During the 1920s, a group of young women began wearing their hair in a then-exotic style called a bob, smoking cigarettes, listening to jazz music, and otherwise defying the conventional expectations for proper young women. Nicknamed flappers – the word is thought to originate from a British slang term for prostitute – they symbolized a growing defiance of traditional gender norms in the United States and Europe in the years after World War I.
Famous flappers included the actress Joan Crawford (1905-1977) and Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948), the wife of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940).
In addition to their boyish hairstyles and clothing, the flapper generation often took a more liberal attitude toward sex. Some flappers dated numerous men – a habit considered scandalous by the standards of the day.
Flappers emerged against the backdrop of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which had extended full voting rights to women and prompted many Americans to rethink traditional gender roles.
Perhaps the best-known portrayals of flappers appeared in Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories. The Great Gatsby (1925), his masterpiece, includes a prominent flapper character, the independent, steely, hard-drinking golf pro Jordan Baker. His story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” features a young girl who is trained to be a society woman by her older cousin Marjorie, who teaches Bernice how to conduct herself in true flapper style.
When the Roaring Twenties came to an abrupt halt with the stock market crash of 1929, the flappers and their expensive, hedonistic lifestyle fell out of fashion.
1. The flapper era coincided with an explosion in the popularity of makeup, especially lipstick, which had been relatively uncommon in the United States before World War I.
2. Fitzgerald published a collection of short stories in 1920 called Flappers and Philosophers.
3. “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” was based on a letter that Fitzgerlad wrote to his younger sister with instructions on how to be more attractive to men.