Beyoncé, Rihanna, Miley: None of these women need introductions. They’re gorgeous and talented, surely, but beyond that, influential—role models to girls and women alike. Before they entered the fore, another group of barrier-breaking females paved the way for them: writers, artists and scientists whose cultural contributions and glamorous personas won them more than just fame. In her new book, The Power of Glamour, Virginia Postrel explores the origins of modern glamour. Here, she IDs seven famous ladies who epitomized it.
What does it mean to be modern? What is a modern woman? In the early 20th century, these were pressing cultural questions. Intellectuals and activists answered in countless theoretical manifestos, but for most people the idea of modernity came from clues in media and popular culture. In ads and movies, World’s Fairs and department store displays, modernity seemed like a better, more exciting state of being. It was glamorous. For women in particular, the glamour of modernity was embodied in famous women whose public personas, each glamorous in a different way, represented a new and alluring kind of life. Here are seven famous female figures from history who exemplified the “modern woman.”
1. Marie Curie
Marie Curie (1867–1934)
The discovery of new elements emitting mysterious invisible rays—a phenomenon physicist Marie Curie labeled “radioactivity”—fascinated the public in the early 20th century. So did the idea of a woman at the forefront of the new science. That she was married to her scientific partner and had two daughters made her all the more appealing. Madame Curie, as she was known in the popular press, represented a simultaneously new and familiar ideal of womanhood: two Nobel prizes and a love story. In 1943, MGM turned her life into the biopic Madame Curie, calling it, “The love story of the most exciting woman of her day!”
Amelia Earhart (1897–?)
With his bravery, grace, and mastery of cutting-edge technology, the aviator epitomized masculine glamour in the years between the world wars. (The British even called air force fliers “glamour boys.”) The aviator’s female counterpart, the aviatrix, provided a similarly alluring ideal of the modern woman: courageous, capable, and soaring into the future. Neither the best nor the most beautiful among the elite corps of female fliers, Amelia Earhart was undoubtedly the most glamorous, with a public image crafted to combine modernity and liberation with wholesome, all-American femininity. “You are that dream-self we all long to be,” a fan wrote of Charles Lindbergh. For aspiring women, “Lady Lindy” filled that role—and the mystery of her 1937 disappearance only added to her mystique.
Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971)
Among the most glamorous modern images created in the 1930s are Margaret Bourke-White’s industrial photographs for Fortune and Lifemagazines. Through repetition and abstraction, the photographer turned dynamos and dams, plow blades and whirling spools of rayon into alluringly sensuous patterns. She also created a compelling public persona: the new woman as an adventurous, independent, financially successful commercial artist. She shot the swaying tower of the Chrysler Building from a beam 800 feet in the air and had her picture taken on a gargoyle. “This Daring Camera Girl Scales Skyscrapers for Art,” declared the headline on a 1930 magazine profile.
Coco Chanel (1883–1971)
Dressmaking is among the oldest of feminine occupations, but Coco Chanel made it new, turning her own taste for simple hats, easy knits, and costume jewelry into a radically original style of dressing, appropriate to a new age. A self-made woman, Chanel also fashioned a public image as an entrepreneur and innovator whose portraits and aphorisms (“Elegance is refusal,” declared the woman who piled on fake pearls) projected both supreme confidence and a modernist spirit. Along with the little black dress, her enduring contributions include the world’s most famous perfume. A synthetic concoction appropriate to the machine age, Chanel No. 5 reflected the designer’s desire for a “mysterious” scent that didn’t immediately distinguish wife from mistress—a fragrance that, like the woman whose name it bore, represented both luxury and emancipation.
Elsie De Wolfe (1865–1950)
Like making clothes, furnishing the home is traditional women’s work. But interior decoration wasn’t a profession until Elsie De Wolfe made it one in 1905. For the do-it-yourself middle class, she wrote advice columns and a popular book called The House in Good Taste. For the rich, she designed rooms and took a commission on the antiques she bought to furnish them, establishing a business model that remained standard for decades. By the 1920s, De Wolfe was a celebrity and the “best known-American hostess in Europe.” Her aesthetic of “simplicity and suitability,” with pale walls and abundant chintz, represented a sharp break with the dark and cluttered past. “I opened the doors and windows of America,” she declared, “and let in the air and sunshine.”
Clare Boothe Luce (1903–1987)
Remembered today primarily for the 1939 movie made from her hit playThe Women, Clare Boothe Luce sounds like a fantasy character from a novel by Jackie Collins or Judith Krantz: a beautiful social climber married to a press magnate, a successful playwright known for her biting wit, a war reporter and bestselling author, an American ambassador to Italy, a Congresswoman and a Republican activist. Outspoken and often controversial, she epitomized the glamorous public woman, a type new to history.
Joan Crawford (1904–1977)
If you know only Mommie Dearest or even Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? you probably have no idea why Joan Crawford was a star. Famous for her stylish costumes, Crawford was also the favorite subject of photographer George Hurrell, whose portraits defined studio-era glamour. But it was her on-screen persona that made her such a significant figure. In movie after movie in the 1920s and 1930s, she played tough, ambitious young women determined to lift themselves out of poverty and savvy about the motivations of men. (In The Women, she took the gold-digger role.) For the movie-going masses, she defined the modern woman, with all her perils and possibilities. “You don’t own me,” Crawford’s Marian tells her small-town boyfriend in the 1930 movie Possessed, before running away to New York. “Nobody does. My life belongs to me!” It was an idea as glamorous as the woman who pronounced it.
Virginia Postrel is the author of The Power of Glamour just published by Simon & Schuster, and a columnist for Bloomberg View. Her previous books are The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Learn more at vpostrel.com or by following @vpostrel on Twitter.
This piece originally ran on November 4, 2013.