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The flapper

This is a sneak peek into edition 27 of Traces!

By Jessica Barratt

The flapper emerged in the 1920s in many countries around the world, including Australia. These modern women embraced a new lifestyle that was viewed by many at the time as outrageous, pushing the barriers of economic, social and political freedom.

The word ‘flapper’ originated in the late 19th century among people who hunted for sport. It was a word used to describe an unfledged bird, which learns to fly by flapping its wings. At some point, someone saw a resemblance to teenage girls between the ages of about 15 and 18. No longer needing as much care, they tentatively stepped away from the proverbial nest as they were considered ‘able to go from mother’s wing and fly on their own’. The slang stuck. Far from it being complimentary or cute, its use was nearly always derogatory or condescending.

In the 1900s, dance nights for young people who had not yet debuted in society were common. Girls and boys who attended such events were able to mingle and dance away their excess energy. Those gatherings soon became known as ‘flapper dances’. Initially, they were considered harmless fun – until the inevitable criticism emerged.

In 1909, Sir John Madden, the Chief Justice of Victoria, gave an address at the Prahran Town Hall entitled ‘Present Day Evils’. He considered that children born out of wedlock were an increasing problem, and contributing to it were the flapper dances, where ‘young girls and boys were let loose amongst one another without any guardianship or strict observation’. He declared that if parents could not keep their children home, then the law should.

To read the rest of the story, check out the latest edition of Traces.

Pictured: Silent film actor Ina Claire, by Leo Sielke Jr, in the January 1920 edition of Shadowland

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