Learn the Interesting History of the 1920s Flappers

Flappers stand out as some of the most iconic figures of the 1920s, epitomizing the hedonistic pop culture lifestyle of the Roaring Twenties. These women were easily recognized by their slender figures, short bob haircuts, loose drop-waist dresses, and sparkling jewelry. At the time, their bold lifestyle choices were viewed as scandalous, but today, they are celebrated as pioneers of independence for American women. Flappers played a crucial role in advancing the economic, political, and sexual freedoms that modern women continue to enjoy. In this article, we’ll uncover the intriguing history of the 1920s flappers and discover how they shaped an iconic decade.

The Emergence of Flappers

"Where there's smoke there's fire" by Russell Patterson, showing a fashionably dressed flapper in the 1920s

The flapper phenomenon didn’t just appear out of nowhere; it was the result of significant societal changes following World War I. As the war ended, it brought a sense of relief and a desire for newness across the United States and much of Europe. Young women, in particular, were eager to shed the rigid cultural norms of the past.

  • Post-War Liberation: The end of the war marked a period of liberation for many women. During the war, women had taken on roles traditionally held by men, which instilled a sense of independence that many were reluctant to give up. This newfound independence was a catalyst for the flapper identity, characterized by a desire to push boundaries and redefine womanhood.
  • Influence of the Jazz Age: The Jazz Age brought with it a wave of African American cultural influence, which played a pivotal role in shaping the flapper’s lifestyle. Jazz music, with its lively rhythms and bold sounds, mirrored the rebellious spirit of the flappers. Jazz clubs became popular social hubs where flappers could freely express themselves and defy conventional behaviors.
  • Economic Prosperity: The economic boom of the 1920s also contributed to the rise of flappers. With more disposable income and increased urbanization, young women found themselves with opportunities to engage in leisure activities, attend lively parties, and frequent entertainment venues that were previously inaccessible.

The emergence of flappers was a response to these overlapping factors: a collective yearning for freedom and fun after the hardships of war, the vibrant influence of jazz music, and an economic environment that supported greater social mobility for women. These elements combined to create the perfect backdrop for the birth of the flapper, a symbol of youthful exuberance and a harbinger of modern femininity.

Characteristics of Flappers

Billie Dove on "Not for Old Fogies". The Flapper (cover). November 1922

Flappers were not just defined by their appearance but also by their behaviors and attitudes that starkly contrasted with the conventional expectations of women at the time. These characteristics set them apart as the emblematic figures of the Roaring Twenties.

  • Fashion as a Statement: Fashion was a crucial element of the flapper identity. They famously wore bobbed haircuts, which signified a break from traditional long hairstyles considered proper for women. Their dresses were shorter, hitting at the knee, with a drop-waist that deemphasized the natural waistline—both radical departures from previous styles. Accessories like cloche hats, beaded necklaces, and feather boas completed their daring ensembles. This fashion wasn’t just about style; it was a visible protest against the restrictive norms governing women’s bodies and behaviors.
  • Social Behaviors and Lifestyle: Flappers embodied a lifestyle that was carefree and decidedly modern. They were known for their love of dancing to jazz music, smoking cigarettes, and driving cars—activities that had been predominantly reserved for men. This behavior was part of a broader embrace of leisure and nightlife, with flappers often frequenting jazz clubs and speakeasies, especially during Prohibition.
  • Cultural Impact: Beyond their immediate social circles, flappers influenced broader cultural shifts. They used slang and had a playful approach to life that prioritized having fun over conforming to societal expectations. Their attitudes and actions contributed to changing dialogues around femininity and what it meant to be a woman, challenging and gradually shifting public perceptions towards greater freedom and equality for women.

The characteristics of flappers—ranging from their striking fashion choices to their bold social behaviors—were not merely about personal expression. They symbolized a broader movement towards gender equality and were a response to the dynamic and rapidly changing world of the 1920s.

Flappers and the Roaring Twenties

Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle "The Flapper" Saturday Evening Post (February 4, 1922)

Flappers are often synonymous with the Roaring Twenties, a decade characterized by dramatic social, economic, and cultural changes. Their emergence and widespread popularity were both a cause and a reflection of the vibrant era they helped define.

  • Symbol of the Times: The Roaring Twenties, known for its economic prosperity and cultural revolutions, provided the perfect backdrop for the rise of the flappers. As cities grew and technology advanced, the pace of life quickened, and traditional norms were challenged. Flappers took advantage of these changes to forge new social spaces and identities, epitomizing the spirit of the age with their zest for life and disdain for convention.
  • Prohibition and Nightlife: The introduction of Prohibition in 1920, which banned the sale and consumption of alcohol, ironically created a booming underground culture of speakeasies and jazz clubs. These illegal venues not only served alcohol but also provided a social setting where flappers thrived. They danced to jazz—a genre itself born of a fusion of African American musical styles—and embraced a lifestyle that flew in the face of the conservative moral codes of the time.
  • Technological Advancements: The 1920s also saw significant technological advancements that influenced flapper culture. The widespread adoption of the automobile and the emergence of cinema as a major form of entertainment both expanded the cultural horizons of young women. Cars provided mobility and a sense of freedom, while Hollywood movies disseminated the flapper image and lifestyle, making icons of actresses like Clara Bow, known as the “It Girl,” who embodied flapper characteristics on and off the screen.
  • Impact on Women’s Movements: Flappers also played a pivotal role in the evolution of women’s movements. Their bold rejection of traditional femininity and embrace of new freedoms—from voting rights achieved with the 19th Amendment to more open discussions about women’s sexuality—pushed the boundaries of what society expected from women. This set the stage for future advances in women’s rights.

