Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

The flapper in advertisements – a symbol of women’s liberation or immorality?

By Barbara Gabeler

The New Woman or the flapper is an iconic figure of the interwar period. She defied traditional gender norms not only through her fashion – mainly her bobbed hair and boyish dress – but also through her behaviour; smoking and drinking in public, attending dance halls until the early hours, and generally participating in activities that were deemed the prerogative of men. Consequently, as much as she was admired, she was also vilified for her immoral behaviour. Advertisements for cars and cosmetics from the 1920s and 1930s – two booming industries – that feature flappers seem merely sexist at first glance. However, placing them within wider debates around the flapper in the interwar period reveals that advertisers actively played into these discourses. Indeed, they are telling of the tension that existed between the flapper as a symbol of modernity and women’s liberation on the one hand, and of immorality and deviance on the other. Advertisers tried to accommodate both views, recognising and normalising the flapper’s agency while also preserving traditional views of women and remaining silent about more controversial topics such as her career and income.

The interwar period was internationally marked by anxieties about the perceived subversion of traditional gender roles. The First World War played a significant part in this, having emasculated shellshocked and disabled men and increased the visibility of women in the workforce (Houlbrook, 2007, p. 161; DeGroot, 1996, p. 306). The emergence of a new consumer culture further exacerbated these anxieties as increasing consumer power and new leisure activities such as dancehalls were believed to have a corrupting influence on young people, prompting scientific studies into this (Tinkler, 2003, p. 214). Although flappers likely only existed in small numbers, they were blown out of proportion in popular culture and became particularly contested due to their ‘radical’ and overtly sexual behaviour and fashion, thereby posing a threat to traditional family life. Advertisers, however, having learned from wartime propaganda that emotions are a highly efficient tool to mobilise the masses, saw potential in the flapper as a lifestyle that could be sold to the public (Pumphrey, 1987, p. 185). Not buying into this lifestyle, the ads indicated, would make consumers unhappy and generally old-fashioned (Pumphrey, 1987, p. 185). The car and cosmetics industries were particularly well-suited to this type of advertising as two booming and gendered businesses that represented modernity.

The first advertisement from an American magazine from the 1920s shows an acceptable, toned down version of the party girl flapper – still recognisable by her short hair, hat, and dress – driving a new Chevrolet. The text ‘easy to drive’ suggestively plays into the idea of women as bad drivers and the need for a car that would be easy to control. In fact, the word ‘easy’ seems to be highlighted above all in this advertisement – it is not about its safety, or the way it looks. Instead, when a woman is at the steering wheel, the emphasis is on easy.

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Figure 1: Chevrolet magazine advertisement, USA, 1920s. Courtesy of The Advertising Archives.

Despite the overt sexism that women are bad drivers, by depicting the flapper in a car, the advertisement is an important acknowledgement that women had a legitimate place in the public world of leisure and shopping with the emergence of a new consumer culture. In fact, by 1928, 97 percent of all advertising was aimed at women, and they were also responsible for buying 67 percent of all consumer goods (Pumphrey, 1987, pp. 184 – 5). In that sense, the normalisation of women as active participants in public life, which this ad contributes to, undoubtedly gave young women more freedom and power.

Nevertheless, historian Martin Pumphrey (1987, p. 186) points out that there are very important silences in the narratives of such advertisements. Indeed, the flapper depicted is not as provocative as the original party girl, indicating a need to pacify conservative forces, but also revealing the conventional views about gender the advertisers held themselves. More importantly, although the car is advertised as affordable, such an expense was unquestionably the prerogative of the middle and upper classes. Considering that flappers were young, single women, it inevitably evokes the question of how she was able to afford such a car. Not without reason, historians have increasingly called the idealised narrative of modernity and the new education and job opportunities for women into question. Selina Todd (2005, p. 806), for instance, points out that while more young women took up work, their wages were of growing importance to the family income in the face of high numbers of male unemployment during the economic depression. Furthermore, Pumphrey underlines that the work performed was low-skilled and that most middle- and upper-class women stopped working once married (Pumphrey, 1987, p. 183). The flapper lifestyle was therefore only attainable for a few.

The second advertisement is for Maybelline from an American magazine from the 1930s. It depicts a flapper putting on the new Maybelline ‘eyelash beautifier’. She looks away quite playfully, and the text underneath suggestively highlights that this makeup makes your eyes sparkle when opened, but gives them an ‘inviting depth’ when partially closed. Altogether, the advert sells the product by underlining that it makes women charming and ‘irresistible’ whatever their mood is.

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Figure 2: Maybelline advertisement, USA, 1930s. Courtesy of The Advertising Archives.

With the rise of cinema and the consequent idealised forms of femininity depicted in films, Kathy Peiss (2001, p. 12) poses that makeup became a key product that allowed young women ‘to buy into rapidly changing norms of self’. Although clearly visible makeup had been contested due to its deep-rooted association with prostitution, this era saw an important shift away from using a limited amount of makeup in a way that made it look like you were a natural beauty to showing off the use of various products. New portable cosmetics allowed women to touch up their makeup in public spaces to maintain their appearance (Houlbrook, 2007, p. 159). Unsurprisingly, then, this advertisement emphasises that it is necessary for women to be ‘irresistible’ and ‘alluring’ at all times.

On the one hand, this is not too controversial considering it was important for young, single women to be able to attract a potential husband. Yet, on the other, the ad is overtly sexual considering the ambiguous text as well as her mischievous look, and it leaves the spectators to be seduced open to our own interpretation. Arguably, the advertisement actively plays into the sexual promiscuity of the flapper. In fact, historian Liz Conor (2002, p. 43) poses that the flapper lifestyle liberated women as it allowed young women to see themselves as a sexual beings as well as to present themselves as desirable objects to be pursued. Therefore, the flapper put heterosexual relations on public display, constantly seeking the attention of multiple men (Conor, 2002, p. 55). This contrasts starkly with the more traditional courtship between one man and woman in the private sphere.

The flapper was undoubtedly a product of consumerism and advertising as her lifestyle was presented as a product to be bought. Advertisements with flappers are telling of the tension that existed between the flapper as a symbol of modernity and women’s liberation on the one hand, and of immorality and deviance on the other. While advertisers did portray the flapper as the former, they did so to a limited extent. The often toned-down versions of the flapper in advertisements are revealing of advertisers’ own conventional views about gender as well as the need to pacify more conservative forces. This is further underlined by the ads themselves, which were sexist and maintained important silences in the flapper’s narrative. Nevertheless, for those able to afford her lifestyle, the flapper offered unprecedented freedom.


Conor, L. (2002). The Flapper in the Heterosexual Scene. Journal of Australian Studies. 26(72), pp. 41 – 57.

DeGroot, G. (1996). Blighty: British Society in the era of the Great War. London: Longman.

Houlbrook, M. (2007). The Man with the Powder Puff’ in Interwar London. The Historical Journal. 50(1), pp. 145 – 171.

Peiss, K. (2001). ‘On beauty … and the history of business’. In: P. Scranton, ed. Beauty business: commerce, gender and culture in modern America. London: Routledge. pp. 7 – 23.

Pumphrey, M. (1987). The Flapper, the Housewife and the Making of Modernity. Cultural Studies. 1(2), pp. 179 – 194.

Tinkler, P. (2003). Cause for Concern: Young Women and Leisure, 1930–50. Women’s History Review. 12(2), pp. 233 – 262.