Search This Blog

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Uninhibited Flapper

Guest Blogger Dept.: Kentucky-born Helen Bullitt Lowry was a member of the D.A.R., a contributor to such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar, and a NY Times reporter who covered topics as various as the Wobblies, Hollywood (and its connection with Wall Street), and, especially, those uninhibited 1920s women, the Flappers. Here’s how her essay is introduced in the collection Nonsenseorship: “And then Helen Bullitt Lowry, the exponent of the cocktailored young lady of today, averring that to the pocket-flask, that milepost between the time that was and the time that is, we owe the single standard of drinking. She maintains that the debutantalizing flapper, now driven right out in the open by the reformers, is the real salvation of our mid-Victrolian society.”


TWO GENERATIONS AGO the girl was “damned.” One generation ago she was “ruined.” Now, according to the best authorities and her own valuation, she has just played out of luck.

Helen Bullitt Lowry watching
Puritanism set the Flapper free.
Drawing by Ralph Barton.
So that for the reformers and prohibitionists, the censors and the woman’s club resolutionists! Their bi-product is Miss Twentieth Century Unlimited, the one uninhibited creature in a Volsteaded civilisation. Controls—of liquor and of birth—have given us The Flapper. The official reformers, reinforcing the sagging inhibitions and corsets of the nineteenth century, were just the final impetus needed to drive her out into the open.

The flapper is released from the strangle hold that is throttling the rest of us. If somebody makes a law for her, she promptly and blithely breaks it, the pocket flask for the moment being the outward and visible sign of the spirit—and spirits—of her wide-flung rebellion. It is the milepost between the time that was and the time that is, that flask, and to it we owe the single standard of drinking.

A half generation ago the sub-debs did not indulge in anything more relaxing than coca cola. And even first and second year debbies did their drinking from glasses issued by the hostess, not in triplicate. If a young man of the period imported a flask from the outside, that young man was promptly dropped from polite society, no matter how stringent was the shortage of dancing beaux. They called a flask a “bottle of whiskey” in those days.

Wild oats were reserved for the boys at college. If you were of Eve’s sheltered sex, you really had to become a member of the Fast Young Married Crowd before you could get a look in. That Fast Young Married Crowd was the first to come out of the biological fastnesses of the Mid-Victorian era into the cocktails and jazz of our Mid-Victrolian period.

Moral: You had to keep yourself the kind of a girl you’d been told a man wanted to marry, if you ever wanted to join in a cocktail party and slide down the banisters uninhibited—as rumor had it the Fast Young Married Crowd was doing on its orgies. Over the border of matrimony lay the mysteries of the gay wild life.

In that era before our morals were legislated, being “that kind of a girl” was a trying responsibility. There was an approved technique that every wise virgin had to master. It consisted of letting each man, on whom she conferred her favors, think that she really was in love with him. She called it “being engaged.” And,—if perchance she came to possess a harem of fiancés,—remember that the young things of the period were not so well able to conduct their own courtings as our present-day emancipated flappers. They still had to depend on what the tide washed in. They still did their picking from those that picked them—and sorted ‘em over at their leisure.

Then, too, a half generation ago, we had not read our Freud. We did not know the jargon of sex. Both man and girl were apt to call “in love” the emotion which our present-day young things frankly call something else. Thus came it that the petting parties of the period operated under the left wing of a near-engagement.

Yet there was a weakness to the system. Each fiance had the lordly impression that he “possessed” the lady of his choice. And the minute the male feels that he possesses a woman, he can get all the psychology of “riding away” and leaving her. Our Freudian flappers are better strategians. Man simply can’t labor under the impression that he possesses a young person, if her lingo is calling the once sacred kiss just a “flash of pash.” Applied slang is a great leveller of romance.

For times have changed since it was good form for a maid to avoid the crass mention of sex. With prohibition has come such an outburst of Get Moral Quick legislation that the reaction is now being felt throughout the length and breadth of the flapper. The legislators would lengthen the skirts to protect the defenceless male from a chance thought of legs and the like. Whereat the flapper retaliates by conversing pretty ceaselessly about—well, say associated subjects.

Last season the writer, being of the genus Successfully Single, woke up with a start to realize that two desirables had toyed with her hook—and retreated. One of them had even exited, uttering a fatal accusation about a “trammelled soul.” Such a warning calls for a taking of stock. And this is what I found: Because of the flappers and the way they run shop, the whole technique of the man game has changed. My method, alas, had become as out of style as a pompadour Gibson hat. Where once girls pretended to know less and to have experienced less than they actually had, now they pretend to more. Therein lie all the law and the social profits. Therefore Rule One of these dauntless rebels reads: It is not an insult but a compliment for an admirer to explain that his intentions are frankly carnivorous.

