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The New Woman

KATHY PEISS: Cosmetics were not a respectable form of activity for women, really, through the 19th century, even into the early 20th century. So women who wanted to make up would order their cosmetics frequently, sometimes from a mail order company or from their local pharmacist. And ask for them in plain brown wrappers, as though it were almost pornographic to be making up your face. And, indeed, that makes a certain amount of sense because making up was identified with prostitution, with immorality, with being an immoral woman…

NARRATOR: But social mores were about to change.

photoNARRATOR: As the 20th century began, a new role model appeared on the scene—first in two-dimensional form. Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson created a tall, willowy, beautiful, independent, confident, aloof yet accessible character, popularly known as The Gibson Girl. The three-dimensional version of this young woman occupied the White House for the first decade of the 20th century—the irrepressible eldest daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. Alice flouted social convention and became the media darling as the new independent woman. Her father once remarked, “I can be President of the United States or I can attend to Alice. I can’t do both.” Alice’s spirit inspired young women across the country. While neither the Gibson Girl nor Miss Roosevelt wore make-up, they helped pave the way for its acceptance.

photoVIRGINIA DRACHMAN: This is an era in which we have a new generation of young women trying to carve out lives independent from, different from their mothers and their grandmothers. They embrace a new set of ideas, which involve the belief in gender equality. Young women flocked to the cities for economic independence and opportunity, for adventure, for autonomy and independence. They went to work—you have shop girls, professional women, career girls, and they all have a little bit of money to spend. And to display their independence, they take on new behavior—they cut their hair, they shed their long layers of clothing, and wear loose, shorter outfits. And, they start consuming cosmetics.

LAWRENCE FUCHS: With the great movement toward urbanization from the farms, you had two things—not only did you have women wanting to be more free, more independent, show that they really had personalities and they could show their individuality in the lipstick color that they chose or the face powder that they desired, but also that they were equal—in their expression of their personalities they were equal to men.

The Powder & the Glory, and additional material from script outtakes and producers’ interviews with Virginia Drachman and Lawrence Fuchs


  • Fashions 1913, Alice Roosevelt, Gibson Girl—Library of Congress
  • Still frame from The Powder & the Glory—Boyd Estus, Director of Photography

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The Powder & the Glory is presented on PBS by South Carolina ETV