At this time of year, for those in the fashion industry, "going to the Met" has nothing to do with spending a lazy day in the galleries, admiring Byzantine art. Rather, it means that you are one of the Chosen, invited to attend the annual Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, co-hosted by Vogue's Anna Wintour.
Tonight's Met gala will celebrate the new exhibit "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity." In the lead-up to the event and exhibition, Vogue devoted many pages of its May issue to depicting various female American prototypes, including the "patriot," the "flapper," the "heiress," the "bohemian," and the "the screen siren."
Some observers have grumbled about the subjectiveness and narrowness of these categories. "The thinking person has to acknowledge that the whole idea of the American woman is silly," wrote author and law professor Katie Roiphe in a recent Financial Times article. "There is no American woman, only millions of assorted American women ... [The show] feels like history and feminism, even if it's closer to dreams and advertising."
Still, I'd rather take this opportunity to consider the merits of the exhibition's premise -- which examines how "American woman initiated style revolutions that mirrored her social, political, and sexual emancipation" - and to celebrate what makes American women unique.
If America has always been about frontiers, American women have reflected this national characteristic and served as a breath of fresh air to the rest of the world. Even though we, like women on other countries, have historically been constrained by politics (women in the U.S. have had the vote for fewer than a hundred years) and biology (before the Pill, many women were pregnant every year before they hit menopause), we've still always represented a liberation of the spirit.
From Revolutionary War icon Betsy Ross to World War II's Rosie the Riveter, from sexually liberated 1920s femme fatale Louise Brooks to bra-burning feminists in the 1960s, from anti-slavery orator Sojourner Truth to controversial civil rights activist Angela Davis, American history is filled with female archetypes who pushed against the barriers of repression and social convention.
Maybe Vogue isn't so off the mark, when the magazine says that "if [she] blazed trails and broke rules, chances are [she] was born in the USA."
Below is a list of fifteen women who embody this quintessentially American sense of strength, resilient spirit, and crossed-frontiers. This list is by no means all-inclusive; it's just a sampling of some of my personal favorites. It could have been 150 names; it could have been 1,500 -- or more.
In the comments section, I look forward to seeing which iconic American women have particularly inspired you.
- Ella Fitzgerald (1917 - 1996) Dubbed "The First Lady of Song," Virginia-born Ella Fitzgerald overcame racial boundaries to become one of the most universally popular female jazz singers in the United States. In her lifetime, she won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums. "Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all," singer Bing Crosby once said.
- Brooke Astor (1902 - 2007) Called "the Aristocrat of the People" in her New York Times obituary, Astor was heiress, by marriage, to one of the great Gilded Age fortunes. Yet she reportedly despised pretension and devoted herself to helping the needy. By 1997, Mrs. Astor had overseen the disbursement of almost195 million via the Astor Foundation, mostly within New York City. The grateful community responded in kind: Astor was named a "living landmark" by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
- Billie Jean King (b. 1943) This California-born tennis star won six Wimbledon singles championships, four U.S. Open titles, and was ranked No. 1 in the world five years. Yet she skyrocketed to iconic status as an international emblem of the fight for women's equality. When bombastic former tennis champion Bobby Riggs challenged King to a match in 1973, it became known as "The Battle of the Sexes." On the court, King promptly beat the daylights out of Riggs, winning 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in front of a worldwide TV audience of 50 million viewers. Life magazine eventually named her one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century."
- Diana Vreeland (1903 - 1989) This iconic fashion editor helmed Vogue from 1963 - 1971. Overseeing the fashion industry during the "Youthquake" revolution of the 1960s, Vreeland championed lavish originality, and personified the concept of unconventional beauty. "There's only one thing in life," she once wrote. "And that's the continual renewal of inspiration."
- Katharine Hepburn (1907 - 2003) If American women have long been associated with freshness and "outdoor beauty," actress Katharine Hepburn was the mid-twentieth century embodiment of jaunty American sportiness. In her on-screen roles and in real life, she personified the sharp-talking, independent modern woman, making her a role model for generations.
- Lucille Ball (1911 - 1989) She may have played a scatterbrained housewife in her 1950s television series, I Love Lucy, but this New York-born comedienne became one of the most successful and powerful entertainers in the country. Ball has been credited with helping to push "television into its golden years," and paving the way for future big-business funny ladies such as Carol Burnett, Jean Stapleton, and Tina Fey.
