Flapper style

What does ‘flapper’ mean? Even though the true origins of the world are controversial, in the 1920s ‘flapper’ became associated with young women who expressed their freedom through an overt appreciation of a new kind of fashionable look.

Marta Franceschini (opens in new window) (European Fashion Heritage Association)

What does ‘flapper’ mean? Even though the true origins of the world are controversial, in the 1920s ‘flapper’ became associated with young women who expressed their freedom through an overt appreciation of a new kind of fashionable look.

On 30 November 1927, a journalist of the British magazine Punch, wrote:

"Flapper is the popular press catch-word for an adult woman worker, aged twenty-one to thirty, when it is a question of giving her the vote under the same conditions as men of the same age.”

Flappers embodied the joyful and proactive spirit of the 1920s, indeed a decade of revolution in many respects: right after the end of WW1, the social scene was prone to change, and women fought not to lose the active role they gained in society during the difficult years of the war.

Marga Graf, an Austrian operetta star who found a second homeland in the Netherlands, delivers a roaring performance in a flapper dress adapted to her dance moves, 1922. Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Public Domain.

The so-called ‘roaring twenties’ were a time of technological, cultural and social progress, of new incomes and surprising wealth; all these factors led women to hard-earned victories, such as the right to vote, to attend university, to work and sustain themselves if they wanted to: a new world full of opportunities.

Lifestyle became the keyword defining the renewed interest in participating in the hectic social life of the city. Music played a central role as the emergence of jazz and charleston, and the opening of clubs for drinking and dancing spurred on the design of increasingly flamboyant clothes and accessories.

0’54”: An evocative retro performance: dancing the charleston, 1951 Istituto Luce - Cinecittà. In copyright

The large, often young flapper fashion clientele was all too willing to invest in glamorous outfits, leveraging on the economic prosperity of the post-war period.

One of the authors most associated with describing this biotope is Francis Scott Fitzgerald: the creator of timeless novels such as This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, and of the volume of short stories Flappers and Philosophers, all of which feature female characters epitomizing the essence and look of flappers.

The flapper dresses’ fundamental characteristics pointed to a dynamic lifestyle: they were straight, sleeveless and loose, and usually made in airy and light fabrics. They did not have a corset but relied on a fairly simple shape: a rectangular piece of fabric that could fall on a slender body without being constrictive in any way. The endless possibilities for embellishments often including sequins and beads in the most amazing designs, more than ever allowed women to explore and express their style and identity.

Because of the simplicity of the cut and construction, these garments lent themselves well to being made at home, and many magazines proposed patterns to facilitate the reproduction of the fashionable look. The dresses also allowed women to show some parts of their body for the very first time in history: it is said that flappers would apply blush to their kneecaps to draw attention to the legs, which now could be seen thanks to shorter skirts and greater freedom of movement.

Completing the look, flappers were often seen sporting bold makeup and short hair in daring ‘bobs’, protected by cloches during the day and decorated with trims and feathers.

Now, who dressed these young bright things madly dancing the charleston during endless nights of partying? French designer Jean Patou is credited to be one of the first to create “flapper silhouettes” to be worn in Europe and, most importantly, to be exported to the wealthyUnited States of America. Other talented designers too contributed to the success of the streamlined silhouette and ‘boyish’ attitude to clothing, as famously did Coco Chanel.

Apart from France and America, the style conquered the rest of Europe as well, with countless fashion houses and boutiques issuing their interpretation of the flapper dress that eventually became the symbol of a global attitude towards changing times.

Even historical couture houses such as Worth and Poiret explored the flapper style, as did Madeleine Vionnet and Elsa Schiaparelli, who later turned this rather simple silhouette into the glamorous and sensuous bias-dresses accentuating the bodies of the Femme Fatales: the new women of the 1930s.

In the mood for more bling and glam? Dive into our lookbook of Festive flapper dresses.

by Marta Franceschini, EFHA

This blog is part of ‘Europeana XX. A Century of Change’, a CEF-project co-funded by the European Union that focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.

The images and footage in this blog labeled ‘In Copyright’ were used with permission of Národní filmový archiv, Istituto Luce - Cinecittà, and EFHA on behalf of Les Arts Décoratifs, Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti & Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.