It Girl

May 6th, 2017  |  Published in April 2017

Depending on age and interest in popular culture, the term It Girl means different things to different people. To some it relates to the young starlets of today who seemingly go in and out of fashion as quickly as the release of a movie. For others though, the term brings to mind the ingénues of the 1960s with women like Jane Birkin.

No matter your specific point of reference, take heart as it turns out that we’d all be incorrect. It Girl was actually first popularized at the turn of the century in England (from 1800s to 1900s), eventually landing stateside thanks to the popularity of the new talking films and the dressing of its newest starlets later on. The expression, then and now, refers to the woman society most idealized at the time: the woman that women want to be and the men want to be with. It was popularized in America when actress Clara Bow became known as The It Girl in the l920s/30s.

An apt name given its recent use as the title of the vintage clothing exhibit presented at the Clifton Cultural Art Center. CCAC’s It Girl is a walking tour of women’s clothing from 1860 – 1920 with pieces curated from the collection of Amy Curtiss Davidoff. Davidoff is a well-known collector whose pieces also can also be seen in the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Presented as a very-relaxed self-guided tour, the exhibit was very engaging when presented in the context of the collector’s comments. Davidoff explained that It Girls were traditionally upper class women in the late 1800s and their clothing was more ornamental to showcase their wealth and station. This quickly changed with the advent of the new times that saw the abolition of the corset and the welcoming in of higher hemlines.

The collector’s notes also made reference to: “It’s hard to know which came first – women’s suffrage or more liberating clothing.” An educated guess would say that women’s suffrage (i.e. the movement of first-wave feminism) laid the groundwork for the conversation about liberating clothing to even begin in the first place. Changing dress was the product of the movement itself not the precipitating force.

An interesting note to ponder is that suffragettes did not simply call for clothing that was easier to wear. Many actually championed the use of their clothing as a political statement to highlight men’s pre-conceived notions as to what a “suffragette” would wear. Some (not all) of these female leaders wore pieces traditionally considered feminine (white, flow dresses) because opponents of the movement were known to describe them in the press in terms of being more masculine or anti-what a real woman is.

The garments presented in the exhibit were a beautifully simple look at what elegant women wore during this time. These were not designer pieces from the archives of the famed designers of the time. It felt as if these were pieces more for the everyday woman – albeit ones with the funds to afford these garments of bustles, velvet and lace.

It would be have been interesting to learn more about where these pieces originated. Many were designed well before the advent of the modern department store created by Mr. Harry Selfridge in London; were these pieces handmade by the lady’s personal dressmaker? Or made by the wearer herself? Probably a mix of both. However confirmation, if available, would have added to the story of the collection as a whole. What were these women’s lives really like and how did the changing times manifest itself where / when they were created?

The theme of how women’s clothing changed during the mid-Victorian to post-Edwardian time period in history was reminiscent of other fashion showcases featured in Cincinnati. It was explored in a roundabout way in the High Style exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum (seen more in the progression of the garments themselves vs. a specific statement in the exhibit’s brief). And the theme was also the basis for the Taft Museum of Art’s Changing Times for Changing Fashion which explored the costumes of PBS’ Downtown Abbey and how they signaled the transition of fashion as it relates to world events before the roaring 1920s. See more of the theme in depth in our AEQAI summer review of that show (link to

Overall, although the theme had been explored previously and some questions left unanswered, it was welcome to see the manifestation of first-wave feminism explored again. As we are now experiencing the third-wave today, we should mention the great change that came before as much as possible. How else can we learn from the past and gain lessons for the future?

Jenny Perusek is a freelance Brand Manager, specializing in fashion and the creative arts.

Image courtesy of the Clifton Cultural Arts Center.

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