Myth Information – The Flapper

flapping-goulashes

1920s catalogue image of galoshes being worn unbuckled

Several period sources claim  the word ‘flapper’ originated from the American fashion among teenage girls for wearing unbuckled galoshes – because their galoshes flapped about as they walked. It seemed like a good story and I have been repeating it ever since I first read it. However, it turns out that the story is a false etymology that was widespread even in the 1920s.

The real origin of the word likely comes from a fledgling – a young bird flapping its wings while learning to fly. By the 1890s the term was surfacing in England as a reference to high-spirited teenage girls. The word first appeared in print in the UK in 1903 in a story about college life by Desmond Coke called ‘Sandford of Merton’.

Cover of The Flapper magazine, June 1922

Cover of The Flapper magazine, June 1922

The term was not well known in the States when a February 1907 New York Times article  asked English actor George Graves to explain the meaning of the word to their American readers. His definition was “…young girls with their hair still hanging down their backs…” A year later, another article in the New York Times further explained: “A ‘flapper’… is a young lady who has not yet been promoted to long frocks and the wearing of her hair ‘up'”. In 1912 another New York Times article describes a flapper as a girl who has “just come out” (a debutante between 16 – 18 years old.)

Around the same time, the ‘flapper’ had become a standard of the theatre – a stage character who was a flirtatious, mischievous, and impetuous young woman. During World War I the use of the word increased alongside the growing number of independent young women in the home front work force. The postwar surplus of young women caused by the wartime loss of young men brought a more definitive meaning to the word ‘flapper’ and its associated styles and attitudes. In a February 5, 1920 article that appeared in the Times, Dr. R. Murray-Leslie identified the flapper as: “the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations”.

Hollywood borrowed the term for a 1920 film ‘The Flapper’. The plot follows sixteen-year-old Genevieve as she sneaks away from her boarding school to attend a party and through a series of events becomes the stooge of a jewel heist. The morality play blames Genevieve’s flapper behaviour when nobody believes she is innocent of the crime. Far from being a model character, flappers were characterized as pleasure-seeking, hard drinking, flirtatious party girls who smoked, used slang, and had no scholastic goals.

The flapper became a staple of Hollywood films in the 1920s, often played on screen by Joan Crawford, Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, and the cartoon character Betty Boop. In literature, two characters from 1925 novels best captured the flapper character: Daisy Buchanan from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was a well-bred society flapper, and Lorelie Lee from Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a clever gold-digging flapper. A term that also surfaced in the 1920s to describe the modern young flapper was a girl with ‘It’. The ‘It’ being sex appeal. But the flapper wasn’t wise to her sexual powers, like a vamp – she may have heavy-petted with her boyfriend but she maintained an innocent naivety.

Regardless of the negative attributes, there were flocks of young women who looked at the flapper as a role model. There was even a magazine for fans, called The Flapper. Although annual rates of subscription were offered, it seems the publication was only in print for seven monthly issues, from May to November 1922. The magazine defines the qualities of a flapper: “…coquettish, merry, independent, original and snappy…” The magazine also sings her praises in poetry:

She’s independent, full of grace,
a pleasing form, a pretty face,
is often saucy, also pert,
and doesn’t think it wrong to flirt;
knows what she wants and gets it, too;
receives the homage that’s her due;
but she is true as true can be,
her will’s unchained, her soul is free;
she charms the young, she jars the old,
within her beats a heart of gold;
she furnishes the spice of life –
and makes some boob a darn good wife!
 

The magazine even defined what a flapper looks like: “Bobbed hair; powder and rouge on the face; use of lip stick; ‘plucked’ eyebrows; low-cut, sleeveless bodice; absence of corset; little under-clothing, often only a teddy… high skirts; and roll-your-own stockings…”

Suffragettes didn’t appreciate the flapper image – they felt flappers were silly and squandered the hard-won achievements of the suffrage movement. The term survived until the end of the decade but with the onset of the Depression in late 1929, the flapper image began to fade. By the mid 1930s the term flapper was associated with the past decade, along with the Charleston and a bullish stock market. Nostalgia polished off the negative attributes of flapperism over the years until the term came to refer to any young, modern woman of the 1920s in a short skirt and unbuckled galoshes.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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15 Responses to Myth Information – The Flapper

  1. Lauren says:

    Great article! I had heard the “flapping baby birds” one, but with no real explanation. I’d never heard the “galoshes” one. Thanks for the thorough dig. It makes so much more sense now.

  2. Inger says:

    Very interesting piece! A word with a fascinating etymology…here’s a link to an article I found dating to 1913 in which the reporter talks about the demise of the flapper:
    http://sydneyflapper.tumblr.com/post/78590090051/this-clipping-from-new-zealands-the-evening-post

    The article makes it clear, though, that the “flapper” term that is dying off is the earlier understanding of it as a girl in that intermediate stage of development…to be replaced by a “a generation of modern minxes, confident, brazen, and eager to startle their men friends by their openness of speech” and who are notable for “a pandemonium of powder, a riot of rouge, and moral anarchy of dress” -in other words, what the “flapper” evolved to mean. Rather than the term dying off in the teens as this article anticipated, it came to incorporate the characteristics in modern young women that we today associate with flappers.

    • Jonathan says:

      That article is the missing link between the two meanings of flapper – fantastic reference – thanks!

  3. Dale says:

    Great article! I also think the other attributes of her fashions – “bobbed” hair (swinging as opposed to pinned up), long strands of beads or pearls and chiffon/beaded dresses also re-enforce the nickname, “flapper.” And then watching them Charleston!

  4. Mary Humphries says:

    No wonder you have a great publisher! Such a thorough yet easy-flowing item. Greetings to you and the FHM.

  5. Jonathan,

    Thank you for a very informative item. I had long disputed with some associates that the unbuckled galoshes were the origin of the word, but never had much ammunition to disprove it. Now I do! I have several issued of The Flapper. One of them makes references to starting your own chapter of a national flapper “flock”, mentioning that girls should encourage their boyfriends to join, and referred to the male counterparts if flippers as …get this…. Flippers! Thank you for another fascinating read. I never knew the term went back so far as it does.

    • Jonathan says:

      I would LOVE to read those issues of The Flapper some day… maybe you could scan them?

      • I meant say above that the male counterparts of the flappers were called “Flippers”, but this term did not seen to catch on, did it? I sold off my issues of “The Flapper” magazines years ago, but made photo copies of at least 2 issues. When they surface here in my mad piles of paper, I will send them to you. Thank you for such an interesting blog.

  6. JazzFeathers says:

    Fantastic article.
    I did have a feeling the term ‘flapper’ wasn’t very complimentary of women at the time, certainly not as we think today, but I never really pinned that down.
    And the info about its ethymology is completely new to me (while the galoshes story is really familiar).

    Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Jonathan says:

      You are more than welcome! I write this blog for my own edification and let others read over my shoulder!

  7. Patrick says:

    Regardless of your opinion, I will go with the galoshes story. I have heard it repeated for years, yet never heard of you.

  8. Pingback: First National Flapper Day (#NationalFlapperDay) - The Old Shelter

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