Photographs:Gender Bending Women, early-20th c.
Text by Lauren Gutterman. Copyright © Lauren Gutterman 2009. All rights reserved.
Introduction to the Collection:
Collector Sharon Weinman gathered this groups of photographs of women in masculine clothing from the early twentieth century. While some of these photographs are completely random, Weinman has several photographs from what appears to be a party in 1913 and several young women on a hike in 1924. Weinman writes:
I started my collection a number of years ago. Whenever I go to a flea market, I scavenge through boxes of photos for images that intrigue me. In addition to old 'gender bending' women photos, I have also started a small collection of snap shots of old solitary women (usually knitting or in a rocking chair). I find it interesting to compare the changing view of elderly women. A number of the "cross dressing" women related snapshots also illustrates to me women's friendships and a sense of freedom that you see in their expressions and body language that may come partially from the clothing they are wearing. We will never know who these women are or why they are dressed as they are but we use our imagination and create our own meaning.
We know very little about the women in these images, but we can make observations based on their race, clothing, location and access to photography equipment. The women in these images were not probably not average working girls, but privileged young women of the middle to upper classes. The women in these photographs also present a very specific vision of young womanhood in the early twentieth century: confident, happy, lively. It's also important to rememebr that most American women did not begin wearing pants until WWII -- when they became a fashion of necessity -- and many people considered women's pant-wearing to be a bit risque before then.
Despite the masculine clothing and sometimes masculine physicality of the women in these images, we must be careful not to make assumptions about their gender identity or sexual orientation. Scholar Laura Doan has argued that Doan argues that in England in the early 1920s, the most fashionable women sported masculine clothing and accessories, including monocles, suit jackets, ties, and short cropped hair. Doan maintains that these fasions undermined the distinction between straight and lesbian women, allowing all women to challenge sexual researchers who argued that a woman’s masculine appearance was key to defining her sexual deviance or "gender inversion." These women may look like butch lesbians to us, but their appearances may not have carried the same connotations nearly a century ago as they do today. .
Things to Consider:
- What messages did these women want to send with their masculine attire? Were they playing wtih gender? Were they self-consciously claiming a measure of male privilege? Were they distinguising themselves from their Victorian mothers and marking themselves as modern, "emancipated" women?
- What can you surmise about the women's personalities and relationships from their clothing and posture?
- What do you imagine these women did immediately before and immediately after these photographs were taken?
- What kind of daily lives might these women have led?
- As teenagers or young adults in the 1910s and 1920s, these women would have lived through the Great Depression, WWII, into the 1950s or beyond. How might the world have changed in their lifetimes?
- Looking at these images, how has female masculinity changed over time?
Palisades, New York, 1924
- Doan, Laura. “Passing Fashions: Reading Female Masculinities in the 1920s” Feminist Studies, Vol 24, No.3 (Autumn, 1998) 663-700.