The two young women above don’t fit into our modern day idea of the 1920s Flapper, but it is possible that the term has its roots in the appearance of the miss on the right.
In the 30 or so years that I’ve been studying the history of fashion I must have read a dozen or more different explanations of where the word actually originated. Probably the most common is the galoshes theory. It was said the the rebellious young things of the early 1920s took to wearing their galoshes unbuckled, and so the rubber shoes flapped back and forth as the girls walked about.
That may be true, but the term was in common use in the USA by 1920, when a film starring Olive Thomas titled The Flapper was released. And it seems that the word was used even earlier in the UK; originally it was used to mean a young prostitute, but later, by the end of the 19th century, just to mean any high spirited teenage girl. In particular, a girl young enough that her hair was not yet worn “up.”
One of the many theories is that girls in the 1910s tended to wear big floppy bows in their long hair, and that these bows flapped when the girls walked. So, they were referred to as flappers. And these young teens of 1915 grew up to be the wild young things of 1920 – the flappers as we know them.
Just for fun, two more tennis players of the 1910s, Minnie Glass and Ray Yingling:
Posted by becca fritschle:
What excellent theories! This is why I love “knowing you.” You are such a treasure of information both historical and fashionable–two of my loves!
Posted by Lizzie:
Oh, Becca, you are making me blush. I just love having a place to talk about historical fashion with people who get it. Thanks for reading and posting; it’s greatly appreciated!
Posted by Scott:
I like the theory that it was because of the way they danced … “flapping” their arms and legs from side to side. Fun topic, and GREAT photos! Thanks!
Posted by Christine H.:
Wow, how fascinating! I’ve heard the galoshes story a dozen times (even told as definitive fact by my costume history teacher), but I really like this theory. I do have a special affinity for those young girls with such large bows. 😀 I love learning little nuggets like this, thanks Lizzie!
Posted by Sarah:
This is one of those cases where all kinds of dubious theories emerge and are repeated until they become accepted as fact!
If you search using the term ‘flapper’ at the excellent British Cartoon Archive, you get plenty of results but perhaps the most interesting are the cartoons by W.H. Haselden. Check the first result here:
It is dated 1907! The later ones, from 1915 on, show the pre-1920s flapper who shares a lot of characteristics with the flapper as we know her – feckless, frivolous, flirtatious, fun loving – she just hasn’t bobbed her hair yet!
This one seems typical:
There’s also an excellent book on the subject, which is worth seeking out: “Women and the popular imagination in the twenties: flappers and nymphs” by Billie Melman. I can no longer access our local university library to check it again, but I do remember it having some useful information about the origin of the word.
Posted by Inky:
that’s very interesting – a question I never wondered about but now am happy to find the answer to!
Posted by Lizzie:
It is really interesting how a theory can become accepted as fact. There is no doubt that the word was used WAY before the 1920s in the UK, but not until later here in the US. The answer is out there!