Cecilia Tossounian, CONICET (Argentina)
The modern girl, who emerged during the 1920’s and 1930’s, was a global figure that circulated worldwide through commodity and cultural flows. Born and grown in the city, she was an eminently urban phenomenon. In my study of the modern girl figure in Buenos Aires between the two World Wars, I argue that her specific traits can be traced to the back and forth movements between global and local.
The modern girl’s visual similarity across the world was stunning. These young women fashioned themselves as modern by bobbing their hair and using loose-fitting dresses, red lipstick and a cloche hat. They also smoked, drank and danced shimmies with their partners, challenging tradition in each urban scene in which they emerged.
While the modern girl was undoubtedly transnational, she was also a very porteño (residents of Buenos Aires) figure. Magazines and newspapers portrayed figures of trend-conscious upper-class young women, sportswomen playing tennis and beauty queens parading in bathing suits. Pulp fiction, tango lyrics and films depicted sexy cabaret women embroiled in the Buenos Aires nightlife and salesgirls of luxurious department stores flirting with men of higher social status. Women became icons of the modern city. While these representations were supported by a transnational repertoire of images and ideas that circulated globally through cinema, advertisements and the mass media in general, they were also firmly nurtured by domestic changes. Buenos Aires allowed actual modern girls to acquire a concrete sense of independence. While modern upper-class young women crossed the city in their cars, modern working girls entered the labor market as office workers, earned a living and could also profit from the city life and its amusements. They all influenced domestic gender roles and patterns of daily life, linking modernity to womanhood.
But not only had the modern girl a specific urban development, she also had a national component. In other words, the porteño modern girl was addressing issues of Argentina’s national identity. This new figure was a byproduct of Argentine mass culture, which during this period was produced and largely consumed in Buenos Aires. Therefore, in my study I argue that during these two decades women were at the center of a public debate not only about modernity but also about its consequences on the emergence of an Argentine national identity.
In the dialogue between global and local, the porteño modern girl was much more marked by class than by race or ethnicity. In her negative facet, she primarily emerged as an upper-class phenomenon engaged in conspicuous consumption and leisure activities. This version of the modern girl was used to symbolize fears for the country’s moral decadence and cultural loss, seen as a consequence of the arrival of foreign-inspired fashions and manners. As a worker, sportswoman and even as beauty contestants “for export”, the modern girl embodied positive values. She stood for an “advanced” nation and her image was displayed as a demonstration of national progress and civilization.
Cecilia Tossounian is a researcher at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Argentina (Conicet). Previously, she was a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute for Latin American Studies of the Freie Universität Berlin (2011-2013). She holds a PhD in History and Civilization from the European University Institute in Florence, awarded in 2010.