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.
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 American jazz culture to Europe.
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.
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 also began taking work outside the home and challenging a 'woman's place' in society. Voting and women's rights were also practiced.
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 express approval, 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.
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 Borden, 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.
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.
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.