Drawing of a Flapper by Elizabeth Watson, ca. 1920
Prior to World War I, Victorian ideals dominated American culture. Women were expected to create a home environment that offered a private escape from the working world of men, to care for children, and to maintain sophisticated attire at all times. In the late nineteenth century women’s clothing styles incorporated layers of fabric, padded shoulders, and corsets intended to create an hourglass figure. Maintenance of long and luxurious hair was expected and was always to be worn up in elaborate fashions. It was unseemly for women to let their hair down anywhere but with their husbands, behind closed doors.
The economic and social changes brought on by World War I altered dominant Victorian styles. The Wilson administration worked to address wartime shortages by encouraging the consumption of smaller food portions and using less fabric in the making of clothes. Consequently, the “plump” style was abandoned in favor of shorter, simpler dresses that emphasized the newly popular slender figure. The increase of women working outside of the home likewise affected the style of dress, encouraging clothes that allowed more freedom of movement, and shorter hairstyles that took less time to prepare.
Though there were practical reasons behind these changes in fashion, there was also a growing movement for independence among women that rebellious styles worked to express. The long-fought battle of suffragists culminated in the adoption of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote. Other progressive reform movements of the decade inspired the provision of health care for mothers and infants. These campaigns combined with increased numbers of women working outside the home provided a sense of equality with men, despite the fact that women were subject to lower wages, and largely restricted to jobs related to housework, childcare, and nursing. The adoption of the flapper style typified by the bobbed hairstyle, slender figure, and a short skirt was an outward expression of this new empowerment, and a rejection of strict Victorian ideals.This drawing of a woman in a modern suit was part of Elizabeth Watson’s coursework as a student at Winthrop College. The woman depicted exhibits the key elements of flapper style.
Watson, Elizabeth. Plate VII. Art/Artists Vertical Files, Box 6. Published Materials Division, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.
Standard 5-4: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the economic boom-and-bust in America in the 1920s and 1930s, its resultant political instability, and the subsequent worldwide response.
Indicator 5-4.1 Summarize changes in daily life in the boom period of the 1920s, including the improved standard of living; the popularity of new technology such as automobiles, airplanes, radio, and movies; the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration; Prohibition; and racial and ethnic conflict.
Standard 8-6: The student will demonstrate an understanding of South Carolina’s development during the early twentieth century.
Indicator 8-6.3 Summarize the political, social, and economic situation in South Carolina following World War I, including progress in suffrage for women, improvements in daily life in urban and rural areas, and changes in agriculture and industry.
Standard USHC-7: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the economic boom-and-bust in America in the 1920s and 1930s, its resultant political instability, and the subsequent worldwide response.
Indicator USHC-7.2 Explain cultural responses to the period of economic boom-and-bust, including the Harlem Renaissance; new trends in literature, music, and art; and the effects of radio and movies.