Empowering Women Through Posters
By Jessica Adams & Jack Rennert
Coco Chanel. Greta Garbo. Josephine Baker. Zelda Fitzgerald. Icons of the Jazz Age and the flapper lifestyle, these women were rule-breakers: cigarette-smoking, cocktail-sipping, scantily clad, self-empowered rebels. The end of World War I and the stock market boom boosted their confidence; women now had the security they needed to make further strides in politics, culture, and life at home. But the 1920s and 1930s were not all pearl necklaces and ruby-red lipstick. This was an era of negotiation for women’s rights. And posters, by some of the finest posterists in the United States and abroad, played a significant role in changing perceptions of women’s place in society.
Despite this tendency toward traditionalism, an alternative current swelled. In France, though the first women’s suffrage organization dated to 1876, women didn’t win the vote until 1944. But they experienced an important cultural shift in the late nineteenth century with the dawn of the bicycle craze.
Anonymous, Femmes Républicaines! 1927.
At the time, it was generally considered inappropriate for women to ride bikes. Long skirts interfered with pedaling and could easily get caught in the gears, but men also considered the activity unladylike and brutish. Further, it was considered indecent for women to travel without a chaperone, and many husbands worried that a taste of freedom might encourage their wives to engage in risqué behavior. But women wanted to ride, and bicycle manufacturers recognized the business opportunity. To advertise their ladies’ models, companies hired many of the best French posterists, who accepted—even glorified—the woman rider. This anonymous artist shows a well-heeled lady out for an afternoon jaunt on her Guyot cycle. The cameo lets us know that it’s also a great racing bike, but it’s almost an aside to the stylish lady at center. Widely disseminated images of liberated women made the activity more publicly acceptable, which in turn made shorter skirts and bloomers permissible, and—most important—offered women empowerment, independence, and a hunger for progress.
Marcello Dudovich, Sàpis. 1926.
Luciano Achille Mauzan, Persil. 1935.
Anonymous, Cycles Guyot. c. 1920.
Charles Gesmar, Mistinguett. 1925.
In Paris, entertainers and cabaret stars like Josephine Baker and Mistinguett awed audiences with their brazenly seductive performances. Posters became a crucial form of advertising for the cabaret, and artists like Paul Colin and Charles Gesmar elevated the printed promotional materials to a timeless collector’s item by depicting the stars as grandiose, whimsical, and seductive, as in Gesmar’s “Rags to Riches” design for Mistinguett. But these images also heralded a new era of design that differentiated itself from Art Nouveau with monotone backgrounds, punches of bright color, geometric angles, and experimental typography. The poster reflected the currents of change in 1920s and 30s culture and the development of a new aesthetic language—now called Art Deco—based on creative innovations that were taking place in architecture, fashion, and jewelry.
As women took drastic steps in transforming their roles and lifestyles, posters helped normalize what society at large considered inappropriate. Ernst Busch’s Curaçao Senglet, originally released in 1910 and reprinted with a slightly different composition in 1920, embraces a deviation from acceptable women’s behavior of the time. In the book Plakate aus alter Zeit (Old-time posters), Karl Wobmann and Marianne Bernhard write, “The girl is not particularly attractive, rather she is arrogant, sullen, and carelessly dressed . . . even the rose, carelessly dropped to the floor, has lost some of its petals . . . The bartender and her admirer have both left. In 1910, no lady would have let herself be seen clothed so carelessly and sitting in a bar drinking alone. The poster recalls a hangover, and it is actually anti-advertising that attracts the viewer’s attention through its lack of slick features. A blonde beauty drinking a cup of golden liqueur—that is nothing unusual, but a wicked night owl dressed in black is something else again. The viewer wants to drink what she is drinking!”2 A woman of the era, groomed by social mores and patriarchal expectations, might not have been able to imagine herself drinking alone at the bar, but this provocative poster could convince her otherwise through its daring approach.
