The term "flapper" refers to a young woman from the 1920s who would dress unconventionally and flaunt her disdain for "decent" behavior. The flapper represented a new breed of woman, unafraid to wear cosmetics and provocative clothing or to be seen smoking or drinking alcoholic beverages in public.
Flappers had their origins in the Gibson girls of the 1890s. Named for the drawings of Charles Dana Gibson, these women maintained their femininity despite participating in traditionally male activities such as sports or higher education. World War I forced women to break even more gender barriers by entering the workforce to replace the large numbers of men fighting overseas. At war's end, women were expected to return to their traditional roles as housewives and mothers. The men returned from a raucous life abroad where facing death each day had not left them eager to take on a traditional lifestyle, either. More importantly, vast numbers of men did not return from the war, leaving a significant gap between the numbers of single women and men. These factors prompted many post-war women to forget about tradition and to simply enjoy life. These women were dubbed "flappers" in Great Britain, based on a perceived similarity to young birds vainly trying to leave the nest. While many in the United States assumed at the time that the term "flapper" derived from a fashion of wearing galoshes unbuttoned so that they flapped as the wearer walks, the term was already documented as in use in the United Kingdom as early as 1912.
Writers and artists in the United States such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Held, Jr, and Anita Loos popularized the flapper look and lifestyle through their works, and flappers came to be seen as attractive young women despite their independence.
These flapper women took this rebelliousness further than anyone could have imagined. Flappers had their own slang, with terms like "snugglepup" (a man who frequents "petting" parties) and "bamey-mugging" (sex). They went to jazz clubs at night where they danced provocatively, smoked cigarettes through long holders, and dated men -- possibly men they would have sex with. They rode bicycles and drove cars. They drank alcohol publicly, a brave act in the period of Prohibition. Some even threw "petting parties" where sex was the main attraction. In short, they acted as if they might die at any moment, or worse still, get old.
In addition to their irreverent behavior, flappers were known for their style, which largely emerged as a result of the musical style of jazz and the popularization of dancing that accompanied it. Called garconne in French, flapper style made them look young and boyish. The short "bob" haircut became popular, only to be replaced later by the shorter "Eaton" or "shingle" which slicked the hair and covered the ears with curls. Flappers did away with their corsets and pantaloons in favor of "step-in" panties. They also wrapped cloth across their breasts in order to flatten them. Flapper dresses were straight and loose, leaving the arms bare and dropping the wasteline to the hips. Rayon stockings were worn over garter belts. Skirts rose to just below the knee by 1927, allowing flashes of knee to be seen when a flapper danced or walked through a breeze. A round hat called a cloche usually finished the look. Perhaps most scandalously, flappers also took to wearing make-up, previously restricted to actresses and prostitutes. Popular flapper make-up styles made the skin pale, the lips red, and the eyes black-ringed. All of this only encouraged the development of shocking dance styles such as the Charleston, the Shimmy, and the Black Bottom.
Despite all the scandal the flappers generated, their look became fashionable in a toned-down form among even "respectable" women. Most significantly, the flappers removed the corset from female fashion and popularized short hair for women. Actresses mimicked the style, and even cartoon characters such as Betty Boop and Minnie Mouse got into the act.
Despite its popularity, the flapper lifestyle and look could not survive the Great Depression. The high-spirited attitude of non-restraint simply could not find a place amid the economic hardships of the 1930s. In many ways, however, the self-reliant flapper had allowed the modern woman to make herself an integral and lasting part of the Western World.