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During the period from World War I through the mid-1920s, a "Flapper" was a young woman characterized by independence and a lack of inhibition, though it was largely a question of individual rejection of convention (not dissimilar to what "Beatniks" were to the late 1950s, or "Hippies" the late 1960s), rather than part of an organized social or political movement (such as women's suffrage, which brought about women's right to vote in the U.S. in 1920).

 

Nowadays "Flappers" are associated with certain 1920s styles, such as fringed sack dresses, de-emphasized bustlines, marcelled and bobbed hairstyles, and devotion to what were then considered immodest dance crazes, such as the Charleston.

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Cinesage pretty much nailed it, but I'll just ad this, from Morris's "Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins:"

 

"Flappers of the twenties used to delight in wearing their overshoes ('galoshes' they were sometimes called) with the hooks unfastened, so that each boot would 'flap' against the other as the pretty thing made her way down the street."

 

I always thought the term originated more from the fringe on their dresses that flapped against their legs. Cyd Charisse's sequence in "Singin' in the Rain" is very nice example.

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Well folks, this is one of those riddles of language. The term "flapper" predates the 1920s, and several of the English language history and derivation websites I read regularly can't agree on just where it came from. It indicates a young woman of rather carefree and immoral behavior, and since after WWI more and more women decided that was the way they were going to behave, the term became the popular way to describe them.

 

I came across the term in a 1902 English novel that I read a few years ago, and it may be even older than that.

 

Betty Boop was already something of an anachronism when she came on the scene. But what would we do without her?

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At the risk of having the thread yanked for being too far off-topic, Morris's entry also cites Mencken's research and says "flapper" was in use in England in the 1890s "to describe a woman who, in the euphemism of the period, ' was no better than she should be' " or of loose morals. But Morris continues, "By 1910 the word was commonly used in this country, but without any derogatory implications." In Mencken's words, a flapper "was a somewhat foolish girl, full of wild surmises and inclined to revolt against the precepts and admonitions of her elders."

 

Dammit, but English is fun.

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