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new conceptions of gender and sexuality in part through fashion

Posted Mar 21 2013 6:29am


youthful, yet still recognizably feminine, are the

‘‘Freshman Runner’’ and the ‘‘Hail-fellow-wellmet.’’

In contrast, the ‘‘Girl who came to college

to broaden her mind’’ has a relatively feminine

face shape with severe hair, the ‘‘Collegiate to

whom Prom is just another college activity’’ has a

somewhat masculine face shape with long, feminine

hair; but the ‘‘Athlete’’ is indistinguishable

from a man with a thick neck, square jaw, and

extremely short, masculine hairstyle (‘‘Prominent

Kallikaks’’ 6–7). Thus, although Smith students

took advantage of growing opportunities to express

their sexuality through clothing and appearance,

they were also quick to place boundaries

around that expression.

Figure 5. The stereotype of the athlete, 1925 (‘‘Prominent Kallikaks’’ 6–7). Smith College Archives.

12The Journal of American Culture_Volume 32, Number 1_March 2009


The women who attended Smith College in the

1920s negotiated new conceptions of gender and

sexuality in part through fashion. Consumer

products gave students the tools with which to

create their personal and public identities,

whether that was as a progressive feminist, a

fun-loving flirt, or somewhere in between. While

many students lauded new styles for their progressive

nature, others sought to limit the extent

of social change. Significantly,sheath bridal gown,

   evidence suggests

that Smith women felt a growing pressure to keep

up with popular fashions simply because they

were fashionable. To be modern and current became

the ideal, so much so that the adoption of

more conventionally feminine styles seemed quite

natural at the end of the decade. At the same time,

fashion served as an arena in which students could

explore and manage changing conceptualizations

of female sexuality.Japanese school uniforms.

   While Smith women of the

1920s experienced new opportunities and pressures

to assert their sexuality through their clothing

and appearance, the range of available sexual

models simultaneously narrowed. For many, the

assertive conception of female (hetero) sexuality,

as expressed through clothing and appearance,

enabled social success, for others, it raised concerns

about class and sexual identity; many probably

found themselves somewhere in between.

What emerges as most significant is the overwhelming

commitment of these women to consumption,

a commitment that resonates strongly

with the experiences of early twenty-first century women.

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