A deconstruction of the "IT Girl"
IT is a word used for something ephemeral, magnetic and incredible. Something that eschews definition and category. It describes the indescribable– that elusive X Factor great performers often have.
You can imagine a smoky, old-school casting director leaning back in his chair and puffing out– “He really has IT-- that thing we’re looking for. He’s perfect.”
Thanks for reading Dilettante.! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
The expression “IT Girl” gained popularity after promotion for the 1927 silent film It starring Clara Bow. Bow had undeniable appeal– that elusive combination of ingenue and femme fatale. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that she was “the real thing. Someone to stir every pulse in the nation”.
In earlier usage of the term, IT Girl was meant to describe a woman who achieved fortuitous fame without using her sexuality. A woman who could stir the pulse of every man, woman and child in the nation without challenging puritanical values.
Today, that definition has splintered. We have both the chiefly American usage pertaining to any glamorous, vivacious or sexually attractive young girl along with the more buttoned-up British interpretation which includes a young, rich woman with a distinctly socialite lifestyle.
This dual meaning is why Marilyn Monroe and Jane Birkin are both considered IT Girls despite fulfilling completely opposite feminine archetypes.
In the 1980’s, the term evolved yet again. It was whittled down to refer to a very specific, wealthy– and often unemployed– young woman, whose face could be seen in tabloids partying in the company of other celebrities– receiving media coverage despite having accomplished no “real” personal achievement.
There is a distinction unique to the demographic of a young, thin, beautiful, woman– and it’s the ability to subsist in this life solely on the fumes of sexual attraction, charismatic presence, or overall chicness.
Our society affords a spotlight to beautiful creatures. We can’t deny that. ‘Merit’ is often based on what we glean with a glance and ‘Talent’ is often defined by how many tickets you can sell.
‘Success’-- real, commercial success– in creative industries is often made for pretty girls with talent to boot. For girls who can scratch a particular itch in the audience. For girls we just like lookin’ at.
That is not to say that IT Girls are all ditzy and brainless women with nothing more to offer than their appearance. Quite often, the exact opposite is true.
However, it’s common knowledge that we live in a world which reduces women to being seen as dolls in doll houses rather than fully-fledged human beings with worthwhile thoughts, wants and experiences. Their appearance is what garners them the initial spotlight. It is what puts them in the eyeline of the wealthy elite. It is their foot in the door.
We live in a largely visual world. Assumptions are made about you before you even open your mouth. The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias wherein a single positive trait that you see in another, informs your entire opinion of them.
A pleasant looking person with good conversational skills can be seen as better suited for a job posting than their more socially awkward counterpart– regardless of their actual ability. A beautiful man with perfect teeth is now a celebrated artist despite having no true Voice or technical ability. A model is an actress, is a business owner, is a mogul.
Beauty does not guarantee success. In practice, what it does is afford an opportunity for success to women who exist outside the typical high-falutin, socialite-laden lifestyle of the wealthy elite. This opportunity is the last bastion of hope for creative women without means– for women who cannot situate themselves on the stages they need to promote their ideas. Wistful, carefree lives are often reserved for those who can afford them. But a modeling career can pluck a girl from poverty with little upfront cost.
The narrative that we’re given with the IT Girl is that if a woman aligns herself perfectly in the shadow of the beauty standards presented to her, she can pay rent. She can live her life comfortably and on her own terms. She can start a fashion brand, or a skincare line or a blog instead of answering phones for a call center or delivering groceries.
So we see girls catapult themselves towards the internet. Towards the biggest vector for attention our society has. To document and expose, to promote and post and “generate content”-- to just be seen. So hopefully someone, somewhere, with the right know-how could generously sponsor their life of hobbies.
But this dream, like most American Dreams, is often a fantasy. And more often than not, it is reserved for girls already bankrolled by Daddy’s Money. The richest girl in Texas is now the most popular girl in New York City.
