The term “flapper” today connotes nothing so much as the sartorial sense of a certain breed of fashionable woman in the 1920s—bobbed hair, long looping strands of pearls insouciantly slung around the neck and down the back, and dropped-waist fringe dresses.
But what is now shorthand for a particular style of dress once meant an entire set of values that is startlingly consistent with today’s millennial woman. Today’s independent women may wear skinny jeans and clogs instead of fringe dresses and cloche caps, but the sentiment behind what they do and what they believe in is strikingly similar.
First, in their sexual mores, flappers and millennial women share an aversion to traditional gender roles and the expectation that they should couple instantly with one mate for life. The shortage of young men after World War I and the relative shortage of college-educated men compared to women have created conditions a century apart in which the number of eligible women outstrips the number of eligible men. Many women responded in both cases by taking control of their bodies—flappers dressing in male clothing to subvert conceptions of male privilege, and today’s millennial women taking the freedom to flaunt their bodies in ways that would have previously earned them censure. Radical gender equality is the name of the game for both flappers and millennial women.
Flappers and their millennial cohorts also share a similar affinity for cities. Flappers found a freedom in urban life that would have been far more difficult to achieve in the petri-dish environment of scrutiny in smaller and more traditional towns. They took the opportunity this freedom afforded to venture out without chaperones and develop their own tastes and preferences in food, drink, and entertainment. Similarly, millennial women have flocked to urban enclaves such as Brooklyn, Seattle, and San Francisco, where progressive, walkable, community-focused ethos affords them the opportunity to surround themselves with like-minded people and explore their most authentic selves.
Flappers once led the way with embracing technology as a part of daily life in the same way millennials are doing today. Flappers were familiar and enthusiastic about technological innovations, such as the automobile, airplane, and radio, in a way that their elders simply were not—just as today’s millennials are smartphone and computer savvy in a way that greatly distinguishes them from their parents’ generation.
And finally, flappers were the progenitors of a whole new kind of language that baffled the generations that came before them. Things were the “bee’s knees” or “cat’s pajamas”; “let’s blouse” meant “let’s go.” Flattery was “applesauce,” and to get a divorce was to “drop the pilot.” Today’s iterations of this type of slang are the equally cryptic phraseology millennials have assigned to various meanings—to do well is to “kill it”; if something is exciting, it’s “lit”; a politically aware and active person is “woke.”
So before the flapper is relegated to the realm of anachronism, and millennial women are thought of as unprecedented in the annals of history, the immortal words from Ecclesiastes are well worth taking into account: “There is no new thing under the sun.”