1920s Beauty Ideals by BB

During the 1920s, a new beauty ideal arrived. This beauty ideal became the flapper, and it would have a major impact on society.  From fashion, to social interaction, the flapper changed it all. The flapper’s radical image change was within women’s clothing and hair.  The characteristics of a typical flapper were not like any other and her reckless actions defined her. The flapper was revolutionary and changed the beauty ideal in the 1920s.

 

Scott Fitzgerald first introduced the flapper in his novel “This Side of Paradise”. He described them as stubborn, young, beautiful, unconventional, and dangerous. Although he never referred to the term flapper till his later work, he was known for creating and even popularizing her.  The flappers changed the relationships between males and females by making it more oriented towards sex.  Their fierce attitude gave them the same authority if not more than men as they started smoking, drinking alcohol, and driving cars.  This was a huge step for women in the 1920s.  They not only dominated men but also were also given a large amount of attention from the tabloids.[1]These women were like no one else and their style had never been seen before.  Many believed the flappers to be white and part of the middle class but they were actually white or black and from the middle as well as the working class.[2] Flappers were less traditional than women had previously been, and have greatly influenced women’s style.

 

The flapper was a more unique style of women. They created their own style which created a whole new beauty ideal. Women’s hair had always been long, but the flapper’s hair was short and bobbed. They took facial beauty further by tweezing their eyebrows and using a whole range of cosmetic tools. A flapper would try to make her mouth look small and puckered, and also made popular the use of powder, eyeliner and lipstick.  It was a competition between women for the beauty ideal. Women had different thoughts on what beauty entailed and what it looked like. The flapper was more boyish as they had short hair, which was different than another style known as the Gibson girl whom had long hair.[3] As well, the flappers changed the norm for body type. Women became flatter and skinnier to suit the new style.[4] The major component of this ideal was a displacement of exposure as the emphasis moved from the trunk to the limbs. Arms and legs gained a larger appreciation than before. In the past, women were trying to gain weight, however flappers made a thinner look more popular. The flappers made it acceptable to show a more natural body shape.[5] With these features, all that was needed was accessories to be the highlight of the decade.

 

After the war, the flapper style began to dominate, and these boyish, gawky flappers became the aesthetic ideal. Previously, women had worn long, loose dresses that covered their bodies, as that was what was appropriate at that point in time. But the flappers rejected this ideal and wore tight, straight, short dresses with a low neck and short sleeves or no sleeves at all.[6] Short skirts forced women to focus more on the appearance of their legs.[7] In 1923, they started to wear silk or rayon stockings, which they rolled below the knee most of the time. Underneath her clothes, she wore as little as possible. A girdle replaced the corset or she wore nothing at all. To limit her curves even more, she wore a brassiere like garment to minimize her breasts. The Flapper was so popular that stores advertised the dresses as “flapper-dresses”. To complete the aesthetic ideal, dresses were more comfortable and lighter in weight than a woman’s apparel had been in the past. The fashion of the flappers had a wider variety of fabrics, colours, types of clothing, and designs than the plain style that had been worn before.[8] In the 1920s, the most popular colours were black and beige.  Flappers also popularized accessories like gloves, handbags, and jewelry. As the flapper’s style became more popular, the demand increased for inexpensive clothing, which could be easily cared for. A number of observers remarked, “even the poorest women had it in their power to dress comfortably and attractively for an active life with minimal cost and care”. Their influence can be seen by looking at the style of a typical high school girl, who wore to school only knickers, a knee-length dress, a brassiere, and silk stockings.[9]

The ideal woman became intelligent, capable, self-sufficient, and active. A flapper possessed skills and gained new characteristics unknown to her mother.[10] These personal traits and style have influenced modern day women. As stated before, the outbreak of this ideal was post war.  In this time period, dating changed as well. Sex became more accepted and people became more interested in sexual compatibility.[11] The flappers would have promoted this with their sexual and non-traditional ways.

In the 1920s, flappers broke away from the old image of womanhood. They cut their hair, wore minimal clothing,  ditched the corset, and used cosmetics. Flappers had the freedom to decide their own way of life which is why they had such an impact on the 1920s. They stunned people with their different choice of fashion, popularizing this new beauty ideal very fast. All of the energy of the 1920s was wrapped up in the beauty ideal of the flapper.[12]

 

[1] Ress, Stella. “Finding the Flapper: A Historiographical Look at Image and Attitude.”

History Compass, no. 1 (2010): 118-128.

 

[2] Reinsch, Ole. “Flapper Girls-Feminism and Consumer Society in the 1920s.”

Gender Forum, no. 40 (2012): 1.

 

[3] Yellis, Kenneth A. “Prosperity’s Child: Some Thoughts on the Flapper.”

American Quarterly, no. 1 (1969): 44-64.

 

[4] Hall, Linda B. “Fashion and Style in the Twenties: The Change.”

Historian, no. 3 (1972): 485-497.