Ernst Busch, Curaçao Senglet. 1920.
Anonymous, Miss Blanche Cigarettes. 1920.
Emilio Vilá, Batschari Cigarettes. 1925.
Anonymous, Cigarettes Sato. 1933.
Today, the Jazz Age is nearly synonymous with speakeasies and smoking, but tobacco use among women was a new phenomenon. In 1917, the American Tobacco Company created the first advertisement that targeted women smokers; by the 1920s, designs featured stylish and sociable women, including celebrities like Amelia Earhart. In turn, women adopted smoking not only as a fashionable trend, but also as a political assertion of power and a signifier of membership in this new era of womanhood.
The 1920 Miss Blanche Cigarettes, by an unknown artist, certainly captures the allure: the redheaded lady, in her angular pose, casually blows smoke rings that hover above her gown and the perfectly Art Deco cushions beneath her. By contrast, another advertising tactic toned down the glamour to appeal to the average woman. Emilio Vilá’s 1925 Batschari Cigarettes applies the aesthetic appeal to a more modest muse who can be viewed as nearly blasé about the whole thing, but her tender gaze, following the wisps of smoke to create the brand name, strikes the perfect chord of wistful appeal. In an altogether different approach, the 1933 Cigarettes Sato, by an unknown artist, dramatically infuses the femme fatale with an otherworldly exoticism that manages to feel simultaneously elusive and enticing. Certainly the Art Deco smoker provided much fodder to posterists.
A cigarette and a cocktail go hand in hand at the speakeasy, but Prohibition squelched any alcohol advertising in the United States and parts of Europe. Instead, posters advertised other venues where an unsanctioned libation might be found: balls, jazz clubs, and cabarets. Georges Barbier’s 1922 design for the Bal des Petits Lits Blanc—an iconic image of the era—shows a stunning flapper decked out in contemporary fashion: short bobbed haircut, a scandalously low-cut form-fitting dress, diamond jewelry, and a theatrical fur-trimmed cape. In Germany, the Deutsches Theater in Munich hosted a number of riotous artists’ events and balls; Julius Ussy Engelhard captures the glamor and the fashion in his 1926 Bal-Paré and in his 1928 Mode-Ball.
Julius Ussy Engelhard, Mode-Ball. 1928.
Georges Barbier, Bal des Petits Lits Blanc. 1922.
Julius Ussy Engelhard, Bal-Paré. 1926.
Natalia Gontcharova, Grand Bal de Nuit. 1920.
In each of these—and in hundreds more—a seductive woman is the central focus. In the hands of a woman designer, though, the ball announcement only hints at the female body while prioritizing experimental line and shape to create an intoxicating composition overall. Natalia Goncharova’s 1920 Grand Bal de Nuit is one such design; she employs a Cubist style unusual in posters at that time to create an abstract scene that might suggest couples under a tree, but certainly evokes the impression of a vivacious soirée. Strasbourg-born Dorette Müller created few posters, as she was also a journalist, playwright, poet, and women’s rights activist. It’s a shame she couldn’t carve out more time to design posters; her 1925 Bal des Artistes Floreal showcases a masked nymph amid oversized, candy-colored flora in a true visual treat of graphic force.
Fashion was, of course, central to the flapper’s identity. She discarded convention and wrote new rules for dressing. First, abolish the constricting corset! Coco Chanel pioneered the sporty, casual aesthetic as a new feminine style—and an antithesis to the corseted silhouette. Lingerie was embraced as a more comfortable alternative that also looked sexy; Robert M. Jones’ 1931 “Iron Clad” Hosiery shows a woman at ease in a lacy bra and thigh-high stockings.
