FIVE FALLACIES OF THE FLAPPER
Evan Casey - October 31, 2016
Halloween is upon us, and with it comes costumes portraying every character and cultural icon from Disney’s forthcoming princess Moana to, well, God. Scary to comical and everything in-between, among the bevy of beauties you will undoubtedly see numerous representations of the Flapper. The average costumes of the 1920s “It Girl” are dripping with fringe and beads, sporting a bob (“wig not included”), perhaps hanging on the arm of a mobster–identifiable by his pinstripe suit, of course—having a footloose and fancy free time.
After a year and a half of studying the fashion and culture of the Prohibition in preparation for Ready to Roar, I assure you, this image is an oversimplification. However, our misconceptions can illuminate realities of the past while exposing the subjectivities of the present. So when you see a “Flapper” this Halloween, enjoy the frivolity, but remember these common myths:
Myth 1: The flapper came from the 1920s.
In retrospect, it is easy to imagine the Flapper springing from the booze poured into the gutter in January of 1920, but the historical record shows she was a long time coming. Many hallmarks of the ‘flapper’ silhouette predate the 1920s. Beginning at the turn of the Twentieth Century, American culture saw an increase in the importance of health. The sports and youth culture that developed from this shift dramatically changed society, as well as the way women dressed. The S-shape corset was discarded, and changes in hemlines and tailoring increased range of motion as the Twentieth Century matured. By the time speakeasies became the social hotspot, women’s attire had accommodated their ability, and desire, to kick up their heels.
Myth 2: Her skirts were short.
Not by our standards. ‘Short’ needs to be understood relatively. Hemlines rose to under the knee in the mid-1920s, but returned to the floor by the thirties. War rationing in the late-30s and 40s had more of an effect on exposing women’s knees than the ‘liberated’ era in which they earned suffrage. There was substantially higher body exposure- or the implication of it. Legs, arms, cleavage, and backs became more publicly visible. Sheer fabrics that implied flesh, and layers that allowed multiple levels of modesty became common. (Both of which are staples in modern fashion.)
Myth 3: Her morals were loose.
Don’t talk about your great-grandmother like that. It’s unkind.
We cannot prove that ‘flappers’ had more sex than their predecessors. What we do know is that they had more opportunity for pre-marital sex, as well as an increasing knowledge of contraceptive practices. The chaperone died at the hands of dating as hetero-socializing changed the way the sexes interacted during Prohibition. Automobiles carried young adults away from parental eyes to socials, petting parties, sporting events, and theaters, while Hollywood productions portrayed, and simultaneously manufactured, this modern courting culture.
Myth 4: She was monolithic.
As in today’s world, the experiences of women in the early twentieth century were diverse. From Fitzgerald’s fictional enigma Daisy Buchanan, to Parisian stage sensation Josephine Baker, and biting social commentator Dorothy Parker, the flapper is the culmination of them all. The ‘flapper’ was the result of eighty-plus years of women’s increasing involvement in the social sphere-politically, economically, and academically. Thinking about the flapper as a person erases her nuance; she is a style, a state of mind.
Myth 5: She was a flash in the pan.
Hardly. Luhrmann’s reboot of Gatsby, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, BBC’s Downton Abbey– our taste in television and movies alone demonstrates this is a fallacy. As during the Prohibition, screen fashion is simultaneously shaping and being shaped by current trends. Elements of flapper style has cropped up throughout the Twentieth Century- 50s A-line, 60s mod, most of the 70s, Kate Moss’s career- as fashion is cyclical. So what is the most enduring element of flapper fashion? I would argue it is the most ubiquitous: stylish pants on women.