The ‘It’ Girl: A cultural trend or a ‘flash in the pan’?

The ‘It Girl’: a woman encapsulating a certain indefinable quality. Often a well-known socialite, a trendsetter with cultural cachet, and connected to other celebrated people. Conversely, some say the ‘It Girl’ holds fame for fame’s sake, with her notoriety overcompensating for other skills she may possess. But who possesses ‘It’?
Many have claimed the mantle of ‘It Girl’, although more often than not such a title is unwillingly thrust upon them. For example, an article in the New Yorker magazine from April 2015 declared that Chloë Sevigny ‘inaugurated the modern It Girl paradigm’; we have no shortage of female celebrities in the modern age for such magazines to label those who they deem as possessing ‘It’.
Yet attractive enigmatic women who have broken the mold have been noted throughout history. From Helen of Troy, whose face launched a thousand ships; to Cleopatra, the doomed queen of Egypt, and Elizabeth I of England, the Virgin Queen. These women are noted for their accomplishments, the facts and fiction that surrounded their personal lives and their attractive countenance or strong personalities.
However, it is not easy to pinpoint exactly when the concept of the ‘It Girl’, as we know it, came into existence. It seems to have taken off with the 1927 silent film ‘It’. Based on a novella by Elinor Glyn, it stars Clara Bow as a shop girl who possesses the certain ‘it’ trait that allows her to pursue a relationship with her wealthy employer, despite their class differences. Fortuitously, for Bow the film was a box office success and she became a real life It Girl. Her New York Times biography describes her as ‘famous as the ‘It’ girl of the Roaring 20s; Clara Bow was the flapper to end all flappers.’
The 1920’s offered a fertile ground for the rise of celebrity. After World War One there was a period of sustained prosperity until the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression beginning in 1929. Alongside the huge popularity of the silent film, a hedonistic ‘flapper’ culture developed of young women who had short hair, short hemlines and short shrift for pre-war culture.
It is claimed Elinor Glyn got the term ‘it’ from her sister, celebrated fashion designer, Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, who used it originally in a 1917 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. Its exact origins, as in the case of many colloquialisms, may never be truly known. But the ‘It Girl’ as it is linked to celebrity is inexorably tied to the Roaring Twenties era.
The hedonism of the age is best highlighted by a group known as the Happy Valley Set. A group of upper class British colonials, they moved to the Happy Valley of British ruled Kenya. When there they were known for a decadent lifestyle of parties, drug use, promiscuity and spouse swapping. They gained much publicity back in Britain due to their actions. One of the main instigators of the set was Lady Idina Sackville, a less salubrious ‘It Girl’, known to have many lovers and entertain her guests from her bathtub.
The ‘It Girl’ as a term evolved over time: although always pertaining to an enigmatic quality, it was often interchangeable with the celebrity and notoriety of the era. Many have been given the label, including famous women such as Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot and Edie Sedgwick. Sedgwick, in particular, embodies the cultural trend and social connections required of ‘It Girls’, as can be seen from her involvement in making avant-garde films with Andy Warhol in the 1960’s.
Arguably a change occurred by the 1990’s – when our modern conception of the ‘It Girl’ emerges. Chloë Sevigny can be considered the archetype of the newer definition, mixing the avant-garde of those like Sedgwick with mainstream acceptance.
Sevigny, an American, grew up in a wealthy Connecticut suburb close to New York City. Spotted on the street due to her oufit by an editor for the now defunct ‘Sassy’ magazine, she was asked to model and subsequently intern for the magazine. This 1992 encounter was followed by a seven page profile in the New Yorker. The 1994 profile, by respected author Jay McInerney, called her the ‘downtown trendsetter of the moment.’ The fashion and trendsetter label thrust upon Sevigny allowed her to ride a cultural zeitgeist in 90’s Manhattan. Known as the coolest girl in the world, she didn’t waste her notoriety, transitioning into acting with her breakthrough role coming in the 1999 film ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ Although she lacked acting experience before the mid-1990’s she was able to use her ‘It Girl’ status to become a successful actress.
By the 2000’s the ‘It Girl’ term had lost its 90’s enigmatic coolness. A 2002 New Yok Times article by Mary Robbins mused; ‘I do not think it is possible to pinpoint the moment that It-ness crested and began to crash earthward.’ A more somber mood set in America, amid recession and 9/11. The early 2000’s It Girls were often not edgy unknowns plucked from the streets, but heiresses with ready-made social connections. This new type of ‘It Girl’ used connections to ride established media trends towards fame and celebutante status. Paris Hilton became infamous for the reality television show, ‘The Simple Life’ and a 2004 sex tape. She gained international fame, parlaying that success into endorsements, product ranges, music releases, acting gigs and event appearances.
Hilton’s rise created a path for the now extremely famous Kim Kardashian. Kardashian, a friend of Hilton, gained attention as a Los Angeles socialite. A 2007 sex tap was followed the same year by the popular reality show, ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians.’ The show is still on the air after ten seasons, she has a host of endorsements and is in high demand for media appearances. Forbes magazine’s website notes, ‘Kim Kardashian has monetized fame better than any other.’
Arguably, the likes of Hilton and Kardashian have more in common with the hedonistic aristocrats of the 1920’s than the cultural trendsetters of the 1990’s. Riding established media trends, they are snubbed by some critics, who claim they appeal to the lowest cultural denominator and have an overtly sexualized image. But Kardashian has a wide cultural reach; appearing on the cover of American Vogue, being interviewed on NPR and amassing forty-eight million Instagram followers. This reach suggests she can indeed claim to be an ‘It Girl’.
Ultimately, the ‘It Girl’ is only separated from the normal female celebrity by how she captures the zeitgeist and mood of a particular time and impacts wider society. She can be a trend setter or particularly adept at exploiting an already popular cultural trend.
The rise of social media gives these trendsetters even more exposure and power, freeing them from reliance on traditional forms of media. But this splintering of media consumption could cause reduction in the power of new rising ‘It Girls’, as the platforms become busier and competition more intense. Yet ultimately media and trend watchers will still always be looking for the next big ‘It Girl’.

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