Six flappers who paved the way for independent women

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 3:49pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 3:49pm

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation
by Judith Mackrell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
4 stars

Anne Helen Petersen

For most, the "flapper" evokes images of finger-curled bobs, drop-waisted dresses and endless Charlestoning, like a scene from Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby on a loop. She's the spirit of the Jazz Age, with its connotations of excess and indulgence, a drunken decade before the sobering Depression. A caricature, in other words.

In reality, the flapper was a rarefied figure, limited to the urban, moneyed areas of 1920s America.

The Jazz Age was, indeed, a time of tremendous change for women. The advances of modernity made it easier for them to leave their traditional realm (the private sphere) and enter the world of men (the public sphere). On trolleys, at the movies, in department stores, women were out of the home and, most importantly, consuming - which, in a capitalist country, is what really marks you as a citizen.

Young women were leaving their rural homes in droves and moving to urban centres, where they lived with other women, worked as shopgirls and spent money on themselves. Most would eventually marry and return to domesticity, but this experience of independence was what truly marked them as "New Women".

But they weren't flappers, not in the way we think of them. True, many bobbed their hair; almost all took off their corsets. But few had the means to wreak the sort of societal havoc that sparked widespread anxiety among the Victorian generation. So where did the figure of the flapper come from? From the media, of course - as with the hippie or the goth, the media used high-profile women to amplify the flapper's existence and the anxiety that accompanied it.

A very small selection of women had the means, the visibility and the gumption to act out the sort of social and cultural rebellion that millions of women would modify and apply, on a much smaller scale, to their own lives. Six of these highly visible women form the core of Judith Mackrell's sprawling and addictive Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation. They hailed from all echelons of the 1920s social sphere.

Tamara de Lempicka, who would make her name painting the New Women of Paris in the 1920s, was a Polish-born refugee of the Russian revolution.

Stage actress Tallulah Bankhead grew up a Southern belle; she was kicked out of a string of boarding schools before rejecting a traditional debut for the chance to appear in a silent film.

Lady Diana Manners was born to one of the oldest families in Britain, and battled the expectations of her royal birth, first as a member of the "Corrupt Coterie", staging "exhibitionist stunts" at highfalutin parties, then working in surgery wards during the first world war, and finally as an acclaimed actress.

The similarly well-born Nancy Cunard was a fiercely intelligent yet emotionally starved girl who rebelled by flunking out of debutante society, offering herself to soldiers, and marrying and swiftly divorcing a man who'd promised to offer some semblance of stability.

Zelda Fitzgerald is the most recognisable name of the group, but most know her as the somewhat-crazed wraith from Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. But the former Zelda Sayre possessed a beauty and vivaciousness so powerful that when she showed up at a dance, all the other girls would give up and go home. After marrying F. Scott she not only became his primary muse but the source of his most lingering descriptions of 1920s life: he culled her journals, letters and conversation for the phrases that would become the language with which we describe the 1920s.

But not all of these flappers were white and wealthy: African-American Josephine Baker grew up dirt poor in St Louis before her mother arranged her marriage, at age 12, to a man twice her age in order to circumvent her burgeoning sexuality. Baker fled that husband and married another at 15, but the men were just a means to an escape, the stage and freedom. Baker, however, was no ordinary showgirl: even when performing the role of a black stereotype, she inflected it with a complexity that made her, in one producer's words, "stand out like an exclamation point".

But it wasn't until she went to France that Baker truly made her name and experienced what it meant to not only be venerated, but (relatively) free from prejudice based on the colour of her skin.

If these stories sound tantalising, it's because each flapper's early rebellion and rise to prominence reads as juicily as the best celebrity gossip, punctuated with lusty affairs (with men and women alike), drug use and the jubilant pleasures of youth. These six beguiling women were indeed part of a dangerous generation, but what's even more dangerous is the way they, and the sexual energy that fuelled them, were put in their place, ushering in years of reactionary, regressive sexual politics.

Therein lies the lesson of the flapper, as pertinent today as in their waning days: we map our most vivid fantasies on the bodies of our female celebrities, and as those fantasies sour, those bodies come to bear the bruises of our confusion and regret.

Slate magazine