Public Perception and Criticism

The flappers of the 1920s, while celebrated for their spirited defiance of traditional norms, also faced significant public scrutiny and criticism. Their lifestyle and attitudes stirred controversy, reflecting broader societal tensions between old and new values during this transformative era.

  • Media Portrayal: Flappers were often sensationalized in the media, which both glorified and vilified their behaviors. Newspapers and magazines were fascinated by these young women, depicting them as the epitome of modern youth culture but also cautioning against their perceived moral decline. This dual portrayal reflected the public’s mixed feelings about the rapid cultural changes of the time.
  • Conservative Backlash: Many conservative segments of society viewed flappers as a threat to traditional family values and the social order. Religious leaders, politicians, and even some feminists criticized their apparent disregard for propriety and the potential implications for women’s roles in society. This criticism often highlighted the flappers’ involvement in jazz clubs and speakeasies, which were seen as environments of moral peril.
  • Generational Divide: The emergence of flappers underscored a significant generational divide. Older generations, who had grown up with stringent Victorian or Edwardian codes of conduct, found it difficult to understand or accept the flappers’ more relaxed attitudes toward dating, drinking, and dancing. In contrast, many younger people saw flappers as trailblazers for personal freedom and gender equality.
  • Cultural Impact and Legacy: Despite facing criticism, the influence of flappers on popular culture and social norms was undeniable. They challenged and gradually helped to transform societal perceptions about femininity and freedom. Over time, the aspects of flapper culture that were once controversial have come to be seen as early expressions of the modern women’s movement, contributing to lasting changes in how women are perceived and perceive themselves in society.

Flappers in Popular Culture

Actress Norma Talmadge

Flappers left a lasting mark on popular culture, influencing literature, film, and fashion in ways that resonate even today. Their presence in the arts reflected and amplified their impact on society during the Roaring Twenties.

  • Literature: Prominent authors of the 1920s, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald, both of whom were seen as the era’s quintessential figures, frequently featured flappers in their works. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” portrays Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker as emblematic of the modern young women of their day, capturing their liberated lifestyles and complex emotional landscapes. Zelda Fitzgerald, herself an icon of flapper culture, wrote about and lived the flapper lifestyle, influencing her husband’s work and the literary portrayal of women in the period.
  • Films and Hollywood: Cinema in the 1920s seized upon the flapper look and lifestyle, with stars like Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Joan Crawford becoming style icons whose on-screen personas mirrored their off-screen lives as flappers. Films of the era often featured bold, carefree young women who mirrored the flapper’s defiance of traditional norms, which helped popularize the flapper style and attitude across America and around the world.
  • Music and Dance: Jazz, closely linked with the flapper era, not only influenced their dance styles but also became a defining soundtrack of the time. The lively, improvised nature of jazz music complemented the flappers’ carefree and spontaneous personalities. Dance marathons, Charleston contests, and cabaret performances were public spectacles that celebrated and showcased flapper fashions and dances.
  • Long-term Influence: The fascination with flappers has continued in modern times, influencing fashion trends and being featured in films, television shows, and books that romanticize the Roaring Twenties. Period pieces like “The Great Gatsby” adaptations and “Boardwalk Empire” show the lasting appeal of the flapper as a cultural icon, drawing on their image to evoke the spirit of the 1920s.

The End of the Flapper Era

The flapper era, synonymous with the 1920s’ spirit of rebellion and cultural transformation, came to an abrupt end as the decade closed. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 marked a significant turning point, shifting priorities and reshaping American society in profound ways.

  • Economic Hardship: The Wall Street Crash of 1929 triggered the Great Depression, leading to widespread economic hardship and unemployment. The carefree spending and exuberant lifestyles that had defined the flapper era quickly became untenable for most people. As families struggled to survive, the frivolous and flamboyant aspects of flapper culture lost their appeal, and society as a whole turned more conservative in response to economic necessity.
  • Shift in Social Attitudes: The hardships of the Great Depression brought about a more serious and somber mood across the country. The societal embrace of hedonistic lifestyles and conspicuous consumption was replaced by a focus on frugality and survival. The bold styles and behaviors of flappers were seen as inappropriate in the face of widespread poverty and suffering, leading to a natural decline in their prominence.
  • Cultural Shifts: While the flapper lifestyle faded, some of the changes it initiated in social norms and women’s roles continued to evolve. The challenging economic conditions forced more women into the workforce, further entrenching some of the independence that flappers had championed. However, these changes were now driven by economic necessity rather than the pursuit of social freedoms or leisure.
  • Legacy and Reinterpretation: Although the flapper era ended, its influence did not vanish. The 1920s left an indelible mark on American culture, influencing future generations’ views on gender roles, fashion, and individual freedom. Over time, the flapper has been romanticized and often revisited in cultural depictions as a symbol of a more progressive, liberated past, even as the realities of the era were more complex and nuanced.


The flappers of the 1920s were more than just a fashion statement; they were a powerful force for social change. Through their bold styles, defiant behaviors, and challenge to traditional norms, flappers left a lasting impact on society. While their era came to an end with the onset of the Great Depression, the changes they initiated in women’s roles and societal expectations continue to influence us today. Their spirit of freedom and independence remains a significant part of our cultural heritage, reminding us of the ongoing journey toward gender equality and personal expression.