Flappers: the revolution of femininity through clothing


In this expository essay I present the transformations of women’s clothing during the 1920s in North Western countries. Specifically, I show what the flapper aesthetic was, and how this aesthetic transgressed traditional conceptions of femininity and masculinity. 


Throughout history, clothing has been a political, social and culturally transcendent element (Lipovetsky 2002). In this expository essay I present the changes in clothing associated with femininity and masculinity during the 1920s in the North Western countries. Specifically, I focus on the garments that defined the flapper aesthetic. In the first title I present the context of the 1920s and, in particular, the consolidation of the suffragist movement as a decisive event in the questioning of gender norms, of assignment of femininity and masculinity. In the second title I present the changes in clothing that occurred in that period, especially some of the garments typical of the flapper style. 

  1. Context: the 1920s 

In this essay I present topics based on the History of the Suit in the West course that I took in the first semester of 2022. All errors are my responsibility.

The 1920s, immediately following World War I, were marked by tremendous economic growth. In the United States the economy resurfaced, and there were a new number of jobs. The development of technology was at the service of the production of goods, and the use of the telephone, the automobile and electrical appliances were massive. On the other hand, this was a time of social changes that had an impact on the way of thinking –among others, due to the impact of World War I–, and it coincided with the expansion of the suffragist movement in the North Western countries that, from the nineteenth century in the United States, sought to expand the vote, education and other civil rights for women. 

As Miyares (2010) points out, after the United States, an organized feminism emerged in Great Britain. The suffragist movement converged with liberal proposals that were based on claims for equality, and demanded legal reforms such as the right to vote for married, widowed and single women. At the beginning of the 20th century, British suffragettes changed their strategies, and organized parades in the streets, and displays of civil disobedience such as refusing to pay taxes, among others. In Great Britain, the right to vote for women was granted immediately after World War I, as in many other North Western countries, and despite opposition from both conservative and liberal sectors. 

However, the social transformations of the 1920s exceeded legal reforms, and were also reflected in socio-cultural aspects such as the way of dressing, since this was a social context of strong questioning of old customs associated with both masculinity and femininity. On this I concentrate on the next title. 

        2.Changes in clothing: the emergence of flappers 

According to Doan (1988, pp. 669-672), the fashion of the 1920s in England provided space for fluid experimentation with respect to the forms of self presentation, which together with the phenomenon of masculine aesthetics for women allowed many women –mostly from the middle-upper and upper classes– to adopt a masculine style. This style was known by different names such as boy-girl, boyette, hard-boiled flapper, Modern Woman or Modern Girl. The word flapper referred to a boyish-figure. The model consisted of having short hair –with variations in style–, a slim body, especially the hips and bust, and a rebellious attitude that feigned sexual freedom. The clothing industry, especially ready-made clothes, helped popularize this style. Likewise, as Lipovetsky (2004) points out, in addition to the clothing industry, new forms of mass communication and new forms of life and modern values contribute to democratizing different styles of clothing. 

Some of the garments typical of the flapper style were, on the one hand, the haircut that was called garçonne, that followed the lines of the head, and the most common hat of this time, the cloché hat, that required short hair (Laver 2000, p. 235). In the following image we see this style in the American actress Louise Brooke. 

Louise Brook

On the other hand, in opposition to the Gibson girls model of the early 20th century, flapper women of the 1920s wore the short skirts —which were denounced by clerics in both Europe and America—they wore bust-smoothing corsets, and suits that did not delineate the waist and had a mark at the hips (Laver 2000). Art Deco also influenced the suit. This was manifested in the privilege of materials such as stones, glitter, and the color gold. In the following image we see this style in the American actress Norma Talmadge.

Norma Talmadge

According to Laver habits, such as cigarette smoking and dancing. The women began to dance Charleston. In this dance, women expressed their bodies in a very free way, moving both their arms and their legs. 

Final thoughts 

Throughout this expository essay I have presented ideas about the relationships between socio-cultural transformations, and the relevance of clothing to those transformations. In the 1920s, along with other social transformations, an aesthetic emerged that questioned the socio-cultural customs of clothing regarding femininity and masculinity, that of the flappers, according to which women adopted an aesthetic of masculinity. . Thus, clothing was one of the materials that revolutionized traditional conceptions of femininity. 

Bibliographic references 

Doan, Laura. (1988). «Passing fashions: reading female masculinities in the 1920s», Feminist Studies, 24(3), pp. 663-700. 

Laver, James. (2000). Breve historia del traje y la moda. Madrid: Cátedra Ediciones. Lipovetsky, Gilles. (2004). El imperio de lo efímero: la moda y su destino en las sociedades modernas. Barcelona: Anagrama, pp. 27-75. 

Miyares, Alicia. (2010). «El sufragismo». In Celia Amorós and Ana de Miguel (eds.), Teoría Feminista: de la Ilustración a la globalización, Madrid: Minerva Ediciones, pp. 245-293.

 “[t]he new erotic ideal was androgynous, and girls strove to resemble boys as much as possible. The curves […] were totally hidden» (2000, pp. 234-235). Associated with this, the social transformations of femininity were also evident in other 

3 Source: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flapper#/media/Archivo:Normatalmadge.jpg