The New Woman emerged almost at the same time as the consumer culture. It is probably no surprise that the two evolved together and were tightly connected.
From the very beginning, the New Woman was tightly connected to the concept of visibility. Visibility was what made her the social phenomenon she was.
She became visible at the same time society was becoming more visual. In fact, the first New Woman – the Gibson Girl – was popularised by Charles Gibson’s magazine illustrations. The suffragettes of the 1910s would often appear in newspapers, and the flapper of the 1920s was a ubiquitous figure that appeared everywhere in magazines, catalogues and films.
Most of this exposition happened inside the new consumer culture.
Visibility of the New Woman
At the end of the 1800s, the rising consumer culture started to push the selling of abundant industrial production. The advertisement was born. Its aim was inducing people to buy something they didn’t really need by making the goods appealing.
Here is where the interaction between consumer culture and the New Woman occurred and became complex, and where the New Woman first became visible.
The New Woman was a person who often worked and earned her own money, which she could then spend the way she wanted. Besides, women already managed the family’s finances. The husband may earn that money, but the wife was who mostly decided on the day-to-day expenses. Clearly, women needed to become a privileged target of advertisement.
To be affected by advertisements, women needed to recognise themselves in it. But the image proposed by the ad also needed to he appealing. And what was more appealing than the modern, spirited, independent, ambitious and beautiful New Woman?
So advertisements in posters and magazines used that very image to induce women to buy.
This produced an unexpected, collateral effect: the popularisation of the New Woman image. As the market tried to get the grasps of the new female market, it was also giving more visibility than ever to the New Woman who was its target.
The New Woman – both the Gibson Girl and the Flapper – was visually recognisable because she presented a recognisable look. The Gibson Girl would wear a bell-shaped skirt that didn’t touch the ground and a shirtwaist, clothes that allowed her to move more freely. The flapper would dress in short skirts and frock, wear cloches and makeup, and smoke cigarettes. These were all things that underlined her freedom of expression but were also goods that could be bought – primarily by women who wanted to be modern and fashionable.
The very purpose of an advertisement is to be seen by as many people as possible, especially in its chosen target. More women would see those advertisements and would become familiar with a concept they may never come across otherwise. And once they became the Gibson Girl because they adopted the look, they would start to incarnate and propagate that concept.
In this way, the consumer culture gave exposition and, therefore, power to the New Woman. In another way, though, it kind of cheapened her message. Because the image was bound to the consumer culture, many tried to hush the social message with the loud consumer message. The Gibson Girl would then become a romantic rather than an action-taker. The suffragette became an opportunist rather than an activist. The flapper became a pleasure seeker rather than a modern woman.
The consumer culture was the strength but also the weakness of the New Woman.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
Kyvig, David E., Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940. How Americans Lived Through the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the Great Depression. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, Chicago, 2002
Perrish, Michael E., Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1992
Suds and Selfhood: Marketing the Modern Woman in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s by Ariel Tichnor (PDF)
UNLV Public History – Popular Culture and Consumerism in the 1920s
Noowegian Business School – How Flappers Rebelled Through Feminism And Consumerism
The Roaring ’20 – The Changing Role of Women