It’s spring time, and teenagers are graduating from secondary school. It’s the time to get annoyed over the helpless youth, a well-known practice through history. The 1920s, especially, was the provocative girls’ era.

A new female figure appeared in the 1920s. Young girls with their hair shaved short, heavy makeup and donning bolder dresses. They rode bikes and drove cars, chain-smoked cigarettes, drank like men, flirted outrageously, and plunged into wild jazz dances like charleston and black bottom.

Through behaviour and appearance, these girls challenged the boundaries between sexes. It was a form of youth rebellion, a project of liberation, and it didn’t go unnoticed.

‘Backfisch’ and flappers

The young girls were given several nicknames. In Norway, the expression backfisch was used, which in German means ‘fried fish’, i.e. fish that were too small to be boiled. The French expression la garçonne was also used, was also used to mean ‘boy girl’ or ‘bachelor girl’.

In the US, the term flapper was popular.  The term was born out of the idea of a young bird flapping while learning to fly. The unbridled flapper is well represented throughout female figures in literature, including author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books. Hollywood films also heavily depicted the naughty flapper character.

All these expressions had something condescending about them. Backfisch, bachelor girls and flappers were excused. They hadn’t grown fully into being an adult yet.

The wild years

In the United States, it was all about ‘The Jazz Age’, in France the ‘Les années folles’. The 1920s were the wild years. The time of restless youth.

The catchy and popular jazz music was controversial. In the US, it was associated with the ‘lost generation’ – young people who grew up in the aftermath of the First World War. Above all, it was a symbol of multicultural society, which had many gloomy critics.

“Negro music” was the racist epithet that jazz received. The Norwegian economy professor Knud A. Wieth-Knudsen called it “one of the many future degenerations”. Jazz testified that man was on his way back to the animal stage of evolution, he said.

The end is near

While girls shook butt to the popular music, the critics prophesised a cultural crisis and demise.

The anti-feminist, Wieth-Knudsen, was worried that the young girls lavished their “best youth on the cinema, jazz and flirting.” Girls took jobs at the telegraphs, shops and offices.

They earned their own money but the problem was, in the professor’s opinion, that the girls lacked economic sense. They were more characterized by the “compulsion to imitate fashions and a thirst for pleasure.”

Serious, pessimistic men feared that party culture, materialism and new gender roles would lead to family disintegration, societal depravity and the fall of the white race.

“Call the young back from the smoky, jazz-pulsing premises,” urged weekly magazine Allers in 1926, “and let the home, with its love, coziness and warmth give them a different air of body and soul.”

 

Media and advertising

Through the gramophone and radio, jazz music spread, and mass media such as movies, magazines and newspapers conveyed the modern girl’s “look” in an efficient manner. The flapper phenomenon was transnational.

Although few girls were ‘flapper’ through and through, it was a new style that females of all ages adopted to varying degrees. In particular, the short hair was iconic for the era.

Advertising in the art deco style portrayed androgynous and decadent female figures with veiled, flirtatious faces.

Then came the cigarette brands just for women and advertisements showed girls as confident and independent.

The Age of Jazz paved the way for modern sanitary towels. A less meticulous sexual morality and fewer taboos was an opportunity that American sanitary manufacturers seized to promote more intimate products.

The naughty girl’s feminism

In the United States, ad text and images played on the idea of the freedom-seeking flapper: “You bear the sheerest smocks and the liveliest dresses without a moment of fear or doubt. You can keep on going for hours: driving, dancing, walking. You confront all situations with confidence. The name is Kotex.”

It took decades before women’s sanitary towels were common in the general population.

“They’re like bad demons, hard as nails, smart as crooks, and they have the courage to live without morals or beliefs. No one can keep reins on them!”, stated an American flapper novel.

Women had come down from the pedestal. They would live by their own needs.

The newspaper Tidens Tegn published a report from Paris in 1925 where a young woman said: “I admire the young women of our time. They are not always respectable. They live with ruthless haste. They know that life is short. They will be noticed. They will live.”

Consumerism

Flapper feminism rejected the idea that women should uphold society’s morals through temperance and chastity.

The rebellious youth that these girls represented hailed materialism and the flappers were the ultimate consumers. Shopping was entertainment and recreation. Money came and went.

It goes without saying that few could live this way in practice, especially in Norway, where the 1920s were an unstable time economically.

Nevertheless, during the 1920s, girls grew brazen and flamboyant, with a project of liberation that foreshadowed our consumerist society. 

Reference

This article was published as a comment piece in Dagbladet on 18th April 2015, under the dossier ‘History’.

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