 

 

[5] Kenneth A. Yellis, “Prosperity’s Child: Some thoughts on the Flapper, “

American Quarterly, no. 1 (1972), 48.

 

[6] Yellis, “A Prosperity’s Child,” 48.

 

[7] Linda B. Hall, “Fashion and Style in the Twenties: The Change,”

Historian, no. 3 (1972), 487.

 

[8] Yellis, “A Prosperity’s Child,” 49.

 

[9] Yellis, “A Prosperity’s Child,” 50.

 

[10] Yellis, “A Prosperity’s Child,” 51.

 

[11] Unit 9 Lecture Notes, HIST 2182. Western University, 2014.

 

[12] Rhys, Gillian. “In a flap of fashion.”

Ft.com, (2003): 1.

 

 

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3 comments

  1. Katie Geleff · · Reply

    The author states, “Many believed the flappers to be white and part of the middle class but they were actually white or black and from the middle as well as the working class.” This part of the essay stood out to me most, because I always associated flappers with being white, middle-class women. In popular culture, representations of flappers are quite rigid. When I think of the flapper, I think of movie representations from Midnight in Paris or the newest reincarnation of The Great Gatsby. The women are most often white and seem to be well off. This may be the reason why I did not think women of a different class or race became flappers.

    This part of the essay is interesting because the flapper-style was a way to unite all women. Throughout this class, challenges to the status quo have most often come from the most privileged group of women in the society. For example, the first and second wave feminists who we have studied were most often financially well off. It is interesting to see that a more expansive group of women were able to adopt this flapper style and challenge what it meant to be female.

    All in all, I am simply fascinated by the flapper era. Of all the past decades, the flapper style is still one that is apparent in fashion today. The dress and style of this group of women was iconic. My life would not be the same today, if not for these women.

  2. Samantha Symonds · · Reply

    What has become quite salient to me after reading this post is the way in which beauty ideals have evolved over time. The concept of beauty is shaped alongside the context in which it is examined, and is therefore a function, or reflection of, that particular time period or context. Thus, the aspects that define what is ‘beautiful’ may be very different from one time period to the next. Thus, such ideals are fluid across space and time; they are not static abstractions. After reading this post, what has stuck with me the most is the fact that beauty ideals are not superficial in the least, as this ideal had a major impact on society, and therefore obvious social implications for women, that went much deeper than a particular style of dress.

    In a way, the flapper girl persona is a form of rebellion against the traditional norms that were imposed on women as alluded to in the ways they should look and act. A flapper girl’s attitude gave them the leverage, and therefore, as the author states, the authority, to drink alcohol, drive cars, and to smoke – practices that may have been traditionally looked down upon when judged alongside gender norms. Thus, the beauty ideal of the flapper gave women a newfound power and a way to negotiate the power relations between men and women so that they could now take on positions of authority in which they could, in fact, exercise jurisdiction.

    Thus, the concept of the flapper girl went well beyond the aesthetic exterior in the form of fashion or cosmetics; the flapper girl also had personality insinuations that allowed females to take on roles not formerly available to them. This is especially exemplified when the author notes that these new characteristics that a female possessed would have been unknown to their mothers.

  3. epasquar · · Reply

    This article is fascinating to me because I love the positive light that the author cast flapper girls in. It makes me wonder, though, what the general population of women in the 1920’s truly thought about the body image, behaviours, and reputation of flapper girls in their societies.

    As the previous posters have commented, flapper girls were rebellious and challenged gender norms. They smoked, drank alcohol, drove cars, dressed scandalously, cut their hair short; very rock and roll for the 1920’s! The biggest thing that stands out to me about these women is that they actively pursued a ‘boyish’ look. They cut their hair short, and aimed to have a “gawky”, “boyish” frame by wearing a brassiere or a girdle to replace the standard corset, as a means of minimizing their womanly curves. I just think it is so interesting and ironic that while they were forcing attention to their gawky limbs and avoiding looking curvy and stereotypically womanly, they were accessorizing their outfits with “gloves, handbags, and jewellery”, which seem very feminine to me. They were encouraging “masculine” behaviours by being openly sexual and by smoking, drinking alcohol and driving, yet were plucking their eyebrows and wearing “powder, eye-liner, and lipstick.

    The whole “flapper girl” ideal seems so scandalous to me. It is almost as if they are trying to be both masculine and feminine, and are completely disregarding the societal gender norms that were obviously in place in the 1920s. I love it.

    I am curious, though. The original author stated that flapper girls possess skills and characteristics that their mother never had. I wonder what these skills were, and if they were generally accepted in society. Maybe there is a reason their mothers did not possess those skills and/or characteristics. I imagine mothers and other older women disapproved of the flapper style and behaviour, but I wonder what other younger women thought of the style. Was it scandalous, yet fascinating, intriguing, and inspiring? Or was it scandalous, embarrassing, and a horrible representation of women from the 1920s?

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