The 1920s were a decade of profound social change, nowhere more visible than in the rise of the so-called flapper. These rebellious young women shingled their hair and shortened their skirts, used makeup and drugs and stayed out dancing until dawn. They chose to live experimental, emotional lives—with mixed results—as Judith Mackrell reveals in her fascinating and compulsively readable new group biography, Flappers.

The book focuses on six women—Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Tamara de Lempicka—whose lives offer countless intersecting points of entry into the flapper phenomena. Diana Cooper and Nancy Cunard were upper class Brits, stunned into independence by the World War I and the opportunities it gave young women to live and work outside the stifling family home. Cooper’s brief stint as an actress overlapped with American Tallulah Bankhead’s London stage career; while fellow American Josephine Baker found lasting fame dancing on the Parisian stage. Zelda Fitzgerald—the patron saint of flappers—was the muse for her husband Scott’s literary portrayal of the modern woman. And Polish-born Tamara de Lempicka captured the flapper’s hectic glamour in her stunning art deco paintings.

Each of these women experimented with love and art, rebellion and freedom. As thrilling and dynamic as their young lives were, each struggled with the shadow side of independence. They were a first generation of women seeking lives outside the home—there were no roadmaps for their life-journeys. Baker’s dancing and de Lempicka’s painting brought these two women lifelong financial and creative independence, while Bankhead’s career as the theatrical face of the flapper gave her a meteoric success in the 1920s that failed to age well. Cunard’s and Fitzgerald’s stories are perhaps the saddest, a testament to how the flashy evanescent 1920s faded into the long slow depression of the 1930s. While Cunard’s activism against racism and fascism embodied the political spirit of the 1930s, she (like Fitzgerald) struggled with mental illness for the rest of her life.

Lady Diana Cooper had the happiest after-life as a former flapper, and she particularly appreciated the 1960s: the next decade when young women put on short skirts and sought sexual and artistic freedom.

Mackrell’s fabulous Flappers lovingly captures the manic glitzy dream girls of the 1920s, paving the way for their feminist granddaughters.

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