Dictionary.com

The Original American Flapper

In a 1923 interview Zelda Fitzgerald told a reporter that she loved her husband’s “books and heroines,” especially the heroines who were like her. She explained that she liked girls like Rosalind Connage, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise, because she admired “their courage, their recklessness and spendthriftiness.” She continues: “Rosalind was the original American flapper.”

Zelda Fitzgerald dates “the original American flapper” to three or four years before. Back then, she states, “[G]irls of their type were pioneers. They did what they wanted, were unconventional, perhaps, just because they wanted to for self-expression.” However, as of 1923, girls were flappers because, according to Zelda, it was “the thing everyone does.” In this interview, Zelda charts flappers from pioneering to predictable in just four years.

When did flapper come to mean the strong, independent, and sometimes reckless female heroine both idealized and embodied by Zelda Fitzgerald, an exhibitionist in her early 20s at the time of the interview? Flapper entered English in the 16th century meaning a flat item used for striking. During the 18th century, flapper first described a person who flaps something, and also a young bird learning to fly. It was not until the late 19th century that flapper was used in reference to a woman.

Though the etymology is unknown, it is thought that perhaps this is a metaphorical extension of the “young bird” sense. It also might have come from a Northern English dialect in which the terms flap or flappy (now obsolete) were used in reference to “an immoral woman” or “a prostitute.” The sense of “a boldly unconventional young woman” first emerged in English in the late 1800s. At the time, a flapper was a girl in her late teens, especially one who puts adventure and excitement above manners. The term flapper continued to grow in meaning in the 1920s. By the end of the decade, it could be used in a similar political context as the term suffragette. In fact in 1929, the first UK election in which women were allowed to vote in was referred to as “the flapper vote” or “the flapper election.”

Zelda Fitzgerald was a fiery girl in her late teens when she first met her famous future husband, though by this time the term flapper had extended to all young women, even those beyond their teenage years. In a 1918 note to his soon-to-be bride, F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the character of Rosalind Connage in This Side of Paradise resembled Zelda “in more ways than four.” The woman who she referred to as “the original American flapper” was, in fact, based on Zelda Fitzgerald herself.

29 Comments

  1. Johnathon -  April 29, 2014 - 11:34 am

    To think that the day this was posted I was on an airplane heading to a place that would change my life forever. I believe in equal rights for all, but privileges for the working class. You only get out of life what you put in.

    Reply
  2. Chelsea -  June 10, 2013 - 6:35 am

    I beleive that if I lived in this time era I would have been a “flapper”. Not because I like to wear loose clothing or anything of that nature. However, I am the type of woman who goes against traditions and norms and create my own way. I don’t like being told that it’s a “woman’s job”. I’m the type of woman who will do the most disgusting “manly job” just to prove a point. I’m just saying that more woman should stand for their rights. Even today!

    Reply
  3. diamond -  May 30, 2013 - 10:44 am

    That was really FaB to read!!!! Thank you (*^,)

    Reply
  4. Lucy -  May 20, 2013 - 4:21 pm

    It seems odd, flapper used to mean something that flaps, like a baby bird, but now it means a showgirl or dancer in a funky outfit!

    Reply
  5. Lucy -  May 20, 2013 - 4:18 pm

    Flappers are normal people, you just have to believe that judging someone because of who they are or who they want to be is wrong because they get to choose what they do with their body or what career they want and by the way i don’t know what i am talking about because i didn’t read the article and i just saw other comments and said ”Heck, why not!”

    Reply
  6. Rachel -  May 19, 2013 - 9:18 pm

    And here I thought “flappers” referred to the way the women flapped their arms when doing the Charleston. Huh.

    Reply
  7. Mel Kana -  May 19, 2013 - 12:21 pm

    Here is a reply to Cattivo Nome who wrote:” Zelda Fitzgerald drove herself insane by preoccupation on contingencies that had nothing to do with her external reality. “Spend-thriftiness” in a depression is not an adaptive survival trait.She also drove her husband to drink and an early grave, robbing literary-loving posterity of much of his talent”

    Sexist, denigrating remark, in my opinion.

    It is not correct to blame anyone, for the traits of a man who did what he wanted to do. “She drove her husband to drink”? “She robbed the literary loving posterity of his talent”? Really?

    Blame it all on the woman because she was creative, daring, unconventional and hasn’t had much of an outlet for her own talents? Thus not blame the man for what he, and no one else, could make him do.

    May be F. Scott Fitzgerald drove Zelda to her insanity? Or may be Zelda was F. Scott Fitzgerald muse providing ideas and more substance to his writing than Nome would like to consider?

