Moving into the Twentieth Century

As the nineteenth century morphed into the twentieth century, many young women were embracing a much more physical lifestyle. They were inspired by the growing alternatives to the psychological and physical restrictions of Victorian society, which had sought to restrict women to the home or farm. Buoyed by social movements such as dress reform, health fads that emphasized the importance of exercise and fresh air, as well as a burgeoning sensibility for “aesthetic movement,” these women made the critical connections between an active, healthy physicality and an independent spirit. The “new” woman was liberated from the corset along with the hearth as bodily self-support led to a greater sense of self-sufficiency. Suddenly the phrase “strong woman” was no longer an oxymoron.

Gibson Girl on a beach, Charles Dana Gibson, 1902Charles Dana Gibson was a well-known artist whose black and white sketches of lively young American women quickly became iconic of the changing look of American femininity. The “Gibson Girl” was youthful and active, often pictured outdoors riding a bike or swinging a tennis racket. She was, in the words of Fairfax Downey, “a pretty American girl speeding joyously along on a bicycle. On that simple machine she rode like a winged victory, women’s rights perched on the handlebars and cramping modes and manners strewn on her track” (qtd. in Banta 88). Two decades later much had changed in American culture, and Irene Castle, a famous ballroom dancer, was the new icon of a woman in motion (partnered by her husband, of course). Irene Castle had famously bobbed her hair, and her loose, flapper-style dress allowed even more freedom of movement in the legs and arms.

From "Woman as Decoration" by Emily Burbank: " Mrs. Vernon Castle who set to-day's fashion in outline of costume and short hair for the young woman of America. For this reason and because Mrs. Castle has form to a superlative degree (correct carriage of the body) and the clothes sense (knowledge of what she can wear and how to wear it) we have selected her to illustrate several types of costumes, characteristic of 1916 and 1917."From the perspective of the 21st century, it is hard to comprehend how vivid and viscerally exciting changes in everyday transportation were to most people used to walking or riding in a carriage or horse and buggy. The massive expansion of railroads and the increasing availability of wheeled transport (including motor cars) radically altered people’s experience of time and space. This accelerated speed of travel meant that journeys that used to take a week or more could now be accomplished in a day. In addition, individual appetites for movement expanded as the whole world seemed to explode into motion in the first decades of the 20th century. In his essay “Torque: The New Kinaesthetic of the Twentieth Century,” Hillel Schwartz surveys a myriad of cultural discourses to show how many aspects of life were influenced by new ideas about movement. “Over the new century, between 1840 and 1940, children and adults would slowly be rehearsed into a habit of gesturing and a repertoire of ‘streamlined’ gestures central to the new kinaesthetic – clean, fluid, curvilinear gestures moving from the center of the body outward through uninterrupted but muscularly well-controlled rhythmic impulses” (Schwartz 91).

Classroom Activities:

  • Read: “From Ballroom to Hell” by Thomas Faulkner and excerpt from Modern Dancing by Irene Castle
  • Move: Have the class begin walking around in an enclosed space (not too big, a classroom size is perfect). After a minute ask the students to begin walking forward, backward, sideways, trying to shift directions without losing the constant rhythm of your steps. Speed up the pace and see what happens. Next ask the students to keep moving at that faster pace and find spaces between people to move through. Keep finding new spaces and continue for several minutes. Then ask everyone to find a space and stand still for two minutes, feeling the minute adjustments one has to make to stand up.
  • Write: Take a few minutes to have the students write about their experience of speed and space in the above exercise.
  • Discuss: What is our contemporary relationship to extreme motion and speed today? Have the students compare experiences of spinning fast, riding waves, being on a rollercoaster or in an elevator or plane.
  • Watch: Find a video of Irene Castle partner dancing (e.x. Excerpt from “Whirl of Life,” Dance Heritage Coalition) and discuss your experience watching the video, after focusing in on your physical relationship to speed and direction.
  • Analyze: Compare images of the Gibson Girl with Irene Castle. Then have the students look for contemporary images that are similar to the “New” woman’s streamlined look. What are the differences between the “streamlined” look of the early twentieth century and those of the early twenty-first century?


Banta, Martha. Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History. New York: Columbia UP, 1987.

Burbank, Emily. Woman as Decoration. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1917.

Schwartz, Hillel. “Torque: The New Kinaesthetic of the Twentieth Century.” Incorporations. Eds. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter. New York: Urzone, 1992.

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