The thrill of a new century races through all levels of society. The arts flourished, and developments in technology changed seemingly by the day, opening once-unimaginable vistas. Yet in many ways, life for women remained static, and in 1900, predictability ruled. Those women who worked did so out of necessity, usually as domestics. While a great divide existed between classes, for bourgeois and aristocracy alike, a woman’s place was tending her husband and her nest, propriety her virtue and the essential corset and elaborately piled mane the trappings of her well-controlled sexuality.
Many women never cut their hair, often resulting in heavy, unwieldy locks. Conversely, those not blessed with Godiva-like assets could supplement their nature with any number of hairpieces available for sale. While the very wealthy enlisted the talents of house call-making hairdressers, others looked to their lady’s maids for assistance, while most women became skillful at arranging their own locks.
Although Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 signaled the end of an era, inevitable shifts in the social mind-set would not come easily. As Paris got its first look at Pablo Picasso and the Cubists, Art Nouveau, which had developed as a reaction against technology, reach its height. Discourse on the nature of sexuality grew as intellectual challenged traditional notions with both sarcasm and seriousness. A New York production of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs.Warren Profession scandalized some and delighted others. And the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, with their revolutionary views on sexual repression, would have far-reaching effects on a society both eager for and frightened for the future.
In these years, accomplished women of noble virtue garnered great press-for example, Helen Keller, who graduated from Radcliffe, and Marie Curie, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The suffragette movement fared less well, with mixed reviews, as it gathered force in Europe and the United States, sometimes violently. And some women gained notoriety championing less enlightened causes, hatchet-wielding temperance zealot Carrie Nation being the prime example.
Yet for the most part, women who became popular icons pursued less political endeavors. Though no longer young, the great actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse still captured international attention while the girlish Maud Adams offered a sweet take on androgyny in a production of Peter Pan. And move overtly bohemian performers such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth Saint Denis intrigued audiences with their iconoclastic approaches to dance.
Charles Dana Gibson paid homage to an idealized American ingénue in a series of charming illustrations, probably inspired by his wife Irene, one of the fabulous Langhorne sisters of Virginia. His Gibson Girl maintained proper manners while embracing a casual, athletic lifestyle, her hair in a fluffy, imperfect upsweep, her unfussy shirtwaists suggesting a practical streak. She became the feminine ideal of a generation and the world’s first mass-marketed youth icon.
Conversely, the scandalous escapades of one time artist’s model and Floradora Girl Evelyn Nesbit made front page news during her husband’s murder trial; Henry Thaw had shot famed architect Stanford White, the man who caused Evelyn’s fall from virtue. Then, as now, people loved a sex scandal, and the lovely but tainted Evelyn became the first in a long line of twentieth-century tabloid temptresses.