No decade in recent history has seen as much change in the status and style of women as the 1920s, sometimes called the Roaring Twenties or the Era of Wonderful Nonsense. Trendy young women of the 1920s were nicknamed flappers, and the flapper became the image that represented the tremendous change in women's lives and attitudes during that period.
During the early part of the twentieth century women in countries from Australia to Norway were gaining the right to vote, and more and more women were able to support themselves by working at jobs. In addition to women's new freedoms, by the 1920s there were automobiles to drive, films to see, and jazz music to dance to, and modern young women wanted to join in the fun. Young women were no longer content to spend hours binding themselves into burdensome layers of clothing or styling long masses of hair.
The term flapper originated in Great Britain, where there was a short fad among young women to wear rubber galoshes (an overshoe worn in the rain or snow) left open to flap when they walked. The name stuck, and throughout the United States and Europe flapper was the name given to liberated young women. Flappers were bold, confident, and sexy. They tried new fad diets in an effort to achieve a fashionable thinness, because new fashions required slim figures, flat chests, and slim hips. The flapper dress was boxy and hung straight from shoulder to knee, with no waistline, allowing much more freedom of movement than women's fashions before the 1920s. While it did not show breasts or hips, it did show a lot of leg, and the just-below-the-knee length horrified many of the older generation. French fashion designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883–1971) did much to popularize the new freedom of the flapper look.
Flappers also shocked conservatives by cutting their hair short and wearing makeup. Before the 1920s long hair was the mark of a respectable lady, but flappers had no time for elaborate hairdos. They cut, or bobbed, their hair just below the ears and curled it in dozens of tiny spit curls with a new invention called a bobby pin. Some also used electric curling irons to create small waves called "marcels," named after Marcel Grateau (1852–1936), the French hair stylist who invented them. Cosmetics had long been associated with prostitutes and actresses, but flappers considered it glamorous to wear dark red lipstick, lots of rouge, and thick black lines around their eyes, sometimes made with the burned end of a matchstick. New cosmetics companies including Maybelline and Coty began manufacturing products to help women achieve the new look. For the first time, women began to carry cosmetics with them in handbags wherever they went.
One of the most famous flappers was silent film star Clara Bow (1905–1965). Sometimes called the "It" girl, Bow was thought to have "it," a quality of open sexuality, innocence, and fun that was the very definition of the flapper. Many women imitated Bow's look by drawing a bow shape on their lips, rimming their eyes in black, and curling their hair onto their cheeks.
Despite the youthful enthusiasm for flapper style, some people felt threatened by it. When hemlines began to rise, several states made laws charging fines to women wearing skirts with hemlines more than three inches above the ankle, and many employers fired women who bobbed their hair. However, in the excitement and gaiety that followed the end of World War I in 1918, the movement toward a freer fashion could not be stopped by those who valued the old ways. It took the stock market crash of 1929 to bring the era of the flapper to a sudden end. Almost overnight, the arrival of an economic depression brought a serious tone to society. Women's hemlines dropped again, and the carefree age of the flapper was over.