AskDefine | Define flapper

Dictionary Definition

flapper n : a young woman in the 1920s who flaunted her unconventional conduct and dress

User Contributed Dictionary



Most likely from Victorian sporting slang, meaning young wildfowl in August which are full-sized, tender and worthwhile quarry, but are nieve and unable to fly properly due to the late development of flight feathers in ducks and geese.



  1. A young woman of the 1920s who flouted convention in her dress and behaviour/behavior.


young unconventional woman of the 1920s

Extensive Definition

The term flapper in the 1920s referred to a "new breed" of young women who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, listened to the new Jazz music, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behavior. The flappers were seen as brash for wearing excessive makeup, drinking, treating sex in a casual manner, smoking, driving automobiles, and otherwise flouting conventional social and sexual norms.

Origins and Etymology

Flappers had their origins in the period of liberalism, social and political turbulence, and increased transatlantic cultural exchange that followed the end of the First World War, as well as the export of African American jazz culture to Europe.

United Kingdom

The term flapper first appears in an early Sports Illustrated magazine (not the same magazine in print today) in a two-page spread where the flapper spread her legs. It may be in reference to a young bird flapping its wings while learning to fly, or it may derive from an earlier use in northern England of flapper to mean "teenage girl" (whose hair is not yet put up), or "prostitute". It was the first time young ladies got to enjoy themselves after the war and they certainly made the most of it, no matter what the older generations thought.
While many in the United States assumed at the time that the term flapper derived from a fashion of women wearing galoshes unbuckled so that they could show people their bodies as they walked, the term was already documented as in use in the United Kingdom as early as 1912. From the 1910s into the 1920s, flapper was a term for any impetuous teenage girl, often including women under 30. Only in the 1920s did the term take on the meaning of the flapper generation style and attitudes, while people continued to use the word to mean immature.

Flappers in the U.S.

United States

The first appearance of the word and image in the United States came from the popular 1920 Frances Marion movie, The Flapper, starring Olive Thomas. Thomas had starred in a similar role in 1917 though it was not until The Flapper that the term was used. Her final movies were done in the flapper image. Other actresses would soon build their careers on the same image making them quite popular including Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Joan Crawford.
In the United States, popular contempt for Prohibition was a factor. With legal saloons and cabarets closed, back alley speakeasies became prolific and popular. This discrepancy between the law-abiding, religion-based temperance movement and the actual ubiquitous consumption of alcohol led to widespread disdain for authority. Flapper independence may have its origins in the Gibson girls of the 1890s. Although that pre-war look does not resemble the flapper identity, their independence and feminism may have led to the flapper wise-cracking tenacity 30 years later.
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, reckless and independent. Among those who criticized the flapper craze was writer-critic Dorothy Parker. She penned "Flappers: A Hate Song" to poke fun at the fad.
A related but alternative usage in the late 1920s was a press catch word which referred to adult women voters and how they might vote differently than men their age. While the term flapper had multiple usages, flappers as a social group were well defined from other 1920s fads.


Flappers went to jazz clubs at night where they danced provocatively, smoked cigarettes through long holders, sniffed cocaine (which was legal at the time) and dated. They rode bicycles and drove cars. They drank alcohol openly, a defiant act in the American period of Prohibition. Petting became more common than in the Victorian era. Petting Parties, where petting was the main attraction, became popular.
Flappers also began taking work outside the home and challenging a 'woman's place' in society. Voting and women's rights were also practiced.
With time dance styles considered shocking, such as the Charleston, the Shimmy, the Bunny Hug and the Black Bottom were developed.


Flappers had their own slang, with terms like "snugglepup" (a man who frequents petting parties) and "barney-mugging" (sex). Their dialect reflected their promiscuity and drinking habits; "I have to go see a man about a dog" often meant going to buy whiskey, and a "handcuff" or "manacle" was an engagement or wedding ring. Also reflective of their preoccupations, they had many ways to say "fantastic", such as "That's so Jake" or "That's the bee's knees," or a more popular one, "the cat's pajamas."
Many terms still in use in modern American English slang originated as flapper slang, such as "big cheese", meaning an important person; "to bump off", meaning to murder; and "baloney", meaning nonsense. Other terms have become definitive of the Prohibition era, such as "speakeasy", meaning an illegal place to get liquor and "hooch”, describing illegal liquor.


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 garçonne in French ("boy" with a feminine suffix), flapper style made them look young and boyish. Short hair, flattened breasts, and small waists accentuated the look.
Despite all the scandal flappers generated, their look became fashionable in a toned-down form among even respectable older women. Most significantly, the flappers removed the corset from female fashion, raised skirt and gown hemlines and popularized short hair for women. Among the actresses most closely identified with the style were Olive Thomas, Dorothy Mackaill, Alice White, Bebe Daniels, Billie Dove, Helen Kane, Joan Crawford, Leatrice Joy, Norma Shearer, Laura La Plante, Norma Talmadge, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Colleen Moore.


The flapper look required 'heavy makeup' in comparison to what had been acceptable. Flappers tended to wear 'kiss proof' lipstick. With the invention of the metal lipstick container as well as compact mirrors bee stung lips came into vogue. Dark eyes, especially Kohl-rimmed, were the style. Blush came into vogue now that it was no longer a messy application process.
Originally, pale skin was considered most attractive. However, tanned skin became increasingly popular after Coco Chanel donned a tan after spending too much time in the sun on holiday - it suggested a life of leisure, without the onerous need to work. Woman wanted to look fit, sporty, and, above all, healthy.

Hair and accessories

Boyish cuts were in vogue especially the Bob cut, Eton crop, and Shingle bob. Hats were still required wear and popular styles included the Newsboy cap and Cloche hat.
Jewelry usually consisted of art deco pieces, especially many layers of beaded necklaces. Pins, rings, and brooches came into style. Horn-rimmed glasses were also popular.
Flappers did away with corsets and pantaloons in favor of "step-in" panties. Without the old restrictive corsets, flappers wore simple bust bodices to make their chest hold still when dancing. They also wore new, softer and suppler corsets that reached to their hips, smoothing the whole frame giving women a straight up and down appearance, as opposed to the old corsets which slenderized the waist and accented the hips and bust. Without the added curves of a corset they promoted their boyish look, and soon early popular bras were sold to flatten and reduce the appearance of the bust.


Flapper dresses were straight and loose, leaving the arms bare and dropping the waistline to the hips. Silk or rayon stockings were held up by garters. Skirts rose to just below the knee by 1927, allowing flashes of knee to be seen when a girl danced or walked into a breeze, although the way they danced made any long loose skirt flap up to show their knees. Flappers powdered or put rouge on their knees to show them off when dancing. Popular dress styles included the Robe de style. High heels also came into vogue at the time, reaching 2 inches high.

End of the flapper era

Despite its popularity, the flapper lifestyle and look could not survive the Wall Street Crash and the following Great Depression. The high-spirited attitude and hedonism simply could not find a place amid the economic hardships of the 1930s. More specifically, this decade brought out a conservative reaction and a religious revival which set out to eradicate the liberal lifestyles and fashions of the 1920s. 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.
flapper in German: Flapper
flapper in Spanish: Flapper
flapper in French: Garçonne (mode)

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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