To my ten-year-old technique had still been clinging the cobwebs of the past, when even Launcelot’s intentions were painted as slightly honorable. But now—the shades of Alfred Lord Tennyson help us!—it has become the smart procedure to take Man’s bold bad intentions right out into the conversation and pretend to be tempted by them.

The truth of the matter is that those pseudo-engagements of the fox-trot decade really were furnishing a charge account psychology. Man could close his eyes and whisper, “Some day, my own,” and still go nicely on a Ladies’ Home Journal cover design of “Under the Mistletoe.” But, when our flapper is not even pretending to him that she is going to marry him, and when he is not even pretending to himself that he is going to marry her—well, the whole sex game has then been put on a frank cash and carry basis.

Mark well, however, these worldly-wise young things of this the third year of our Prohibition are not necessarily less virtuous technically than their own crinolined grandmothers. Only these days they are not bragging about their virtue.

“And have all the men afraid of you, for fear they’ll be responsible for teaching you something,” explains one practical miss. “Men like to find you in stock, ready-taught. We know how to take care of ourselves—so we let them think what they want.” In short, the whole new game, as the earnest disciple from the half generation ago learned it, is not to reveal the dark secret that you abide by the Ten Commandments. Man must not suspect that you are unattainable. He must just think that he has not attained you—yet. If you want to compete with the flappers, you’ve got to play by the flapper rules. Check your conversational inhibitions!

And if by chance there be any inhibitions left over, Prohibition has obligingly introduced new opportunities for privacy, that will help you check them too. When a couple strays off now from group formation, there’s a perfectly good alibi available of finding a sheltered spot for a drink. Where once it really wasn’t good form to go to a man’s hotel room, now it is the national custom for the owner of hootch to register a casket for his jewel—and then invite the young things in, one by one. A flapper these nights can retire to that hotel bedroom for an hour in the middle of a dance. The girl is not “talked about,” and the place is not “pulled.” Even the house detective knows that she is innocently drinking a drink.

Thus has this rebel young generation forced out into the open country with it all the contented young women in their late twenties and early thirties, who may not have been feeling rebellious at all. And the wives of forty-five also, to compete all over again for their own husbands. For “poaching” on the wifely preserves has become the favorite flapper sport!

“Married men,” having been forbidden to unmarried young persons for three chaste generations, our flappers, bi-product of inhibition, are promptly appropriating the husbands. This one item of the flapper raid on the married men has done more than the entire twentieth century put together to change the smug structure of American society, and bring us back to normalcy.

Before 1865 no Southern belle considered herself worth her salt unless all the courtly old married men in the country kissed her hand and competed with the young blades for her quadrilles. But when black persons stopped buttoning up the shoes of the Quality, America entered upon her 1870's, her sombre brown stone fronts, and her cloistered husbands. The money for doing society had simply passed into the hands of the descendants of Miles Standish and Priscilla, who carried their consciences into their sober mansions with them. The Age of Innocence was upon us, and has clung close ever since.

From that fatal day on to 1917 each oncoming debutante was taught by her mother to give unto the genus, married man, her most impersonal manner, lest she provoke his “undesirable attentions.” If poaching was done, it was from behind a tree. Unmarried girls knew that their place was not in somebody else’s home in those days. The wives could protect their preserves by the simple expedient of “talking about” any unmarried young female caught on the married reservations.

And so it came to pass that the pick of the men were posted, because, as fast as a callow youth gets worth marrying, somebody promptly marries him. The Fast Young Married Crowd was a closed corporation and played exclusively within itself; the female of the species had to compete only with females of equal tonnage. The only sylph-like temptation that a husband could encounter was a dissolute person whose reputation had already been ruined—and she didn’t count, because nobody invited her to parties anyway. A wife could get as fat as she wanted to in those days.

Even today that same leisurely life might exist for the wives. Even today the wives might be resting their feet under the bridge tables, secure in the consciousness that no bobbed haired young poacher was daring to dance with their husbands, if they had just let prohibitions enough alone—if they had only not been swept away by the high sport of gossiping about our Wild Young People, which struck the country in the summer of 1920. This gossip was an intrinsic phase of the virtue wave which always immediately precedes a crime wave.

The wives just at this point, instead of sitting tight, made the strategic mistake of turning the full force of the ammunition of gossip, which should have been saved for defending husbands from poachers, into an offensive attack on the flapper’s lip stick, on her cigarettes, and on her petting parties. Whenever two or three wives were gathered together, their topic was our Wild Young People. That summer, too, saw the launching of that now seasoned romance about the checking of corsets. The resolutions at clubs were being resolved. The preachers were sermonizing. The up-state legislators were drafting bills against flappers’ smoking cigarettes.

Human nature can be pushed just so far. Instead of reforming, the young things apparently decided one might as well lose a reputation for stealing a husband as for smoking a cigarette. The whole arsenal for combating poachers blew up.