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  8. Connie -  May 19, 2013 - 9:44 am

    very interesting…

    Reply
  9. TARA -  May 19, 2013 - 4:50 am

    just remined me of the song flapper girl by the lumineers

    Reply
  10. lol -  May 17, 2013 - 5:40 pm

    hmmm…

    Reply
  11. lol -  May 17, 2013 - 5:38 pm

    lol

    Reply
  12. ELISE -  May 17, 2013 - 4:06 pm

    Cattivo Nome has an interesting comment. Although my thought is that blaming someone for being responsible for one’s alcoholism…honestly that’s a tough thing to say and even tougher with writers. Most of the best writers have at least bouts with alcoholism just to get some sleep and stop the pictures that are always rushing through their minds. For a writer insomnia can be a way of life and alcohol sometimes allows the mind to clear for a while…its a very slippery slope!
    But if Zelda was his demon she was also his muse clearly. She very obviously inspired him and to not be able to see that and take it on the shallow notion that she is responsible for his death certainly does not give the complexity of a profound human relationship its due respect. Beyond that Fitzgerald’s health and life span was most profoundly and seriously influenced by Tuberculosis.
    Honestly and truly, blaming Zelda for his early death is the same as blaming all of medical science for the mere fact that science had not advanced far enough to yet be able to offer vaccinations for Tuberculosis.

    Reply
  13. Valerie Van Kooten -  May 17, 2013 - 8:28 am

    Anne, you are correct. I’m a fashion historian, and already in the late ‘teens, Vogue Magazine was using the word “flapper” for women who wore black Arctic (brand name) galoshes. They left the buckles open, and when they walked, the buckles flapped. This was paired with a large yellow raincoat and was the coolest fad around (but not particularly attractive!)

    It’s interesting across the country to see what terms were used. “Flapper” had a negative connotation in the Midwest; one of “hussy.” In the west they were called “jazz babies”; in the Midwest and to the East they were called “vamps” or “vampires.” (Whole different meaning today!) I have a 1922 University of Iowa yearbook that pictures five beautiful young women with the heading, “The Five Most Beautiful Vampires on the U of I Campus.”

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  14. dakota -  May 16, 2013 - 6:39 am

    damn

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  15. mohamed -  May 15, 2013 - 12:07 pm

    you seem tight

    Reply
  16. Selcouth -  May 14, 2013 - 7:58 pm

    “The term flapper continued to grown in meaning…”
    Lovely.

    Reply
  17. Scott -  May 14, 2013 - 6:09 pm

    It certainly paints a vivid picture after the definition. A very carefree lady.

    Reply
  18. Justin -  May 10, 2013 - 12:24 pm

    Sounds like Zelda needed some history lessons.

    Reply
  19. Anne Wiggins -  May 7, 2013 - 11:46 am

    Way back in my college days when Fitzgerald was required reading in an American Literature class, I recall being told that “flapper” referred to the fashion of the bold and daring girls of the day to wear their galoshes without buttoning them so they flapped.

    Does anyone else remember this?

    Reply
  20. Svenjamin -  May 7, 2013 - 8:08 am

    I never thought of the flapper types as “pioneers” but considering how socially repressed the Westernized population was coming out of the Victorian age I guess the title seems fitting and appropriate. Besides, Zelda is one of those names which commands respect.

    Reply
  21. outdooraustral -  May 7, 2013 - 2:57 am

    Thanks for this refined trip to etimology. I love it.

    Reply
  22. Cindy -  May 6, 2013 - 9:17 am

    Pardon me,but “Flappers” did have manners.

    Yes, they did change the name to “suffragettes,” but a Suffragette was a female who really wanted women to have the right to vote.

    I refer you to Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffragette which is usually full of crud, but they got it right this time.

    Reply
  23. Cattivo Nome -  May 6, 2013 - 7:00 am

    Zelda Fitzgerald drove herself insane by preoccupation on contingencies that had nothing to do with her external reality. “Spend-thriftiness” in a depression is not an adaptive survival trait.She also drove her husband to drink and an early grave, robbing literary-loving posterity of much of his talent.

    Reply
  24. Danita Geltner -  May 6, 2013 - 2:43 am

    Thank you! Thought provoking, especially the part about going from “unconventional” to “the thing everyone does” in just four years. I myself am a creative dresser and enjoy using clothes for self-expression, I, therefore, like to think of these women, so long ago, (when women had zero clout) as self-expressing and being “flappers” in the best sense of that word – a bird wanting to try its wings and fly. I’m grateful for what they contributed to history.

    Reply
  25. Tom J, Mariani -  May 6, 2013 - 2:29 am

    And I thought flapper came from the noise those siort dresses made when the women danced.

    Reply
  26. James Fleming -  May 5, 2013 - 1:14 pm

    I think flapper also has the sense of looseness about it—-clothes that flapped open to allow a freedom of movement. From this sense came a sense of sexual freedom for women.

    Reply
  27. [...] ‘The Original American Flapper’ — Jazzing it up in a Multicolored Wrapper — Roaring Twenties making history. — With the clerisy — No mystery — OMG the Heresy — Sophistry. — The Marketing of “Gatsby” on the Move. — Zelda’s not even in it for the Groove. — So much for Flapping Time or inability to rhyme. — Pretty 3D Moving Pictures of a scrapper. — The Greater Gatsby Book can be read on the crapper. — So sublime. — ‘The Original American Flapper’ – –>> L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on May 4, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]

    Reply
  28. Silly1 -  May 4, 2013 - 3:29 am

    Interesting how words change meaning.

    Reply

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