This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture
When we think of the Flapper we think of Gatsby, champagne, cropped hair and extravagant parties. Behind this image was in fact a deeply symbolic figure of the cultural and social changes that took place in 1920s and 30s Britain. A major product of this disordered era, Flapper culture was one which transgressed notions of gender and sexuality. Public anxieties surrounding maternity, lesbianism and race all became exasperated in relation to this new model of femininity. Consequently, we can gather a more conclusive picture of the social atmosphere in Britain than one might initially think by assessing the emergence of Flapper culture in interwar Britain.
Surprisingly, in interwar Britain the Flapper was most commonly associated with ‘boyishness’ and a rejection of femininity. After experiencing life in the public sphere whilst men were at war, women began distancing themselves from domesticity, desiring increased social freedoms. This was very much reflected through the Flapper’s clothing choices. In an attempt to subvert the ‘ideal’ body type of a maternal curvaceous figure, the Flapper wore loose fitted clothing in order to make her figure look as masculine as possible. Corsets were abandoned, looser garments popularised and for many, dressing ‘like a man’ was preferred. Punch cartoons of the time indicate that this model of femininity was problematic, with the Flapper frequently being depicted as incompatible with maternity.
The blurred boundary between men’s and women’s clothing was not an entirely new prospect in interwar Britain, however, this was a style the Flapper adopted. For the first time in this period though, links were made between the ‘mannishness’ of the Flapper and lesbianism. The absence of male presence during WWI generated anxiety that women were becoming lesbians. Arguably though, it was the Radclyffe Hall trail of 1928 that first probed the public to associate mannish clothing with lesbianism.
This trial regarded a novel entitled The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Seemingly controversial for the interwar period, this story followed two female ambulance drivers during WWI, who fell in love. The author of this novel, was a lesbian who often went by the name of John, and was known for dressing in the ‘mannish’ way that encapsulated Flapper culture. The trial saw The Well of Loneliness’ contents being labelled ‘obscene’ for presenting lesbian relationships as natural and romantic. Press coverage of the case caused panic, insinuating that women who read the novel would end up rejecting men themselves. For some, the trial of Radclyffe Hall signified a turning point at which ‘mannish’ dress became associated with immorality. In turn, the Flapper began to be viewed as a problematic model of femininity.
Aside from the problematic elements of her character, the behaviour and appearance of the Flapper was also representative of female autonomy. The Charleston became a hugely popular style of dance during this period, reverting back to the popular portrayal of the Flapper that we see in film and television series. Beneath this perception though, the Charleston required women to wear loose clothing, have high energy levels and to move their bodies in ways that may not have typically been viewed as ‘proper’ for women. This type of culture was the epitome of modernity, and a Flapper partaking in such activities symbolised women’s freedom and sense of adventure. More specifically, the clothing worn by the Flapper when doing dances like that Charleston was quite literally ‘freeing’, allowing her to move without restrictions – just as the modern woman desired to in post-war society.
Perhaps the most sinister response to Flapper culture was society’s tendency to target foreign men, particularly Chinese men, as the perpetrators of drug habits which became commonly associated with the ‘modern woman’. Migrant sailor men suffered severe racial prejudice in interwar Britain, partly because of a narrative that they were responsible for the high levels of unemployment, which caused definitions of ‘Britishness’ to be violently reasserted in society.
Despite being tolerated before WWI, drugs like cocaine and opium soon became connoted with Chinese migrants, marking them a dangerous product of immigration. The Flapper was often found in environments involving drugs, sadly leading to the demonization of Chinese men, who were blamed when these women overdosed. Additionally, young women who became involved with men who sold opium suffered backlash for exemplifying the dangers of interracial relationships. Drug use had long been related to middle and upper-class men and soldiers; the British government actually overlooked this issue because India’s economy (part of the Empire) was heavily reliant upon opium trade with China. As soon as women crossed the boundary into environments involving drug use though, society had a problem. Perhaps less concerned with the health of these young women, the Flapper’s links to drugs was presented as an example of Western superiority over the Oriental culture. By portraying these women as victims of exploitation, the Flapper’s independence and her personal choice to transgress into new social avenues were forgotten, in an attempt to reassert social norms.
Ultimately, Flapper culture in interwar Britain signified much more than dressing up and flamboyant parties. Through transgressive dress and behaviour, she encapsulated the freedoms and adventures that the ‘modern woman’ of the post-1918 longed for in a new model of femininity. Sadly, though, society’s desire to return to the ‘social peace’ of pre-war times resulted in the Flapper becoming a problematic antithesis of social order, often leading to the demonization of both herself and those who associated with her.
By Kerry McCall