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The Modern Girl

The Modern Girl: Feminine Modernities, the Body, and Commodities in the 1920s

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 320
  • Book Info
    The Modern Girl
    Book Description:

    With her short skirt, bobbed hair, and penchant for smoking, drinking, dancing, and jazz, the "Modern Girl" was a fixture of 1920s Canadian consumer culture. She appeared in art, film, fashion, and advertising, as well as on the streets of towns from coast to coast. InThe Modern Girl, Jane Nicholas argues that this feminine image was central to the creation of what it meant to be modern and female in Canada.

    Using a wide range of visual and textual evidence, Nicholas illuminates both the frequent public debates about female appearance and the realities of feminine self-presentation. She argues that women played an active and thoughtful role in their embrace of modern consumer culture, even when it was at the risk of serious social, economic, and cultural penalties. The first book to fully examine the "Modern Girl"'s place in Canadian culture,The Modern Girlwill be essential reading for all those interested in the history of gender, sexuality, and the body in the modern world.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-1652-3
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-1)
  5. Introduction: The Canadian Modern Girl
    (pp. 3-22)

    The young dancer in the photograph is posed carefully in a small studio in Fort William, Ontario in the late 1920s. She was Sylvia Horn, the daughter of white, middle-class parents living in the neighbouring town of Port Arthur, Ontario. It is impossible to know how exactly the photograph would have been read by her contemporaries. For some, her pose, dress, and bobbed hair would have been disturbing, perhaps almost scandalous. We can see her entire leg, and her chest is covered with light catching sequins that draw the eye. Would viewers have associated her image with the powerful discourses...

  6. 1 Making a Modern Girl’s Body: Commodities, Performance, and Discipline
    (pp. 23-61)

    The stunning front cover of the 1 February 1924 issue ofMaclean’smagazine depicts a Modern Girl in a winter setting smiling warmly at the viewer. This was a common cover girl forMaclean’s. Two years earlier,Maclean’spublished a scandal-seeking (and often-cited) article, “Is the Flapper a Menace?” While the article raised concern over the so-called promiscuous behaviour of the flapper, in the introduction it was noted, “This is not an indictment of Canadian girlhooden masse. It is no crime to be a flapper, and we have every belief that – in the majority of cases – our...

  7. 2 Dear Valerie, Dear Mab: Beauty, Expert Advice, and Modern Magic
    (pp. 62-86)

    In the 29 September 1928 edition of the Canadian periodicalSaturday Night, the resident beauty columnist Valerie responded as usual to letters from anxious Canadian women in need of special beauty advice. To “Peggy,” Valerie replied, “Thank you for the kind words said about this paper and this column. I have indicated where you may get the cleansing cream – also the nourishing one. The homemade article of this nature is hardly worth while. There are ever so many good soaps nowadays of which you may take your choice but most modern women prefer a cleansing cream.”¹ Valerie’s response to...

  8. 3 The Girl in the City: Urban Modernity, Race, and Nation
    (pp. 87-121)

    The 1 December 1925 cover ofMaclean’smust have startled readers with a depiction of the Modern Girl’s alleged sexual aggressiveness. Catching a young man under the mistletoe, she grabs him by the lapels and goes in for a kiss. He looks shocked. The woman’s clothing is more revealing than others who graced the cover of the magazine: a good portion of her back and arms are bare, and her dress scoops low underneath the armpit. Her skin is dusky, and it is difficult to ascertain her status visually. In some ways this image encapsulated many of the fears of...

  9. 4 The Beauty Pageant: Contesting Feminine Modernities
    (pp. 122-151)

    Another type of Modern Girl appeared on the cultural landscape in the 1920s and she was not confined to a particular geographic area, although she purportedly represented a place. She was the beauty contestant, who by the end of the twenties appeared as one form of the global Modern Girl. In Canada, the beauty contestant embodied rapidly transforming cultural values and their concurrent contestations. Ideas of degeneration and anxiety in relation to gender, youth, and public exposure were part of popular discussions and debates over the beauty contest and the potential pleasures and perils it offered young women. One of...

  10. 5 Modern Art and the Girl: Nude Art and the Feminine Threat
    (pp. 152-183)

    When the Modern Girl appeared on canvas embroidered with the look of mature, female sexuality at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1927, a controversy erupted that lasted from the opening day to weeks and months after the closing of the gates. The three nudes in question were John Wentworth Russell’sA Modern Fantasy, George C. Drinkwater’sPaolo and Francesca, and Rosalie Emslie’sComfort.¹ They were not the only nudes hanging on the walls of the fine art gallery, but they were the ones that sparked a contentious debate carried out in newspaper columns and over one hundred letters to the...

  11. 6 Modern Girls and Machines: Cars, Projectors, and Publicity
    (pp. 184-210)

    In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novelThe Great Gatsby, protagonist Nick Caraway meets a Modern Girl and makes the following observation:

    I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her grey sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face. It occurred to me now that I had seen her before, or a picture of her, somewhere before.¹

    Given the popularity of the Modern Girl, Nick Caraway would have certainly...

  12. Conclusion: Losing the Modern Girl
    (pp. 211-216)

    On 5 May 1927,The Halifax Heraldannounced: “Champions of the Modern Girl Lose.” The previous night men in Antigonish had debated whether or not “the modern girl is preferable to the old-fashioned girl.” None of the content of the debate was reported, although it was noted that “it is doubtful if the discussion of any subject in any similar previous contest provided so much genuine pleasure and entertainment as did the debate last evening.” Half the article was devoted to describing the “girls on stage” – all seven of them attired as either Modern Girls or old-fashioned ones (and...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 217-264)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 265-284)
  15. Index
    (pp. 285-296)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-299)