August 26, 1920, women won their right to vote. As the decade wore on, women lost everything else. They lost the corsets that bound their bodies into unnatural silhouettes; they lost the 10 pounds of skirts and petticoats that kept them from any true athleticism; they lost the yard-and-a-half of hair that had to be combed, braided, piled and pinned each day. Some took these losses to the extreme, becoming the lanky, gin-swilling, cigarette-smoking exhibitionists, capturing an entire attitude and lifestyle in a single word.
Just about everything we identify with modern womanhood—for good or for ill—emerged in the mid-1920s when the Flapper arrived on the scene. She didn’t need a husband; she wanted a boyfriend. Or two. Or three. Courting moved from the sofa in her parents’ parlor to the back seat of a car—maybe even her own. She smoked a little (or, a lot), drank a little (or, a lot) and danced wherever and whenever music played. Rather than “do without,” she “charged it.” And, perhaps most significantly, any woman could brighten up a dreary day with a new pair of cute shoes.
Lest she be written off as merely a shallow, self-absorbed hedonist, though, let’s remember the times from which she was born. American soldiers were returning home from the Great War, having seen things for which nothing in their lives on the family could have prepared them. Not only had they been a part of brutal trench combat and horrific chemical warfare, they’d also had a taste of European women—French, to be exact—and they came home seeking a world that could accommodate their new sense of adventure. Advances in manufacturing made it possible to create more stuff, so more people were needed to work in the factories that made stuff, and advertising agencies were faced with the daunting task of making people think they needed stuff. Motion pictures literally brought the world to the corner theater, and portable record players brought jazz bands to the beach. And, for the first time ever, the world seemed to belong to the young. The out-going powers might have tried to stifle the growing sense of freedom with Prohibition and Morality laws, but this was a new generation that would be neither sobered, nor censored.
Of course, flappers brought us more than short skirts, the Charleston, and consumer-friendly mascara. Those straight, sheath dresses were cut for bodies that were more boyish than bodacious, so while women were released from the confinement of waist-crunching corsets, they took on boob-binding bandages. Smoking was promoted in advertisements as a great alternative to snacking. The flapper was the embodiment of an intoxicated high-school girl wearing too much make-up and too little clothing dropped into a shopping mall full of frat boys. And somehow, she managed to survive and thrive, while outwardly seeming to be rather bored with it all.
This is the balancing act I tried to capture with Lilly Margolis in Lilies in Moonlight. She, like most flappers, takes on a role she’s not quite able to play—like a little girl in high-heeled shoes. Wobbly. There’s a lot of vulnerability behind that make-up, and a lot of insecurity wrapped in the arms of too may men. She’s just one of many girls moving en masse into uncharted societal territory, with the precedents of historical womanhood forever destroyed.
Emotionally equipped or not, flappers lived the flesh-and-blood life of an aesthetic ideal. They embodied the droopy caricatures that graced the covers of the magazines, wearing their critics’ snide remarks like so many cheap accessories. They smiled with crimson lips and saw the world through kohl-rimmed eyes, taking the equality handed to them by their suffragette mothers and turning it into something more than a political victory. Suddenly, women had a voice not only in the ballot box, but in the rumble seat, the college campus, and the athletic field. True, it came with a price—the loss of an innocence that could never be recovered. In the space of a few years, the veil that had separated the fairer sex from the fearsome beast was torn, but not irreparably. It would take another war and an aeronautically engineered bra to get it back.
- Allison Pittman
You can check out this Flapper-filled inspirational tale, Lilies in Moonlight, in stores now!