Revolution in Manners and Morals during the 1920s – The Arrival of the Flapper and Sheik

The Twenties was the decade when modern society was established, when more things changed more rapidly than in all the years prior and since, and when urban culture had its beginnings. (Jennings, p. 102) The Twenties was characterized by a rejection of the code of the Victorian Age that held women to stringent standards of conduct, especially in the context of male-female relationships. Women were not supposed to drink or smoke, publicly or privately. They were not allowed to spend unsupervised time with a man. They certainly should never permit a man to kiss them. (Allen, Chapter V, Section 1.)

Victorian Age women were epitomized by the “Gibson Girl”, the turn of the century ideal American girl. (TFC, Vol 2, pp. 182-191). Women between 15-30 yearned to be like her. The concept of the “Gibson Girl” was created by illustrator, satirist Charles Dana Gibson. She was tall and stately, wonderfully dressed in the fashion of the time. Skirts were long and flared, and dresses were tailored with high necks and close-fitting sleeves. The “Gibson Girl” was corseted, fully figured with a tiny waist, superbly coiffed, long hair dangling to her waist or piled on top of her head in the bouffant, chignon and pompadour hairstyles, which were all the rage in the early Edwardian Fashion era up to and during the First World War. (

“Susan E. Meyer described the Gibson Girl attributes in her book, America’s Great Illustrators:

She was taller than the other women currently seen in the pages of magazines… infinitely more spirited and independent, yet altogether feminine. She appeared in a stiff shirtwaist, her soft hair piled into a chignon, topped by a big plumed hat. Her flowing skirt was hiked up in the back with just a hint of a bustle. She was poised and patrician. Though always well bred, there often lurked a flash of mischief in her eyes. She would smile, but was never seen laughing; further adding to her enchanting persona of self-assurance.

Her hourglass figure, corset and upswept hair with flowing curls became the fashion necessity of the early 1900s. The Gibson Girl created the perfect woman combining traditional female beauty with the “spunk and wit of American youth”, according to They further state she was “fashion, beauty and social success”.

In contrast to the Gibson Girl, the “Flapper” became the epitome of the Jazz Age. The “Flapper”, a term that referred to the sound of the unbuckled galoshes young women wore, symbolized the revolution in manners and morals of the Twenties. The Flapper was glorified by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his popular book, “This Side of Paradise.” Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, was the quintessential hedonistic flapper. (Jennings, p. 115)

The Flapper was described by Warner Fabian in his 1923 best seller, “Flaming Youth” as “restless, seductive, greedy, discontented, craving sensation, unrestrained, a little morbid, more than a little selfish, intelligent, uneducated, sybaritic, following blind instincts and perverse fancies, slack of mind as she is trim of body, neurotic and vigorous, a worshiper of tinsel gods at perfumed altars, fit mate for the hurried, reckless and cynical man of the age.” (Moore, p. 69-70)

Flappers contrasted greatly with the Victorian Gibson Girl. They sported short skirts and bobbed their hair. They turned down their hose, powdered their knees and painted their lips bright red. They smoked cigarettes and drank cocktails in public. They hung out in speakeasies and nightclubs where they danced the Tango, the Black Bottom and the biggest dance craze of all—the Charleston—with bare arms and legs flying. Parents, teachers and pastors were scandalized by Flappers and their boyfriends, known as “Sheiks”. These fellows wore knee-length raccoon coats and always kept their hip flasks full of illegal gin. Everyone blamed it on the music. An article in the August 1921 edition of The Ladies’ Home Journal posed the question, “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?”

The Flapper, a magazine devoted to this new image of womanhood, used this description in 1922: “Bobbed hair, powder and rouge on the face; use of lipstick; ‘plucked’ eyebrows, low cut sleeveless bodice, [and] absence of corset.” All these elements were in their own way revolutionary—in earlier eras, heavy cosmetics were taboo, and clothing covered rather than revealed. But one aspect was left out: The flapper look was lean and androgynous, and maintaining that ideal often required a special “flapper diet.” The Flapper rejected the Gibson Girl hour-glass figure look by abandoning the corset, dropping waists on dresses, and bounding her breasts. And, the long-flowing tresses were replaced by cutting (“bobbing”) her hair. (Jennings at 109)

To obtain and retain the flapper figure, women turned to laxative-laced weight-loss gums, slimming girdles, and cigarettes, among other techniques. Smoking distinguished flappers from their mothers and grandmothers, and cigarettes’ appetite-suppressing qualities were considered an asset. Lucky Strike cigarettes developed an entire advertising campaign on the wait-control issue: “To keep a slender figure no one can deny, Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” (Id.)

