Excerpt from "A Flapper's Appeal to Parents"
Published on December 6, 1922
Even before the 1920s began, a new kind of young woman was emerging in the world. As early as 1915, the celebrated journalist H.L. Mencken (1880–1956) was commenting on this woman's appearance in the pages of The Smart Set, a New York-based magazine that combined social satire with commentary on the arts. According to Mencken, this new young woman was characterized by her very different appearance, especially her shorter skirts and bobbed (short) hair. The use of the word "flapper" to describe her seems to have originated in England, in reference to the unbuckled, floppy galoshes (rain boots) that some young women there were wearing.
The women of the previous generation had been part of the Victorian era, which corresponds roughly to the years 1837 to 1901, when Queen Victoria (1819–1901) ruled Great Britain. Women of this period were expected to dress and behave modestly. They wore long skirts and high collars, with tight corsets (body-shaping undergarments) and layers of petticoats underneath, and their long hair was piled on top of their heads. They were the embodiments of innocence, protectors of morality, obedient to their husbands, and devoted to their children. By the 1920s, however, new ideas about women's roles were taking hold, a development that had something to do with World War I (1914–18), when many women had taken a more public role in society. More of them were now attending college and entering the workforce. Changes were also taking place in the behavior and habits of young people, who were taking advantage of the new freedoms and opportunities. All of these new trends combined to create the flapper.
Her appearance itself was a radical shift from the past. In addition to her short hair and skirts, the flapper wore dresses that gave her a boyish appearance. She wore silk stockings, makeup, and long strings of beads, and she projected an independent, free-spirited, and fun-loving manner. She often smoked and drank illegal liquor in public, and, like the young woman who wrote the article excerpted here, she adored dancing. Although she took a more relaxed approach to showing affection for her boyfriend in public and in "petting" (engaging in various forms of kissing and touching) than had previous generations, she was not generally as sexually free as some assumed.
In this article from a magazine published in 1922, a self-confessed flapper defends her behavior, suggesting that not all flappers are alike; she, for instance, does not smoke, drink, pet, or use makeup. The author reminds her older, parental audience that this is a modern era in which the sudden onslaught of war and technology has caused dislocation and confusion. She calls for more understanding between the older and younger generations, highlighting the fact that this was the first time in U.S. history when such a division was perceived to exist. Finally, this young woman recommends that parents become friends with their children, underlining the new trend toward what was called the "companionate" family, in which members openly express their feelings for and interest in each other.
Things to remember while reading this excerpt from "A Flapper's Appeal to Parents" …
The daring appearance and bold manners of the flapper were not appreciated by everybody. In fact, those who disapproved of the changes occurring in society saw in the emergence of, what they considered, this scantily clad, cocktail-drinking young woman more evidence of society's moral decline.
Motion picture stars like Louise Brooks (1906–1985) and Clara Bow (1905–1965), with their bobbed hair and fashionably boyish figures, helped to popularize the flapper image. Cartoonist John Held (1889–1958), whose drawings off lappers and their boyfriends appeared in such popular magazines as The New Yorker and Life, both satirized and glamorized this trend.
Suffragists (those who fought to win for women the right to vote) viewed the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed women voting rights, in 1920 as a great victory. They hoped that the younger generation would now seize the chance to become politically active and improve the world around them, and they were disappointed when that generally failed to happen. Instead young women seemed to turn away from social concerns and focus their energies on fashion, fun, and attracting the opposite sex. Yet Lewis suggests here that young people of her generation were in a state of understandable confusion caused by the sudden changes brought about by World War I and new technologies.
