Flapper Skirts As Feminist Symbols

After WWI, the flappers of the Twenties took off their corsets and shortened their skirts to demonstrate their freedom and independence.

For centuries, women wore their skirts long, often so long that they dragged on the floor. Then in the second decade of the early Twentieth Century, during World War I, skirt lengths began to creep up to the ankle and the bottom of the calf. The War ended in November of 1918, and skirts continued to shorten. By 1920, they were lingering just below the knee, and the flapper was born.

The shorter skirt became a potent symbol of the changing role of women in the world. Women could vote now, and they had proven their value to the workforce during the War. They could choose their own role or occupation, make a living and be independent. They no longer had to marry for financial support.

Girls in their late teens or early twenties were the first to wear the short skirt as a statement that they were New Women, no longer bound by pre-war values. The old-fashioned long skirt came with an array of constricting undergarments. Corsets bound the female body into the current fashionable form, and petticoats created a barrier between the skirt and skin.Until the advent of the Twentieth Century, the female ankle and calf were hidden erotic zones. The flapper changed that. Freedom of movement was a core principle of flapper fashion.


The flapper dispensed with corset and petticoat and reduced her undergarments to a single piece, the step-in. Over this went the dress, often designed in two parts. The skirt was attached to a sort of sheer tank top to provide the loose low waist characteristic of the Twenties. Over it went a matching loose top or blouse that was frequently sleeveless. The fashionable shape was now boyish, straight up and down, and full-figured women and girls bound their chests to achieve the desired flatness.

Under the skirt, the flapper wore sheer flesh-colored stockings, rolled and twisted to keep them in place without garters. A breeze might reveal the stocking top or even a bare knee, and the rolled stockings required regular adjustment, drawing further attention to newly-revealed legs. Bare skin and exposed knees were shocking stuff for elders, but the flapper considered her body her own, and preferred to be unbound and active. Gabrielle Chanel, the French designer who pioneered the use of knit fabric in women's clothes, was one of the originators of active wear for women during the "╦ťteens, and her designs were updated by the flappers.

The word flapper came from British slang for an awkward teenage girl. Some of this youthful flavor can be seen in the illustrations of John Held Jr., a cover artist and magazine illustrator whose work focused on the flapper and whose images survive to define her. The flappers, however, did not consider themselves little girls - they worked hard to be grown up and sophisticated. Along with their short skirts they wore short hair, lipstick, rouge, and powder.

Slimness was essential to the flapper's look, and women began to watch their weight and diet as never before. Smoking became popular as a weight control aid, and drinking was fashionable despite (or perhaps because of) prohibition. Some flappers even swore. The days of the refined, restrained, repressed lady were over.

Some critics claimed that flappers were emulating men, seizing male power and freedom by looking like men. They were indeed like men in that they made their own choices and expressed their sexuality more freely than ever before. The flapper would have laughed at the ideal, chaste, Victorian maiden who considered a kiss tantamount to a proposal. But the flapper didn't want to be a man. She wanted to be a woman, a New Woman, the woman of her own creation.

Such attitudes were bound to provoke criticism. Journalists went to great lengths to describe the flapper's lack of modesty, propriety and other womanly virtues. Clearly she was out of control, at least the control of anyone other than herself.But instead of repressing the flapper, these attacks only helped to popularize her style. By the middle of the Twenties, the short skirt was in style for women of all ages. Perhaps matrons wore it a little lower than college girls, but they too bound their bosoms, bobbed their hair and went to the speakeasies for a drink.

Until the great stock market crash of 1929 brought on the Depression, the flapper ruled supreme. Even when skirts went down a bit in the thirties, women still wore relatively few restrictive undergarments and remained concerned with being able to move about freely. The bosom re-emerged, but it was no longer bound by a corset. Short skirts would return to fashion again, over and over throughout the rest of the Twentieth Century, making it perfectly clear that Woman too had legs, and that she was willing to stand on her own two feet.

© Demand Media 2011