Sometimes I see my preteen or teen relatives on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, and wonder what advice I'd give them, if they actually wanted it. And they probably don't. I'm a 26 year old crone to them - I mean I might as well be 40, but...if they asked for my advice I might refer back to my teen years of the early and mid aughts.
I didn’t know what it meant to be a woman or how I should behave or dress differently than I had at age 11 or 12. I think most girls feel fairly confused, but none of my friends showed it. They were so eager to become “sexy” women, and no matter how unsure they may have been, they seemed very confident in their heavy eyeliner, white eyeshadow and body glitter.
The spray-tanned skin and blonde, stick straight hair popular among teenage girls of the time was definitely not my aesthetic, however. I soon felt like a fraud, but wasn’t quite sure how to change it, because I had no idea what “kind” of woman to be.
Then a glorious thing happened.
I began immersing myself in the world of classic movies. I saw these women on screen and aspired to be like them – mature, poised, intelligent and stylish as hell – very unlike the current role models I had (cough, the women of The Bachelor). They were the first version of an empowered and glamorous version of womanhood I became exposed to.
I took note of everything, from their mannerisms to their style, and soon I became obsessed. I started saying things like “Don’t worry, I’ve got alotta lettuce” when I purchased tickets at the local movie theater with my friends. This was embarrassing for my friends, obviously. I bought clothes at thrift shops– a black coat with a white collar that I belted and made believe was Coco Chanel-worthy. I even put rollers in my hair to achieve a waterfall of soft curls.
^ My older Joan Crawford look
So, with no further ado, here is everything I learned about how to be a woman, or rather how to be my own woman, courtesy of ‘30s,‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood:
1. Marlene Dietrich.
Genderbending is sexy. There’s nothing wrong with a woman with a little swagger in her step, especially if that woman is you. Wear hats. Enjoy a nice blazer. Mix up your week by mixing androgynous days with pinup girl days and everything in between.
2. Barbara Stanwyck.
You’ve gotta have moxie. So you’re not probably qualified for that raise or that job or that fellowship or that award. Apply anyway. Then when you meet with your boss or supervisor or grant-giver, they’ll say, “Well I don’t know, X, Y, Z is true, but you got moxie, kid. So you’ll get A, B and possibly C.”
It hasn’t always played out that way in my life. But hey, when it has happened, it’s been worth the effort. Also, find some way to incorporate the term “racket” into your everyday language. “So, Bill, now that you’re out of the journalism racket, does that mean you’re getting into the PR business? I’m sure you’ll make alotta lettuce. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get hitched to a hot tomata.”
You should probably watch “Ladies They Talk About” if you want a better idea of how to be 1930s prison inmate tough.
3. Betty Davis. It’s okay to be emotional, or maybe even a trainwreck, now and then. It gives you depth. You’re a complicated woman. Make announcements to your party guests that drama awaits. Realize, far too late, that you’re in love with a man who was loved you for many years and have the guts to admit that to yourself, and him.
4. Rosalind Russell. Have quick wit. Be a “newspaper man.” Being beautiful or emotionally vulnerable or tough is great, but without humor and intelligence, you’re a bore. Wear tall, impractical hats – they will improve your humor as well as your stature.
5. Lauren Bacall. Be languid and mysterious. Have a deep voice. Make people wonder if you’re affiliated with the mob. You should always keep people guessing. I did it by alluding to criminal activity by omission and smirks. I was actually a pretty good teen, by some standards, but no one was the wiser.
6. Eartha Kitt. Have the face of a cherub but the eyebrows of an evil queen. Don’t feel guilty about acquiring lots and lots of nice things. Be Catwoman.
One of the many things I love about Eartha Kitt is her rejection of the way people stereotype women who crave material wealth. Women are portrayed as vain and men are considered ambitious. Eartha Kitt did not need a man, because she was too busy admiring her beautiful furs and terrorizing Gotham City.
7. Joan Crawford. Even if you’re 5’5, you can give off an air of authority with massive shoulder pads and heels. I thought Joan Crawford was an Amazon until Robert Osborne shattered that illusion. However, as a 5’3 woman, I felt slightly comforted. Today I own a Zara blazer with massive shoulders and my closet is filled with pencil skirts, so, lesson learned.
8. Katy Jurado. Have the kind of eyes that can burn a hole straight through someone’s soul and make themselves question their whole life purpose. When I first saw her in “High Noon,” I wondered how someone’s eyes can be so many things – kind, judgmental, wise and most of all, entrancing. I only hoped to convey that kind of depth, that smoldering yet distant stare when smelly freshman boys asked me to pick up the pencil they deliberately dropped on the ground in front of them. I like to think I did, because no freshman boys ever attempted that trick again.
An attempt to dress as Katherine Hepburn for Halloween (see the freckles)
The sad truth is that despite all of the hurdles real women had living in the '30s, '40s and '50s, their movie characters were far more independent, complicated and ambitious than the women I see in movies today. That's why I clung to these movies - they represented the woman I wanted to be, but also the actual grown women I already knew. My mother, my aunts, my cousins, women who were interesting and complex but weren't reflected in television, movies and music. Luckily, I think we've taken a step forward after the backlash. Beyonce and Nicki Minaj in music, Ruth Wilson, Viola Davis, Elizabeth Moss and Gillian Anderson on television and Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Lupita Nyong'o and Amy Adams in movies, represent modern day heroines. Still, if you ever feel uninspired by the fashion of today want to take style cues from the these ladies, you can't go wrong.