Excerpt from "A Flapper's Appeal to Parents"
If one judges by appearances, I suppose I am a flapper. I am within the age limit. I wear bobbed hair, the badge of flapperhood. (And, oh, what a comfort it is!) I powder my nose. I wear fringed skirts and bright-colored sweaters, and scarfs, and waists with Peter Pan collars, and low-heeled "finale hopper" shoes. I adore to dance. I spend a large amount of time in automobiles. I attend hops, and proms, and ball-games, and crew races, and other affairs at men's colleges. But none the less some of the most thoroughbred superflappers might blush to claim sistership or even remote relationship with such as I. I don't use rouge, or lipstick, or pluck my eyebrows. I don't smoke (I've tried it, and don't like it), or drink, or tell "peppy stories." I don't pet.… But then—there are many degrees of flapper. There is the semi-flapper; the flapper; the superflapper. Each of these three main general divisions has its degrees of variation. I might possibly be placed somewhere in the middle of the first class. I think every one realizes by this time that there has been a marked change in our much-discussed tactics. Jazz has been modified, and probably will continue to be until it has become obsolete. Petting is gradually growing out of fashion through being overworked. Yes, undoubtedly our hopeless condition is improving. But it was not for discussing these aspects of the case that began this article.
I want to beg all you parents, and grandparents, and friends, and teachers, and preachers—you who constitute the "older generation"—to overlook our shortcomings, at least for the present, and to appreciate our virtues. I wonder if it ever occurred to any of you that it required brains to become and remain a successful flapper? Indeed it does! It requires an enormous amount of cleverness and energy to keep going at the proper pace. It requires self-knowledge and self-analysis. We must know our capabilities and limitations. We must be constantly on the alert. Attainment of flapperhood is a big and serious undertaking!
Think back to the time when you were struggling through the teens. Remember how spontaneous and deep were the joys, how serious and penetrating the sorrows. Most of us, under the present system of modern education, are further advanced and more thoroughly developed mentally, physically, and vocationally than were our parents at our age. We hold the infinite possibilities of the myriads of new inventions
within our grasp. We have learned to take for granted conveniences, and many luxuries, which not so many years ago were as yet undreamed of. We are in touch with the whole universe. We have a tremendous problem on our hands. You must help us. Give us confidence—not distrust. Give us practical aid and advice—not criticism. Praise us when praise is merited. Be patient and understanding when we make mistakes.
We are the Younger Generation. The war tore away our spiritual foundations and challenged our faith. We are struggling to regain our equilibrium. The times have made us older and more experienced than you were at our age. It must be so with each succeeding generation if it is to keep pace with the rapidly advancing and mighty tide of civilization. Help us to put our knowledge to the best advantage. Work with us! That is the way! Outlets for this surplus knowledge and energy must be opened. Give us a helping hand.
Youth has many disillusionments. Spiritual forces begin to be felt. The emotions are frequently in a state of upheaval, struggling with one another for supremacy. And Youth does not understand. There is no one to turn to—no one but the rest of Youth, which is as perplexed and troubled with its problems as ourselves. Everywhere we read and hear the criticism and distrust of older people toward us. It forms an insurmountable barrier between us. How can we turn to them?
In every person there is a desire, an innate longing, toward some special goal or achievement. Each of us has his place to fill. Each of us has his talent—be it ever so humble. And our hidden longing is usually for that for which nature equipped us. Any one will do best and be happiest doing that which he really likes and for which he is fitted. In this "age of specialists," as it has been called, there is less excuse than ever for persons being shoved into niches in which they do not belong and cannot be made to fit. The lives of such people are great tragedies. That is why it is up to you who have the supervision of us of less ripe experience to guide us sympathetically, and to help us find, encourage, and develop our special abilities and talents. Study us. Make us realize that you respect us as fellow human beings, that you have confidence in us, and, above all, that you expect us to live up to the highest ideals, and to the best that is in us.
It must begin with individuals. Parents, study your children. Talk to them more intimately. Respect their right to a point of view. Be so understanding and sympathetic that they will turn to you naturally and trustfully with their glowing joys or with their heartaches and tragedies. Youth has many of the latter because Youth takes itself so seriously. And so often the wounds go unconfessed, and, instead of gradually healing, become more and more gnawing through suppression until of necessity relief is sought in some way which is not always for the best.
Mothers, become acquainted with your children. Be the understanding, loving, happy comrade of your daughter. Become her ideal. And strive to live up to the ideal you set for the woman who is to become your son's wife. Be his chum. Be young with him. Oh, what a powerful and wonderful influence you are capable of exerting if you only will!
