what it is for – it girls and fashion

It is…

… self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing of not.

…according to the inventor of the term, Elinor Glyn. Clara Bow (above) was Glyn’s representative “it girl”. If you dig chick flicks, you’ll find It (1927) truly delightful – watch it on Youtube.

Glyn gave a label to a phenomenon that has probably existed as long as fashion – the it girl. The definition of an it girl is a vague thing, but we all know it when we see it. The it girl doesn’t have do anything, or do anything well – she just excels at existing and provoking envy. While the rest of us are working and wanting, the it girl gets granted her every wish from the fashion fairy godmothers. They are the embodiment of how fashion isn’t fair. Fashion’s working class have a complicated relationship with it girls. We need them – and we hate them – and we want to be them. The term has both adulatory and pejorative connotations.

What is a Fashion It Girl?

Three basic rules can help us define what we mean when we talk about a fashion it girl.

  1. She has the power to lead fashions.
  2. Her talent is being rather than doing.
  3. She provokes envy.

Probably the earliest it girl that still connects with modern memory is Marie Antoinette – and she really still is the queen of all it girls. She set fashions and continues to inspire styles to this day, she was spectacularly useless, and she provoked a high level of hate – they cut her head off.

The Empress Eugenie was also an it girl. Early it girls tend to be royalty, for three reasons. One, royalty doesn’t have to be good at doing anything. Two, fashion used to be solely an aristocratic pursuit; commoners couldn’t lead fashion because they weren’t allowed to participate in it. Three, the It Girl needs mass media to exist – in olden times most patrons of media (most critical for disseminating fashion, paintings) were royal.

Being royalty is no guarantee of itness though – in fact, even royalty plus beauty doesn’t automatically equal itness – case in point: the current princess in waiting is not an it girl. Itness isn’t the same as fame plus beauty either; many famous actresses are not it girls. Even youth and beauty is not a pre-requisite. Wallis Simpson was an it girl. You don’t even have to be a girl. Bryan Boy is an it girl.

Get this – the it girl, who is so good at existing, doesn’t need to even exist. The Gibson Girl was an it girl, even though she was only a figment of an artist’s imagination. Carrie Bradshaw, a fictional character, is an It Girl. The actress who played her, Sarah Jessica Parker, is not.

As fashion and media became democratized, it girls started popping up in other roles besides royalty. Actresses like Camille Clifford, courtesans like Lily Langtry. Modern it girls are often socialites or bloggers or models.

The original sense of the the term was modern and powerful – the Elinor Glyn it girl had a remarkable, arguably feminist definition. She was sexually independent, confident, playful and powerful. The current state of the term is far more pejorative – it is, after all, baldly objectifying. I had the luck of counting an it girl among my colleagues and contemporaries in Toronto. She understandably rejects the term – after all, she is a talented writer, and the implication of itness tends to overshadow the admirable act of work. The curse of the it girl, if you can call it that, is that she always gets remembered for who she is, not what she did.

It is a great advantage, if you’ve got it. Ask an it girl how she found her station in life, and she’ll tell you that things just seem to magically come to her. Even though it may appear that in fact she carefully and industriously crafts her image with great purpose and ambition, this somehow isn’t considered work. These tasks are inseparable from who she is. The it girl didn’t choose to be an it girl; though she can choose how she uses it.

Don’t hate, appreciate. Why fashion needs It Girls.

The it girl is fashion’s most powerful symbol. If you’ve ever accused it girls of possessing no real talent, ask yourself if you can make people desire something for no good reason. Dealing in desire is the it girl’s greatest gift. When Kate Moss wears Hunters, people buy rubber boots. When Cory Kennedy is on the cover of Nylon, people buy that magazine. In case you’re confused, fashion is all about manufacturing desire. Not clothes.

It may seem ephemeral, but if you are able to forge an alliance with an it girl, the results are real. This is what ambitious, smart, successful fashion people do, even if they don’t have an ounce of it in their bodies. Don’t get sidetracked by the envy which is just a natural byproduct of not being an it girl in an it girl world. You are in denial if you think you can make it in fashion without embracing it.

It girls vividly reflect their times; that is why they not only belong in fashion, they represent fashion. Fashion needs it girls in order to function. Fashion is what it girls are.

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11 thoughts on “what it is for – it girls and fashion”

  1. Great post!

    There is a ton of work in “it girl-ness” though. As silly as it may seem, attending parties, taking photos, finding the proper it girl comrades is “work.” It’s the ability to thrive in the spotlight. I also think you have to seek that kind of spotlight, lifestyle and most importantly, have the accessibility to that world.

    Like you said, it’s the construction of the enviable lifestyle of ease and glamour.

  2. The famous (or even popular enough within certain circles) women whom I admire would never get tagged ‘It’ girls. I wonder if the somewhat recent tag entered cultural rhetoric around the same time the concept of the ‘tween’ did? The two seem to go hand-in-hand!

    Bon blog, BTW!

    xo,
    F.M.

  3. Jen, that’s a great point – an ability to thrive in the spotlight is no small ability! And access to that world is very limited – its just another winner-take-all arena.

    FM – the term it girl has been used for 80 years now! Though I do get your point – I think I’m probably the first person to ever call Wallis Simpson an It Girl… I’m using the term as a descriptor for the function of a certain type of fashion female – hence the title of the post “what it is for”. It’s not quite the same as fame, or even admirability, and for lack of a better term, It Girl works. It Woman just sounds weird.

  4. the gibson girl is the definition of beauty…. i guess that’s what makes her an ‘it’ girl.
    i think there’s a truth to what you’re saying jen – so often people are looking for the easy thing; easy fashion (jewelry is what i see the most); easy socializing (books on how to make conversation with anyone); easy beauty… those who make a lifestyle from it are to be admired…. since fashion… nay, style, is about leading rather than following, there is something to be said for that ‘it’ girl who takes risks, admires those who are above and beyond the mainstream, and makes the best of what they have.
    my fear is that the ‘it’ girl tends to come from, “higher socio-economic” circles… thus providing her the oppourtunity for that socialization, fashion and spotlight. i wonder where the underground ‘it’ girls are found?
    “her talent is being, rather than doing”…. i love this.

  5. Nice pictures, I like them. Did you register, that these it-girls tend to lower their lids to halfway? 🙂 They always try to have this “Schlafzimmerblick” as we say in German: the bedroomlook. Lascivious. They are dangerous to other women and they stir envy for their easy having affairs.

    More of them pictures!!!

    Christine

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