In the words of a contemporary journalist, “A man at a carnival might be allowed to be flapper—only he would wear a dress; a woman at a carnival might be allowed to be flapper—only she would wear a blouse, an ill-fitting skirt and a flapper hat and a coat of the little yellow things. No man could wear dress or skirt and hat all at once. Flappers have a lot of freedom.”
It is clear, then, that flappers’ freedom was primarily an expression of the freedom to wear one’s best clothing, without fear of arrest. This means that flappers could show their individuality in whatever way they chose to wear it. It also means that flappers could express their individuality while still maintaining their right to freedom. In an interview before her death, a flapper friend called Nina Loughry, “The most free woman in America.”
While free expression was a basic tenet of the American Revolution, particularly as applied to American citizens, it was not always so. Although it was often thought that “freedom” was an important part of the original concept of liberty enshrined in our Constitution, it was not always so. In 1776, for example, it was a misdemeanor for a New York citizen to wear a shirt to church. In 1784, for example, in response to the American Revolution, Massachusetts law explicitly stated that individuals could not wear clothing expressing their religious views to protect their religious beliefs. However, in many states, including New York and Massachusetts, there was a growing movement for more freedom in one’s choice and display of clothing. By the late 1780s, the French Revolution, the onset of war, the increasing sophistication of military uniforms, and many other factors made this movement seem more like an inevitability than a sudden transformation.
In fact, in 1768, one of the leading women and flapper artists, Emma Beeton, began working in New York City to create flapper costume designs for military use. Her clothing designs ranged from the “narrow” to the “wide-shouldered,” which included the iconic “candy stripe,” inspired by the stripes worn by women at the time. The “Wide Shouldered” version that Beeton created was actually considered a failure and she spent the rest of her life trying again to find another design that would suit both military and civilian needs. She died in 1801.
Flambergabbers’ freedom to express themselves is not a given, however
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