Fathers, find out what is within the minds and hearts and souls of your children. There is a wonderful, an interesting, and a sacred treasure-house there if you will take the time and pain to explore. The key is yours in return for patient understanding, sympathetic encouragement, and kindly wisdom. Make love to your daughter if necessary! Make her realize the depth of your love and make her feel that you have confidence in her ability to live up to your standards of upright womanhood. Be your son's best pal. Make his interests your interests. Encourage him to formulate a workable philosophy of life. And remember this: A little merited praise means so much! A little encouragement goes such a long way!
Oh, parents, parents everywhere, point out to us the ideals of truly glorious and upright living! Believe in us, that we may learn to believe in ourselves, in humanity, in God! Be the living examples of your teachings, that you may inspire us with hope and courage, understanding and truth, love and faith. Remember that we are the parents of the future. Help us to be worthy of the sacred trust that will be ours. Make your lives such an inspiration to us that we in our turn will strive to become an inspiration to our children and to the ages! Is it too much to ask?
What happened next …
The flapper's moment in the spotlight was relatively brief. The 1920s ended in the shocking event known as "the Crash"—when, in October 1929, the stock market collapsed and the economy began a long decline, and soon the Great Depression (the period of hardship that lasted until the beginning of World War II [1939–45]) was underway. During the grim 1930s, the carefree attitude and frivolous pursuit of fun that had characterized the flapper's way of life would seem shallow and self-indulgent. Yet the flapper's freer approach both to clothing styles and to public behaviors like smoking and drinking was adopted by a wide swath of society. And the flapper herself, her long beads swinging as she danced the Charleston, would remain a lasting and colorful symbol of the 1920s for generations to come.
Did you know …
- Flapper fashions featured simpler lines, fewer undergarments, and a new silhouette: whereas the previous generation had idealized the "hourglass" figure (small waist and wide hips), the flapper ideal was slim and boyish. The ideal look involved flattened breasts, a dropped waistline, shorter skirts, and lots of accessories (such as jewelry, scarves, cigarette holders, and especially the tight-fitting, bell-shaped cloche hats).
- Novelist and short story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) both described and glamorized the flapper in such pieces as "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," a short story about a young woman who decides to adopt the popular 1920s trend of shorter hair. Fitzgerald's beautiful, lively, and mentally unstable wife Zelda typified the new woman in many ways, engaging with her husband in such intentionally outrageous behavior as splashing in public fountains and riding on the roofs of taxis.
- Despite resistance from some quarters, society's ideas about the ways women should behave were changing. One piece of evidence was the establishment of the Miss America Pageant, which featured the spectacle of young women parading in swimsuits before judges, in 1921.
Consider the following …
- Not every young woman in the 1920s became a flapper. Who do you think might have been left out of this trend?
- It has been said that the 1920s were a difficult period in which to be the parent of a teenager. Why was this the case?
- Can you relate to this author's plea for parents to treat the younger generation with more understanding? Write an article similar to this one, in which you express the perspective of your own generation.
For More Information
Boer, Lawrence, and John D. Walther, eds. Dancing Fools and Weary Blues: The Great Escape of the Twenties. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Press, 1990.
Cowley, Malcolm, ed. The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952.
Hanson, Erica. The 1920s. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.
Herald, Jacqueline. Fashions of a Decade: 1920s. New York: Facts on File, 1991.
Latham, Angela J. Posing a Threat: Flappers, Chorus Girls, and Other Brazen Performers of the 1920s. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000.
Mowry, George E., ed. The Twenties: Fords, Flappers, and Fanatics. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith/Prentice Hall, 1963.
Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.
Christy's Fashion Pages: Flapper Fashion. Available online at http://www.rambova.com/fashion/fash4.html. Accessed on June 17, 2005.
The Jazz Age: Flapper Culture & Style. Available online at http://www.geocities.com/flapper_culture/. Accessed on June 17, 2005.