The New Woman of the 1890s is always moving, and beautifully so.
Look no further than the lovely illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson. His famous Gibson girls are often seen golfing, swimming, and bicycling, unlike their hearth-bound grandmothers. Even when they are engaging in more conventionally ladylike activities, like dancing or walking, they show a grace and energy that is new and appealing.
Walking and horse-riding (sidesaddle, of course!) had always been acceptable activities for respectable women. But at the end of the nineteenth century, women were taking up other sports and pursuits, with the approval, and even celebration, of society. Illustrators such as Mr. Gibson were a big help in that regard: When the cover of a popular magazine features an elegant woman on a bicycle, it’s difficult to argue that it’s an unladylike activity.
Cycling, in particular, had been controversial earlier in the century. The idea of a woman on wheels gadding about instead of awaiting her man’s orders was rather more than some folks could accept. But as more women took to velocipedes and the sky did not fall, cycling joined the list of respectable female pursuits. By the late 1890s, the bicycle was no longer the signature of the suffragette but simply of the active lady.
The New Woman took full advantage of outdoor sports. As seen in Mr. Gibson’s work, she was on her cycle, on horseback, on the golf course, and even in the water, in an appropriately modest bathing costume. That modesty, by the way, is one of the keys to respectability. Although our modern women are undeniably moving, and undeniably looking good doing so, they are covered from neck to ankle and completely appropriate in demeanor.
They’re also engaged in the beloved Victorian tradition of fresh air and outdoor activity, which adds to the respectability of the endeavor. After all, Queen Victoria herself appreciated a good long walk or carriage ride in the outdoors.
Outdoor activities weren’t the only ones on offer for the energetic lady, though.
Dance classes were almost always part of the social training for a young lady, and some continued after they had learned the basics because they enjoyed it or hoped to make a career of it. By the turn of the twentieth century, thanks to London’s Gaiety Theatre and Floradora on Broadway, the most beautiful, elegant, and virtuous young ladies of the chorus could expect to make grand matches, so dance class was far more than exercise for some girls.
Most ladies, though, were merely interested in staying healthy and fit, and early exercise classes were beginning to draw interest, too. Many schools offered so-called calisthenics for girls—mostly stretching and light movement, intended to keep them healthy without excessive strain. Similar classes began to appear for adult women, as well.
One is featured in A Fatal First Night, Ella Shane’s latest outing. Newspaper reporter Hetty MacNaughten brings opera singer Ella and their friend Dr. Edith Silver to a calisthenics class in hopes of exposing it as a fraud. Neither Ella, a trained fencer who plays male roles, nor Hetty and the doctor, both very active as well, are especially challenged by the stretches and deep-knee bends, accompanied by the waving of hoops and scarves, but they’re quite amused by the exhortations to “flourish in their femininity.”
Ultimately, though, the doctor’s left to give Hetty the bad news that the class may be rather silly, but it’s not harmful. In fact, in keeping with the progressive medical thought of her time, Dr. Silver allows as how anything that encourages women to care for their bodies is good. Hetty’s left to look for another story … and everyone to hope for fine weather for a velocipede ride.
Actually, the greatest offense as far as Ella and her friends are concerned are the costumes: middy blouses, bloomers, and mobcaps! New Women expect to maintain a certain standard of elegance at all times, and nothing ruins the fun faster than a silly getup.
For it’s not just what you’re doing, it’s how you act and look while doing it. Early caricatures of women on bicycles portrayed them as scrawny, scruffy harridans speeding down the street. It’s only when Mr. Gibson and his contemporaries showed them as modern goddesses on two-wheeled chariots that their activities gained the sheen of style and respectability.
And why not? Every lady has a right to expect to look elegant while pursuing her chosen activity. Just ask the Gibson Girl as she pins her golf hat at the perfect angle.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathleen Marple Kalb is the author of the historical Ella Shane Mystery series set in Gilded Age New York, which includes A Fatal Finale and A Fatal First Night. She’s also a weekend morning anchor at New York’s 1010 WINS Radio, capping a career she began as a teenage DJ in rural Western Pennsylvania. Kalb is a member of the Sisters in Crime New York Chapter and the Author’s Guild and is active in media organizations as well. She lives in Cheshire, Connecticut, with her family and is at work on her next book. Visit her at KathleenMarpleKalb.com.
ABOUT THE ELLA SHANE MYSTERY SERIES
Kathleen Marple Kalb’s adventurous historical mystery series set in Gilded Age New York City follows swashbuckling opera singer Ella Shane, an Irish-Jewish Lower East Side orphan who has found fame and fortune singing male “trouser roles.” At the cusp of the twentieth century, Manhattan is a lively metropolis buzzing with talent, and unconventional diva Ella captivates audiences far and wide with her traveling theater company. But Ella’s flair for the dramatic takes a terrifying turn when crimes disrupt her shows. Can this go-getting leading lady hit the right notes in a case of murder?
In the first book, a Fatal Finale, an overacting Juliet to her Romeo drinks real poison during the final act of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Weeks after the woman’s death is ruled a tragic accident, a mysterious English duke arrives in Greenwich Village on a mission—he’s certain someone is getting away with murder, and he won’t go home until Ella helps him expose the truth. As Ella finds herself caught between her craft and a growing infatuation with her dashing new acquaintance, she’s determined to catch the culprit. In A Fatal First Night, Ella’s opera company’s latest premier manages to attract adoring crowds and rave reviews—but it also attracts a killer who’s a real showstopper.