What is a flapper? Get the inside scoop on this popular 1920s term here

What is a flapper - 1920s women

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The word “flapper,” used today, has a much broader definition than how the term was originally used. So what is a flapper, then?

Find out here, with definitions from the twenties, and a look back from half a century later as well.

Life magazine - The Flapper

What is a flapper? Revisiting definitions from the 1970s

Excerpted from an article by Jack Smith – Los Angeles Times (California) December 15, 1977

When defining the word “flapper,” Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner, authors of the 1967 book, “Dictionary of American Slang,” observed, “the word is still universally known and used, as often with nostalgic as with a sociological objectivity.”

Although the article (i.e. flapper) is obsolete,” authors [Harold] Wentworth and [Stuart Berg] Flexner observe wistfully in their “Dictionary of American Slang,” “the word is still universally known and used, as often with nostalgic as with a sociological objectivity.”

Webster’s says: “A young woman of the period of World War I and the decade thereafter who showed bold freedom from convention in conduct and dress.”

All right. But as all brief definitions must, it says too much and too little. It implies that the flapper was a self-conscious feminist, like today’s.

She may have been, but she didn’t talk about it. After all, her mother had got the vote and Prohibition, and there wasn’t anything else to do but celebrate. Toujours gai.

If there was anything underneath, besides her teddies, she didn’t let it show. Also, it implies that flappers were elite — flamboyant exceptions to the demure generality of women.

Perhaps most young women weren’t hard-core flappers, like Joan Crawford in “Our Dancing Daughters,” but most of them wore flapper dresses and danced the Charleston and played dumb, even if they didn’t drink bathtub gin and go all the way in rumble seats.

Dorothy Sebastian, Joan Crawford, and Anita Page as flappers in Our Dancing Daughters movie (1928)
Dorothy Sebastian, Joan Crawford, and Anita Page as flappers in Our Dancing Daughters movie (1928)

Wentworth and Flexner give us a more graphic picture:

“The popular female type of the 1920s, typically a young woman characterized by a cynical attitude, a frank interest in sex, a penchant for daring fashions, including short, straight dresses, no petticoats, bobbed hair, stockings rolled below the knee, together with the use of bright lipstick and eye shadow…

“The flapper was the often somewhat bewildered experimenter with the new freedom that came to women after World War I. In manner, dress, speech and thought, she assiduously practiced behavior that would seem the opposite of the ‘feminine’ as previously conceived.”

Evidently World War I produced the kind of society the flapper thrived in, and the Great Depression killed it. She was a butterfly, and she lasted no longer than the Model-T Ford, Prohibition and Woodrow Wilson’s dreams.

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A 1920s flapper with wings - Actress Bebe Daniels

What’s the definition of a flapper? (1920)

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.”

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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

Editorial from 1922: Eliminate flapperism, male and female

The word flapper entangled itself with the ‘dreadful’ side of youth – with jazz, short skirts, bobbed hair, cigarette smoking and gasoline-buggy riding…

by Barton W Currie, Editor – Ladies’ Home Journal – October 1922

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.

Flapper artwork by Russell Patterson

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 anemic 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.

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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.

Young woman from the 1920s with black stockings

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.”

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A vintage flapper

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.

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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.

Vintage 1920s flapper fashions

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 underway.

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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.

Vintage 1920s flapper fashions (7)

Flappers: The dreadful side of youth

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.

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