“We had individuality. We did as we pleased. We stayed up late. We dressed the way we wanted,” proclaimed the silent film star Clara Bow, whose spherical eyes and flouncy hair would come to define a generation. “Today, they’re sensible and end up with better health. But we had more fun.”
As a capsule of her own past, shrouded in radiant celluloid, Bow had reason to wax nostalgic. Onscreen, she cocked a grin, flirted without fear of judgment, and even strummed ukuleles. She dared the audience to judge her and knew full well that they never would. Drenched in beads and black eye makeup, she was the true incarnation of a flapper.
The flapper ideal first took root in the Roaring ’20s in response to the tumult of World War I. These women rejected convention in ways that seem tame now, assuming sexual agency and spouting unladylike slang. Their dresses hung loose and free, the corsets flung aside, giving them the space to breathe, to dance, denied of their mothers.
While hoisting the skirt up a few inches thankfully doesn’t seem too incendiary to the modern eye, flappers still deserve a place in contemporary culture. I don’t mean in a pictorial fashion, like ogling over the supposed glamor of their era, I mean a deep appreciation for the social boundaries these women managed to nudge.
In their overwhelming desire to enjoy themselves, flappers rebelled against the stifling constrictions of their time. Some would say their actions were simply products of the decade’s rampant hedonism, but I see them as marks of defiance, subtly political movements. They carved out a sense of autonomy, exploring the areas previously chained off from their reach. Their flirtation and “petting” (basically slang for making out) were not so much manifestations of promiscuity but the sweet relief of lifted inhibitions. They embraced every aspect of life, did not let it whip past them. And that is, perhaps, what drew me to their glowing forms.
The flappers of silent cinema enrapture me. Like Norma Desmond says in Sunset Boulevard, they had faces then. Every stray emotion flickers across their eyes like stones across a pond, everything carved into the mold of their skin. And the women that haunt the screen—the ghostly figures of Bow, Louise Brooks, and Lillian Gish, to name a few—have such formidable presence, filling up the screen with their intense gazes. Not only are they formidable, Amazon-like female figures, but their films also deal seriously with issues regarding womanhood. Watching Diary of a Lost Girl, starring Brooks, for the first time, I felt that there was a finally a film that dealt honestly with sexual abuse, only it had been made 85 years earlier. Even with our incredible strides for equality, it seems as though we’ve shied away from depicting these travesties in ways that ultimately empower women rather than degrade them. The kohl-eyed, bobbed women that frequent silent cinema may not make a sound but their inner strength shines through the screen, no matter how much their situations may dampen their spirits. They entrance. They challenge.
Alas, the Depression soon brought sound to films and batted women back into the domestic sphere. But it was a vibrant time, or so the popular literature tells me. The past does not need to stagnate—it’s nearly the ’20s again; I say we bring the flappers back.
Ariella Carmell dwells in Southern California, where she is Editor-in-Chief of her high school literary magazine and Head Copy Editor of the newspaper. A Foyle Commended Poet of the Year, as well as regionally recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, she has had work published in Canvas Literary Journal, The F Bomb, TeenInk, and several more places. When not writing, she can usually be found watching classic films, mouthing the lines from Beckett plays, and dreaming about all the things she will probably never do.