To make matters worse, in the excitement of the virtue wave our Wild Young People had been attacked as a group instead of as individuals. That was the second mistake. The whole strength of gossip consists in selecting one member of the clan for calumny, to stand out disgraced and alone among her exemplary sisters. Because the flappers had been gossiped about en masse, the whole reason for not being gossiped about had ceased. The poacher of that half generation ago had been the kind of a girl who stalked her game alone.

But, when all the girls in town are seeking to steal your husband, what are you going to do about it, if you are a woman of forty-five with a heaviness around the hips and a disinclination to learn the camel walk? Nor can you get the poachers off the scent by crossing the trail with an eligible bachelor. Logically, the young things should have enough sense to ignore a preempted husband and attend to the serious business of getting themselves husbands. But they haven’t. They seem to prefer the husbands of the other women. And curiously, the more they engage in this exotic sport of poaching, the less keen they become about owning a property for somebody else to poach on.

The real interstate joke on Puritanism is that the flapper, who flaps because Puritanism has driven her to it, will automatically bring about its cure. The whole vitality of Puritanism rests on the unswerving principle of letting not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth, if thy left hand is doing something it shouldn’t. Puritanism could not last out a week-end without the able assistance of the standardized double life.

And that is just what the flappers refuse to respect. They are even insisting on being taken along on the parties, which, by all the rules of Rolf and Comstock should be confined to man’s double life. Where the chorus lady was once the only brand that had the proper and improper equipment to jazz up an evening, now mankind has come to prefer the flapper, who drinks as much as the Broadwayite, is just as peppy and not quite so gold-diggish.

“It is so simple,” smiles Barbara nonchalantly blowing her smoke rings. “You old dears set man an impossible standard. As he had always to be pretending holy emotions whenever he was around you he just naturally had to get away half the time, to rest the muscles of his inhibitions. Why, you funny old things actually drove man into his double life, just as you made all of his best stories have two editions, one for a nice girl and one for—well say one not so nice. Our crowd has done more than all of your silly old social hygiene commissions to bring nearer the single standard—by going part way to meet him.”

The preachers are wasting their time when they rail that the flappers are painting their faces like “fallen women.” Of course they are painting them that way—for the very good reason that mankind has demonstrated too unmistakably that that kind of woman has “a way with her.”

Not so long ago cosmetics became a moral issue. The curl rag was the only beautifier that somehow never lost its odor of sanctity—and that was doubtless because curl rags were a perfectly logical part of the long-sleeved Canton flannel nightgown civilization. Curls couldn’t be so very wrong when they were so frightfully unbecoming in the making. And so the “good woman” handed over intact to her weaker sister every beautifier that the world had been eight thousand years accumulating.

Slowly, timidly the allurements returned. The talcum powder bought for baby surreptitiously reached the nose. When the half generation ago was young, we had adopted a certain lip salve, just one shade darker than the way lips come, explaining, to save our reputations, that we were keeping our lips from chapping. Rouge too had come coyly, back—but—and here’s the gist of the whole matter—in polite society paint was put on to imitate nature.

We were still doing our make-up as man conducted his double life—with intent to deceive the general public. We still belonged at heart to the Puritan era, in spite of our wicked fox-trot. All may have been artificial below the neck, from our Gossard corsets with their phalanx of garters on to our hobble skirts. But above the neck, we pretended it was natural.

The flapper has changed all that. She has turned the lady up side down, as well as the world. For the flapper is au naturale below the neck. Above the neck she is the most artificially and entertainingly painted creature that has graced society since Queen Elizabeth. With one bold stroke of a passionately red lip stick, she has painted out Elaine the Fair and the later-day noble Christie Girl and painted in an exotic young person, meet to compete alike with a Ziegfield show girl, with a heaven-born Egyptian princess or even a good Queen Bess, who could not move her face after it was dressed up for the morning. And Bess was the Virgin Queen. The American-Victorian is indeed the only era in history when cosmetics became a moral issue. Even in dour Cromwellian England, rouge registered the wrong politics but not immorality. We are merely getting back to normalcy in cosmetics—back behind the dun wall of the Victorian era.

And it is the flapper who has done it for us. What’s more, she has done it frankly and purposefully—because the reformer, in his naive innocence, has explained to her that what she is doing is wicked and will get that kind of “results.” Similarly those of ‘em who had not yet taken off their corsets at dances, promptly did so when shocked elders began repeating the corset checking story. Dear heart, the only reason that they had not done so before was because the little dears hadn’t heard that the worst people were using ribs instead of whalebone that season.

Vice would die out from disuse, if the reformers did not advertise.

– Helen Bullitt Lowry, from Nonsenseorship, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1922.

No comments: