Image and Lifestyle

The Gibson GirlsThe earliest images of changing roles for women appeared in the press in the 1890s. The fashion symbol known as the "Gibson girl," taking her name from artist Charles Dana Gibson, revealed women's changing appearance. Discarding heavy corsets, petticoats, and frills, the Gibson girl sported a shirtwaist (blouse) and long skirt, which better enabled her to play tennis or ride a bicycle. She appeared confident, capable, athletic, and flirtatious. The image did not clearly convey class origins; she could be from the working class or elite society. And while this particular series of drawings depicted white women, the style was indicative of changes in roles for women of color as well. Replacing the Gibson girl by 1913, the "flapper" became the visual icon of the twentieth century's new woman. Thin, flat-chested, and boyish-looking, the flapper exposed more flesh, reveled in dancing, drinking, and smoking, and otherwise defied old-fashioned norms. She took leads from such stars as the theater's "it" girl, Clara Bow, and the Harlem Renaissance's blues diva Bessie Smith.

Bessie SmithChanging demographic patterns contributed to the emergence of the new woman. Single urban women, known as "women adrift," lived outside their parents' homes in working-class areas of town. Black and white women as well as new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe rented rooms in such communities and posed what many commentators viewed as a social problem. Earning their own wages and less subject to parental supervision, working-class women's work and leisure activities gained public attention and expanded the parameters of women's space. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, changes among working-class women filtered into middle-class society, via cabarets and other types of performances, so that by the 1910s and 1920s, young middle-class women were wearing styles and engaging in behaviors objectionable to their parents' generation. Part of the paradox of the new woman was that she flouted conventions while adhering to new standards of conformity within a rising peer culture.


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