Few girls ever reach true IT Girl status and many settle for the (still highly prized) title of ‘Influencer’. Both these career trajectories, however, come with an expiration date.
You’ll find that the term is IT Girl. Not IT woman or IT lady or IT grandma– and it pertains solely to a very slim segment of the overall population of women on the earth. With this, there is an immense pressure to strike while the iron is hot, as one would say. For a young, perfectly- symmetrical woman to be “discovered” before her clock runs out. Before she’s too old to be noticed anymore.
IT Girl status is fleeting– it is a specter seen for a brief moment in the corner of your eye, glinted on the edge of a mirror or in the reflection of a golden vase– and then it’s gone. An IT Girl must accelerate into a fully-fledged celebrity if she has any hope for survival. She must appear on TV shows and publish books, launch merchandise and venture into larger, more stable careers— or else her flame will reduce to embers.
Talent is where longevity lies. Your appearance is what gets you the spotlight– but your artistry and business acumen are what will maintain your success.
Some say that the IT Girl title is demeaning. That it reduces the creative woman to only her appearance– to only her zest and verve and not her substance. She becomes simply a mannequin for the clothes– a model to sell the product.
Alexa Chung, one of the biggest IT Girls of my generation, once said “I used to have a voice— because I was interviewing people and writing, but as soon as I got swept up in the fashion world, I was just a pretty girl at a party wearing a pretty dress. You’re demoted to being an IT Girl that’s not worth anything other than the outfit on your back.”
The fashion component of IT Girls has been around since the beginning. Elinor Glyn, who wrote the book and screenplay for It (1927) was the younger sister of couturier Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon.
Lucile managed high-end, exclusive salons in London, Paris and New York and was the pioneer of the modern day runway show. She was the first designer to present her collections on a stage with theatrical elements.
Lucile clothed any IT Girl worth her salt at the time. This helped to set the precedent for gorgeous, charismatic women of the future to need to be fashionable.
Chloë Sevigny is perhaps the most predominant fashion IT darling of my era. Starting with her debut in Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane” music video, adorned (at least most of the time) in Perry Ellis by Marc Jacobs. Sevigny helmed the grunge look of the decade.
She had that underground, cooler-than-you mystique that everyone else wanted. She was effortlessly stylish and could pull off a shaved head and baggy clothes while still feeling feminine and sweet.
The attention she garnered from the Media thrust her into one fashion campaign after the other. She created her own line with Opening Ceremony and eventually, ironically, Chloë became the face of Chloé, the French luxury fashion house.
Her relationship with Harmony Korine and subsequent feature role in Kids (1995) gave her credibility in the film industry and momentum that led her to racking up multiple roles in cult films like Gummo (1997), American Psycho (2000), Zodiac (2007) and The Act (2019).
Sevigny was able to turn her 90’s IT Girl spark into a steady flame as an enduring style icon and actress.
Now, I started this exploration into the IT Girl initially because of the resurgence of Twee on Tiktok. For those of you that don’t know- “Twee” is a kitschy style genre that was popular in the early 2010’s. Think- Zooey Deschanel, Oxford shoes, ukuleles and modcloth dot com.
This got me thinking about how I dressed during that time and namely, my obsession with Alexa Chung (who is, safe to say, an ardent Twee fan herself).
In 2013, Chung released her memoir, aptly titled- it. Inside, she talks candidly about her life, her love affairs and her taste in both clothes and music. Basically, churning out the absolute perfect fodder for her vying fans, desperate to know more about the inner workings of this elusive and off-beat cool girl.
This got me thinking about the changing landscape of celebrity. Basically, if Alexa Chung hit the scene today, would she have to try so hard? Would she have to do years of fashion shows and television gigs or could she just go viral on her tiktok account?
The question I am left with is– has reaching ‘IT Girl status’ become even easier and more accessible in the digital age? Or has the internet flooded our eyes with too many eager, fashionable girls vying for attention that it is now nearly impossible to truly be noticed?
Thanks for reading Dilettante.! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.