- Georgia O'Keefe (1887 - 1986) Best known for her large-scale, close-up, distinctly erotic depictions of flowers, this one-time Wisconsin farm girl eventually became known as one of America's most important and successful twentieth-century painters, in a largely male-dominated art world.
- Donna Karan (b. 1948) This much-beloved womenswear designer has long insisted that she would only design clothes that she would wear herself, making her a favorite of the fashion-minded Everywoman. Karan rose from an Anne Klein assistantship in the 1960s to becoming an international powerhouse; her clothes still embody the athletic breeziness with which American fashion - and American women - has traditionally been associated.
- Jackie Joyner-Kersee (b. 1962) Joyner-Kersee was named after First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy because, as her grandmother reportedly said, "Some day this girl will be the first lady of something." The prediction proved prophetic: overcoming poverty, family tragedy, and discrimination, Joyner-Kersee would be voted "Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century" by Sports Illustrated for Women magazine. This St. Louis-born master of the women's heptathlon once said, "I don't think being an athlete is unfeminine. I think of it as a kind of grace."
- Annie Oakley (1860 - 1926) This sharpshooting lady - who starred in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show - has been called America's first female superstar. On a world-wide tour in which Oakley performed in front of kings, emperors, and president, she reportedly shot a cigarette right out of the hand of the future Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. She could reportedly could shoot a dime tossed in midair from ninety feet away, and drill six holes in a playing card fluttering to the ground. Oakley clearly represented the siprit of the American West - but always maintained a ladylike demeanor.
- Dorothy Parker (1893 - 1967) This acid-tongued New York City poet, author, and critic was America's answer to the wit of England's Oscar Wilde. A seminal member of the notorious Algonquin Round Table, Parker was the queen of the quip. An example: once, during a word game, Parker was asked to use the word "horticulture" in a sentence. Without missing a beat, Parker responded: "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think."
- Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884 - 1980) The eldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt scandalized the nation when, as a teenager, she first entered the White House, carrying a snake on one hand and holding a cigarette in the other. A charming opponent of many Victorian conventions, she soon became the nation's - and the world's - darling, known in her early years as "Princess Alice." While she never held a political office herself, she became one of Washington, D.C.'s power players for decades; deals were cut and policies made in her salon. Like Brooke Astor, Mrs. L (as she was known in later years) was deemed of such importance to her city's landscape that she was popularly referred to as "the other Washington Monument."
- Zora Neale Hurston (1891 - 1960) This Alabama-born, Harlem Renaissance writer is best known for her masterpiece novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Groundbreaking predecessor to literary greats Alice Walker and Toni Morrison (who called Hurston "one of the greatest writers of our time"), Hurston died in relative obscurity; her pauper's grave remained remained unmarked until 1973, when Walker furnished it with a simple gray headstone.
- Gloria Steinem (b. 1934) Born in Ohio, this journalist and activist became the face of the Women's Liberation Movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. An influential writer and political figure to this day, Steinem is widely considered one of the most transformative figures of the twentieth century. In the early 1970s, she made it clear that her efforts on behalf of second-wave feminism went beyond women's rights: "We are really talking about humanism," she once said. "[About] a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen, or those earned."
- Lee Miller (1907 - 1977) Once a successful fashion model, she became an acclaimed war correspondent for Vogue during the Second World War; responsible for some of the most powerful images of the war - and accordingly to the Lee Miller Archives, "probably the only woman combat photo-journalist to cover the war in Europe" -- Miller witnessed and documented the liberation of Paris, the battle for Alsace, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Miller was famously un-self-promoting and much of her work was out of print and largely forgotten until her son researched and published a retrospective of his mother's photographs.
On November 1, 2010, Chronicle Books will release a book by Lesley M. M. Blume based on her popular, nostalgia-celebrating Let's Bring Back column for The Huffington Post. 'Let's Bring Back' the book will be a sophisticated, stylish cultural encyclopedia, celebrating forgotten objects, pastimes, and personae from bygone eras. From sealing wax and quill pens to the Orient Express, fainting couches, and limericks, there is a great deal of ground to cover. Please make sure to visit previous installments of Let's Bring Back.
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