Looking Back to Move Forward: The 1920s Flappers on American Magazine Covers
Ng Lay Sion
Many of us are familiar with the image of the 1920s Flapper and yet not many of us actually understand the ambivalent meaning—social, cultural and political ideas—that lies beneath this symbol. On one hand, the image of the New Woman or Flapper is viewed as a representation of feminism as “American women had just gained the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution” (Liming 137). Also, the less form-fitting styles of the 1920s that gave way to exposed arms, legs, and necklines are perceived as representing women’s sexual freedom and a trend toward androgyny. However, some claim that the flapper style—boyishly cropped hair, dramatic “vamp” makeup, loose, amorphous frocks and so forth—is in fact less representative of a move toward androgyny than a move “towards a distant and hazy ideal of pre-pubescent female youth” (Liming 109). In other words, instead of moving toward a gender-neutral condition, the youthful flappers were actually moving away from adult female bodies so that women remained “non-threatening to the continued operation of patriarchal norms” (Addison 8).
It is claimed that Oliver Thomas (original name, Oliveretta R. Duffy) was the first flapper in American history. Thomas was born in the working-class steel town of Charleroi, Pennsylvania in 1894. Although her first marriage only lasted two years, her divorce somewhat gave her class and background. After the divorce, Thomas moved to New York City with a confidence that her beauty would assure her success there. Indeed, her beauty brought her the first prize in a magazine-sponsored “Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest and as a consequence she became a model promoting the Victorian “Gibson Girl” in 1915. In The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media (2001), the Gibson Girl represents “the simultaneous embodiment of cultivated, Anglo-Saxon elegance and energetic, healthy womanhood” (Swinth emphasis 605). It was through a film called The Flapper (1920) that Thomas’s iconic image of the “Gibson Girl” changed to the “Flapper.” Ironically, Thomas was found dead in September 1920 after earning the title of “the first flapper.” As Liming claims, “Thomas might have been the first flapper, but she was far from the last, becoming an ultimately replaceable figure conscripted for use in the programs of jazz and modernity alike” (101).
Through the case study on Oliver Thomas, we can discern that the representations of a woman’s place were ambivalent and sarcastic in the 1920s. Although the flapper image dominated the decade’s magazine covers, they symbolized a wider tendency toward ideological submission in Western society. As Carolyn Kitch asserts in The Girl on the Magazine Cover, “neither sophisticated nor smart,” the flappers were “self-absorbed and silly,” “a joke” (122). Interestingly, it is not difficult to discover that black college graduates appeared on 1920s African American magazine covers with the same appearance as white girl grads (Swinth 607). However, rather than illustrations, these women were portrayed via photographs. The reason given in Girl on the Magazine Cover is that “in an era where black achievement was denied, illustrations were too suggestive of idealization. Photographs gave the covers necessary realism” (95; Swinth emphasis 607). Another controversial aspect that can be found in 1920s magazine covers is the images of babies and children. While the images of Flappers were popularized on magazine covers for Life, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Smart Set and others, “family values” also became a dominant motif on the 1920s American magazine covers. As Kitch suggests, baby covers “helped idealize American childhood as a white, middle-class, suburban experience, while also…naturalizing the typicality of those families as ‘American’” (148).
Whether it were Gibson Girls, Flappers, African American flappers or babies, through looking back to the dominant female images on the magazine covers, we come to understand how magazine covers reflected contradictory beliefs about the changing roles of women in the 1920s in America. In fact, “the boundaries of what is thinkable about how women look, act, and behave” are set through the repeated images impressed on the minds of viewers, which then results in the shaping of gender expectation in a society (Swinth 610). Even though “the first flapper” was established in order to maintain the patriarchal norms in the 1920s, it has become a genre dedicated to the interchangeability of women. For instance, Clara Bow, the “It” Girl who was “carefree, energetic, self-assured and breezily independent,” sporting short hair and short dresses in the film “It” (1927), has became the archetypal modern woman since 1920s (Barber, 2014). Judith Mackrell, the author of Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, claims that Clara Bow “embodied the flapper girl…For the hundreds of thousands of women going to the cinema every week, she was a role model. Before that time, those role models wouldn’t have been available, but cinema gave a huge critical mass of women a notion of themselves as liberated” (Barber, 2014).
Today, we can still see that flapper style is everywhere on the street. For this we have to thank to Oliver Thomas who created the image of “flapper” and Clara Bow who further transformed the meaning of “flapper” into a more independent, liberal and modern form, which has become the spiritual strength of modern women today.
Addison, Heather. “‘Must the Players Keep Young?’ Early Hollywood’s Cult of Youth.” Cinema Journal 45.4 (2006): 3-25. Print.
Barber, Nicolas. “Clara Bow: The Original ‘It Girl.’” BBC Culture. December 29, 2014. Web. Jan 2, 2017.
Kitch, Carolyn. The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media. USA: Chapel Hill University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Print.
Liming, Sheila. “Suffer the Little Vixens: Sex and Realist Terror in ‘Jazz Age’ America.” Journal of Modern Literature 38.3 (2015): 99-118. Print.
Swinth, Kirsten. “Categorizing The Female Type: Images of Women as Symbols of Historical Change.” Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002): 604-613. Print.