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
I think I could do with how consumer culture has taken over everything these days, but it is very interesting how important it was for the New Woman. Such a shame it cheapened their message even as it helped to boost their recognition.
Tasha’s Thinkings: YouTube – What They Don’t Tell You (and free fiction)
I find the relationship between the New Woman social message and the consumer culture handling of it quite intersting. To some extent, I think it still works like this today.
This reminds me of watching Mr. Selfridge. That was a very good show…
Also, a little bit iffy when the “independent woman” image is being pushed for marketing reasons…
The Multicolored Diary
And yet, ho often it happens. Even today, I believe, dvertment takes advantage of the ‘strong women image’ as well as any strong messages that go around.
Consumer culture also turned out to be a great opportunity, wherein women could express themselves more profoundly and in a manner that greatly elevated her confidence levels.
Day 3 – Cats
Well, they influenced the way advertisment worked, but didn’t really control it.
Ronel Janse van Vuuren
Of course they cheapened the message with consumerism… It seems to happen again-and-again when something important needs to be shared with the masses.
Consumerism and the New Woman all at the same time so that advertisements were aimed at the New Woman is a development that is very interesting. And yes, as Ronel pointed out they did cheapen the message with consumerism.
I find that relationship very intersting too. And quite complex, to be honest.
What a wonderful perspective!
Anne E.G. Nydam
Ain’t that always the way, just like “greenwashing” and companies making progressive ads while donating money to reactionary politicians: they try to make a buck off of whatever movements seem new and powerful in the culture… But it’s very true that they can help spread a message even when they may be doing it somewhat hypocritically. Very interesting post!
C is for Chimeric
True, eh? I see the same pattern plaied out today too.
When i was a kid in the 80s and 90s it was common to see advertisements for detergents with women clad in sarees in India. They slowly got replaced by women wearing more modern wear and today there are a lot of questions on this stereotypical representation
This is so interesting. Thansk so much for sharing, Jayashree.
The details may change over time, but consumer culture has always had the same general premise as long as it’s existed. And the people creating these consumer campaigns never truly care about the actual causes represented, so long as it lets them make more money.
I totally agree. Yet they do create exposure, and tha tsometimes proves to be helpful.