brought home to sufficient youngsters that the creation of a Junior League, with a certain objective, is quite the fashionable motive of the times, a superlatively fine little revolution will be under way.
But it is not likely that our youngest sets, wherever located, will be led into this new endeavor by those solemn elders who now have their well-established clubs and leagues and associations, which they have been erecting stone by stone over a period of years.
The dreadful young persons must find their leaders among the dreadfully young, and they must be allowed sufficient latitude for the extravagances and enthusiasms that manifest themselves only in youth. So long as they maintain one serious side and commit themselves wholeheartedly to the project of cultivating a sense of good taste and an appreciation of some of the elegances of living and being, there is no reason why they should not play as hard as they want to the rest of the time.
Serious but not too solemn
Such a Junior League might devote itself to just one serious phase at a time. As a sample we might select the art of polite conversation — polite conversation brought up to date, of course. It might not be well to approach any subject too solemnly, and a really functioning Junior League would not be likely to do so. Where there is plenty of youth there is bound to be a leavening sense of humor that will maintain a situation of relative values and proportions that is rarely found in the too solemn groups of the elders.
The Ladies’ Home Journal would like to do everything in its power to foster the idea of establishing these Junior Leagues throughout America. Possibly there are many that we have never heard from. If so we should like to find them out and know about their organization and activities.
If peace is to be brought and maintained in the world in the way Barrie suggested, flapperism, so called, and all its attendant horrors will swiftly go into the discard.
Top image: “Where there’s smoke there’s fire” by Russell Patterson – LOC description: Full-length illustration of a fashionably dressed flapper standing with one hand on her hip and a cigarette in the other hand. A stream of smoke from the cigarette forms a curving, twisting, decorative line. Image 2: “The Flapper” by Frank X Leyendecker on the cover of Life Magazine, February 2, 1922