When I'm talking to readers about my new, group biography Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation [Sarah Crichton, $28.00], there's one question I've come to fear: who would be the modern day equivalents of its six featured women (Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tamara de Lempicka, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker)?
The question feels impossible to answer because I've got to know my subjects too well to give them other faces and personalities. (Readers, though, have had plenty of ideas, including Madonna and Courtney Love , Tracy Emin and Lady Gaga.)
But even in more general terms it's hard for me to come up with a clear, contemporary equivalent of the flapper, because back in the 20s there wasn't any simple definition of who or what she was.
Flapper, as a term, became current in Britain just after World War I when it was applied to the generation of young women whose husbands and boyfriends had been slaughtered on the battle fields of Europe. Far from being pitied, these single women were feared as a dangerously unpredictable force: they'd just been given the vote, and many were earning their own money and they'd enjoyed an unprecedented taste of independence during the war years. According to Daily Mail (then and now a spinner of lurid headlines) the new "flapper generation" represented a potential social disaster.
In America, the term "flapper" had a more populist spin. It was the title of a 1920 film about a sassy shop girl with an eye on her boss, and it became widely associated with the best selling novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald who used the face and personality of his wife Zelda as the model for his Jazz Age heroines.
Then, as now, Zelda exemplified the flapper as party girl, with her bobbed hair, short skirts, cocktails and cigarettes, but she was also wayward, witty and clever, and determined to elevate her life into something extraordinary. Beyond her much-photographed beauty, her drinking and her dancing, Zelda increasingly saw herself as part of a generation of women who wanted the same sexual and social freedoms as men.
So the flapper was a complex kind of New Woman, part feminist and part It-girl; part serious, part silly. And if I had to define her 2014 sister, she would have to check most of the following boxes.
Stamina on the dance floor - of course
Dance crazes swept in waves through the 1920s and all of them demanded a lot more co-ordination rhythm and skill than 5 minutes of drunken twerking on Friday night. Those who could afford it took lessons from professionals - Nancy Cunard, the British poet and socialite, learned from the iconic Jazz Age dancer Josephine Baker. And if the Charleston and Black Bottom were addictive and liberating to dance they were also gratifyingly offensive to an older generation who regarded their uninhibited physicality as an insult to civilisation.
A taste for stimulants
It's hard for most of us now appreciate how exciting it was for women in the 1920s to be able to drink and smoke like men - as late as 1905 a woman could be arrested for walking down 5th Avenue with a cigarette in her hand.
During the prohibition years the banning of alcohol gave drinking a new illicit glamor, with a wild variety of cocktails being invented to cover the chemical aftertaste of illegally produced spirits. Among key flapper accessories was a little hip flask, that could be tucked discretely inside a lace garter.
Drugs were part of that culture too, on both sides of the Atlantic. Diana Cooper, the British aristocrat turned actor, frequently turned to morphine to ward off depression and nerves. Tallulah Bankhead was barely out of her teens when she started buying packets of cocaine on the street, keeping them knotted inside her handkerchief
A sense of style
The short-skirted, streamlined fashions of the 20s gave women an unprecedented fusion of elegance and freedom. So pitch-perfect was that fusion that the flapper style has never really gone away. Re-invented via Mary Quant and Biba in the late 60s and early 70s, revived again by the Gatsby fever surrounding Baz Luhrmann's recent film.
Back in the 20s, those fashions were available to woman across a newly wide social and economic spectrum, as mass production and mass marketing whisked the latest styles out of the couturiers and into the department stores.
There were outstandingly individual dressers - like Nancy Cunard whose famously avant-garde customizing of trends included her obsession with African bangles, which she wore by the arm load. But many flappers were also victims of fashion. The clothes of the 20s might have freed women to run walk and dance without the encumbrance of corsets and long skirts, yet they also required a slim, androgynous figure. Dieting wasn't new to the decade but it did develop into a mass obsession. When the cigarette company Lucky Strike directed a new advertising campaign to body conscious young women, they came up with the slogan, "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet," and their sales rocketed by 300 percent.
Again, its hard for 21st century women to appreciate the courage displayed by the flapper generation when, in historic numbers, they began transgressing established sexual codes. Nancy Cunard took lovers without apology or explanation, and dared anyone to call her nymphomaniac; the painter Tamara de Lempicka demanded that Paris allow her the same moral licence as male artists as she experimented with straight and gay love affairs. Tallulah Bankhead bounced provocatively and self-promotingly around New York parties with the line "I'm a lesbian, what do you do?"
It also took courage to brave sexual emancipation at a time when birth control was so erratic and abortions so dangerous - Josephine, Tallulah and probably Nancy all suffered grave medical complications from the brutality of the available procedures.
A belief in the self
Some older feminists regarded the flapper generation as selfish and self absorbed, indifferent to the struggles that had gained them the vote. But others saw them taking feminism onto a new phase -figuring out what freedom might mean to women on a personal rather than a political level.
Certainly there were few role models available to my six subjects they each figured out what freedom meant to them. In their individual ways they were searching for a balance between love and liberation, between pleasure, commitment and career (all six worked long and hard at their chosen professions, whether writing, painting or performing.) They were living their own variation of the battle cry uttered by one of Fitzgerald's flapper heroines when she insists that she just wants "to live and die in my own way."
Of my six, only Diana Cooper came close to finding contentment, and it's not surprising that disappointment, loneliness and pain shadowed much of the flapper experiment. There were hard battles, both private and public, to be fought as the women of the 1920s strove to emancipate themselves. And it's the fact that many of those battles are still being fought that makes the flapper generation so interesting, and so resonant to women today.
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