Raw vegetables also helped achieve the new in vogue figure style. A study of the diet of Smith College students in the 1920s noted that consumption of potatoes had diminished, while students were eating more celery, tomatoes, and lettuce. People followed the Hollywood 18-Day Diet—a prototype of modern fads. Inspired by stories about their favorite movie starlets, they ate only oranges, grapefruit, toast, and eggs. (Id.)

Yvonne Blue was a Chicago teenager who came of age in the 1920s. Her parents described her as “the personification of wild modern youth”—in other words, a flapper. In her diary, she recorded days of fasting and longing descriptions of the buttery grilled cheese and lemonade she denied herself. According to historian Joshua Zeitz, “the expectation that they starve themselves in pursuit of flapperdom [was] a very real dilemma for many young women in the 1920s.” (Id.)

“Flapper Girl”, The Lumineers (2012), gives a description of the flapper from the vantage point of a 21st Century band.

[Verse 1]
Cut off all of your hair
Did you flinch, did you care
Did he look, did he stop and stare
At your brand new hair
Local boy, local news
Power lines hangin boots
Firemen in their trucks cut loose
A local boy’s shoes
Cadillac, Cadillac
Businessmen dressed in slacks
I’m gonna buy one for us when i get back
A big Cadillac

And you can wave to all of your friends
And I’ll never leave you again

Would you write, would you call back baby if
I wrote you a song
I been gone but you’re still my lady and
I need you at home

[Verse 2]
Romeo, Juliet
Balcony in silhouette
Makin Os with her cigarette
It’s Juliet
Flapper girl, flapper girl
Prohibition in curls
Hair of gold and a neck of pearls
It’s flapper girl

And you can wave to all of your friends
And I’ll never leave you again

Would you write, would you call back baby if
I wrote you a song
I been gone but you’re still my lady and
I need you at home

Cause if you ain’t behind my door
Then I ain’t got a home anymore

Would you write would you call back baby if
I wrote you a song
I been gone but you’re still my lady and
I need you at home

Lovers come, lovers go
Lovers leave me alone
She’ll come back to me

Twenties women also became liberated career-wise. The advances in the kinds of household machines and their ever-increasing affordability due to “Coolidge prosperity” resulted in less demand on the housekeeper’s time and energy and thus a growing independence to seek jobs outside the house. (Allen, V, 3) Technological advances that freed women from traditional household chores included electric stoves, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, washing machines, central heating, running water, modern plumbing, and ready-made clothing. Women were taking white-collar jobs rather than jobs in factories or as domestic servants. They became librarians, teachers, nurses, clerks, telephone operators, secretaries, stenographers, shop assistants, social workers, journalists, etc. (Moore, p. 85) Careers provided money, which led to living outside the family house, and cars gave them freedom, replacing the home visit on the porch with the evening date (“going out”) – using an automobile to leave the house and get away from chaperones.

Women’s struggle for equality and the right to vote reached fruition in The Twenties. The Women’s Suffrage Movement can be dated to the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848. In July of that year, at Seneca Falls in upstate New York, activists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony began a seventy-year struggle to secure the right to vote. Attendees signed a document known as the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which was primarily written by Stanton.

Although Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming had given women the right to vote at the state level by the end of the Nineteenth Century, the movement reached its apex in the years after WWI, partly because women had taken on new, independent, formerly manly, roles during the war. The 19th Amendment granting women the constitutional right to vote passed in August 1920. Distinguish the right to vote amendment from the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was drafted by Lucretia Mott at Seneca Falls and introduced in Congress at every session since. But, Congress did not approve the ERA until 1972. Since then, the amendment has not gathered the support of a sufficient number of states to become part of the Constitution. There is a fuller discussion of the ERA in the Woman’s Rights/Sexual Revolution Section of this work.

In addition to the right to vote, women in the early Twentieth Century advocated for other political rights, such as the right to inherit, earn, own and transfer property and the right to divorce. The National Woman’s Party led by suffragist Alice Paul became the first “cause” to picket outside the White House. On October 17, 1917, Ms. Paul was sentenced to seven months in the local DC jail for her activities. On October 30 she began a hunger strike. After a few days prison authorities began to force feed her.

Songs of the Suffragettes, sung by Elizabeth Knight, (Smithsonian Folkways Records FW05281 / FH 5281 1958) is an album of songs from the suffrage era with extensive liner notes by Irwin Silber containing a history of the suffrage movement and song lyrics. The liner notes and lyrics can be found at Songs on the album include the following: