This extract from ‘A Few Figs from Thistles’ by Enda St Vincent Millay illustrates almost perfectly the image of the 1920s ‘Flapper Girl’. After the war in 1914, when the American female population reinvented themselves following having to take over all male roles, as most men were participating in the First World War. The emergence of this New Woman would mean society would never be the same.
Firstly the visual aspect of the Flapper Girl was unrestricted and masculine; their fashion expressed the New Freedom that women everywhere were all too eager to enjoy. From the nineteen and a quarter yards of fabric used to cover a woman in 1913 to the mere seven yards in 1928: which consisted of a thin frock over a brassiere, a pair of knickers and silk stockings. The absence of a corset from the woman attire highlights the changes in behaviour, as before they would have been arrested for not wearing one but post-1920s refused to wear them as a sign of their new found independence. Instead of accentuating the bosom as it had been previously, chests were flat and often bound. Women also began to see cosmetics as ‘affordable indulgences’; this was evidenced through the sharp rise in beauty salons: 750 beauty salons in New York in the 1920s to 40,000 nationwide in 1930. Womens’ hair became bobbed and bleached and everyday essentials for women included lipstick, rouge, nail varnish and powder. Other appearance differences included low heels, knee length skirts, and loud jewellery; Women were no longer obliged to look a certain way and so took advantage of this. The message to women was that they were constantly on display – and it was their job to make the best of themselves with these newly affordable products in their grasp.
Additionally pre-1920s drug takers were seen as dirty, unkempt, sly and invasive- and certainly not women. However in the twenties the most darling accessory was a tiny gold box containing cocaine worn dangling from a thin necklace. Also smoking was seen as a helpful slimming aid, this increased cigarette sales by 300% as youthful, slender, androgynous figures were what was desired and this was achieved by strict dieting and exercise as well as by drugs and nicotine. As woman valued their bodies to the extreme, pregnancy was an unflattering indignity. Pregnancy pre-1920s was considered a natural state because bearing children was seen as a woman’s primary role in life but attitudes had changed and so birth control options hit an all-time high. Diaphragms were illegally imported from Germany and Holland, women bought ambiguous items labelled ‘feminine hygiene’ and men asked their doctors to prescribe condoms for their health. Contraceptive methods freed the women, allowing them to experiment with sex before marriage without the risk of pregnancy. It freed them from the stereotype that a woman’s job was primarily child-bearing and being a mother; allowing them to feel like individuals and not the product for their family and husband. However, when dealing with motherhood, attitudes to raising their children greatly transformed as children were given more attention and affection and were encouraged to express their personalities. Obedience was valued before whereas, in the twenties independence was thought higher of.
Before the 1920s, you would not have seen any respectable female entering a saloon. Saloons were automatically associated with whisky, uncouth and masculine behaviour. Therefore without entering a saloon, she was highly unlikely to drink anywhere else. However after 1920, this whole idea was abolished, as illicit drinking