What is a flapper? Here’s what they said in the 1920s

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What’s the definition of a flapper?

From the St. Landry Clarion (Opelousas, La.) September 11, 1920

During the filming of Olive Thomas’ new Selznick picture “The Flapper,” the question arose as to exactly what the word “flapper” meant, or implied.

The veteran lawyer, William P. Carlton, admitted that he was stumped. Theo Westman, Jr., who plays the juvenile, said he knew, but when pinned down to a definite answer, he replied, “Oh, well, it’s just a — er I mean — why, doggone it, a ‘flapper’ is a ‘flapper.’ I know lots of ’em.”

Flapper dictionary - Word and term definitions

Inquiries around the studio all brought forth very vague answers; it seemed everybody knew in a general way what was meant, but none could give a logical explanation until Director Alan Crosland saw the star herself smiling over the efforts of the others.

“Perhaps Ollie can tell us,” said, Mr. Crosland, and “Ollie” replied.

“I can and will give you my conception of what is a ‘flapper.’

“In my opinion,” said Miss Thomas, “a flapper’ is a young girl between’ sixteen and twenty, who, lacking any real knowledge of the world and its ways, fondly imagines she is the acme of sophistication.

“Her flights of fancy, however, do not take her to any real emotional heights, and after several unsuccessful attempts she becomes reconciled to the fact that it is better for her to stay in the nest until time and experience have given her strength to fly unaided.”


Miss Thomas further added, “I arrived at my conclusion from watching the efforts of a nest of young birds. The very young ones made no effort: to fly, but those whose wings were nearly but not quite developed made several energetic though unsuccessful attempts at flight, but only succeeded in ludicrously ‘flapping’ around on the ground, hence my derivation of the term ‘flapper.'”

As the explanation bears out thoroughly the theme expressed in Frances Marion’s story, those assembled all agreed that Miss Thomas had hit upon the best explanation of all.

However, if anyone can give a better definition of the term “flapper,” Miss Thomas will reward them with her thanks and also an autographed photograph of herself in the her latest Selznick picture, “The Flapper.”

From the The Caledonian-Record (Vermont) - July 28, 1920
From the The Caledonian-Record (Vermont) – July 28, 1920

Not just a Charleston girl: The original definition of a Flapper

by Winona Wilcox – The Day Book. (Chicago, Ill.) January 10, 1917

“Flapper” will doubtless prove the most abused word in the list of 1917 names of feminine types.

We Americans do remarkable stunts with other peoples’ languages: we change the final “o” in kimono to an “a” and congratulate ourselves on improving the ancient Japanese; we pronounce the first syllable of lingerie as if it were spelled “long,” and feel that no Parisian could do better; and we have already misconstrued the English flapper before we have become acquainted with the true type.

Actress Marie Prevost in the 1920s

The “flapper” originated in English society a dozen years ago. She is just becoming known in this country, mainly as having given a smart name to certain fashions for girls.

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In her native land, the flapper is an honest, talkative, critical and very active girl, 15 or 16 years old. She has no respect whatever for her brother’s opinions, and she makes fun of his friends or quarrels with them.

And she is not the least sentimental, outwardly. Probably the flapper does dream of herself as a Sleeping Beauty, and of a Prince Charming who has already started to search the world for her; and perhaps it is because she cannot reconcile her prince with the kind of young man she knows that she is so unnecessarily sarcastic.

Vintage man and woman wrapped up in movie film - 1920s flapper fashion

Her indifference to the opposite sex makes her most irritating to all young gentlemen. She is a good sportswoman, she goes in for the game and not for the clothes, and often she can beat a male opponent. She takes honors in school, too.

She is more nearly the equal of the male than at any other age, and she is very apt to let him know it. This little trait does not add to her popularity with the boys, but it does give them a good excuse for ridiculing the flapper.

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Persons who apply the word to the rouged, coiffured, fantastically dressed and precociously sentimental little girls who vulgarize modern ideals of maidenhood are maltreating a very good bit of slang.

Its derivation doubles its significance: in the English sportsman’s vocabulary, a flapper is a young bird unable to rise in flight, especially a young, wild duck.

The term is almost exactly descriptive of the delightfully innocent little girl who is, properly, a flapper. It is a pity that the genus is so rare in America, when a young girl begins to rouge, she ceases to be a flapper — she has learned how to fly! And isn’t it the misfortune of American girls that they learn this — at least, too early?

Vintage 20s flapper actress

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