Next, the flapper did away with long, cumbersome dresses. As exemplified by the bicycle craze transformation, women’s fashion adapted to fit their needs. While the flapper didn’t require bloomers to shimmy, she did require higher hemlines to dance to jazz music—and this offered the bonus benefit of finally revealing her legs in public. The apparel was also cut wider, lower, and looser for mobility, which also offered women an opportunity to adopt androgyny. “The emergence of the boyish figure as the ideal of feminine beauty may seem to belong to the history of fashion, but contemporaries regarded this figure as the symbol of the new morality, a sign of the transition from a sexually and socially heterogeneous society to one that was unisex, uniform, and classless.”3 Similarly, the flapper cut off her long locks in favor of the boyish bob. Despite all this stripping away of female convention, the flapper chose to add new symbols of womanhood: piles of opulent jewelry, ornate hats, massive fur coats, slinky silk robes, and plenty of makeup. Women now embraced cosmetics—previously reserved for prostitutes and actresses—as a way to reframe their features and reclaim their physical beauty, leading in turn to the rise of the cosmetics industry as we know it today.
Posterists reflected the image of the new woman back to the populace. Federico Ribas-Montenegro gives us a lithe woman in a fringed drape dress that reveals her lingerie in his 1924 Bally Chaussures.
Dorette Müller, Bal des Artistes Floreal. 1925.
Anonymous, Donne a Braccetto. c. 1922.
Robert M. Jones, “Iron Clad” Hosiery. 1931.
Federico Ribas-Montenegro, Bally Chaussures. 1924.
Donne a Braccetto, an anonymous design from circa 1922, presents two ladies strutting in their newest acquisitions, which elongate their bodies, straighten their curves, and borrow a bit of men’s tailoring while remaining smartly feminine. Ludwig Hohlwein knows that the independent lady about town needs a great umbrella to match her nice dress, as in his circa 1927 Zum Guten Kleid, which makes an attractive argument for androgynous dress, while Franco Barberis shows in his 1929 Candee that rain gear can still be feminine and fun. This survey of women’s wear, from risqué to practical, proves that new options abounded for women.
Department stores influenced by the Parisian aesthetic were built internationally, allowing consumers from all locales and income levels to shop the newest lines. The textile industry exploded with factories, which further expanded the breadth of items available and offered a wide selection of sizes and styles. The mail order catalogue provided another point of access to the masses by bringing Parisian-inspired fashions straight to consumers’ homes. The flapper style, initially a form of revolt against the disappointments of World War I, became a commodity aesthetic.
Franco Barberis, Candee. 1929.
Ludwig Hohlwein, Zum Guten Kleid. c. 1927.
Women also flexed their independence through traveling, either solo or in the company of girlfriends. The bicycle and the automobile both granted the woman traveler a sense of freedom, and the rise of aviation broadened the destinations and the experiences available to women. This technological boom led to a surge of travel posters in the 1920s and 30s, many of which feature a lady adventurer as their subject. Paul-Henry Lafon’s 1920 Le Tourisme Moderne is a victorious example of this feat: a pioneering lady, dressed in the latest fashions, stands boldly atop the earth while she surveys all the modes of transportation available to her. The world lies at her feet, and she is calling the shots. Similarly, William Welsh’s 1936 Pullman/Vacation Lands are Calling centers on a stylish globetrotter who takes advantage of her leisure time to paint. This American railway company often promoted its travel options to women, and many woman-focused designs were created for the company over the years.
Jean Dupas’ 1933 Go Out by ”General” Bus employs his characteristic Modigliani-inspired women enjoying a picnic in an Edenic garden. “Many of the posters published in this period bore more than a fleeting resemblance to up-market fashion illustrations. This was not accidental, as many advertisers and companies (including the London Underground) were well aware of women’s growing interest in active involvement with fashion.”4 Dupas was well versed in fashion; he created illustrations for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and designed posters for the American department store Arnold Constable. The women here are decked out in the latest fashions; one wears a collared shirt with a tie in a chic appropriation of menswear. The only man present is a kind of Adonis whose only purpose, it would seem, is to provide the ladies with anything they might need during their gathering. In Dupas’ world, the tables have turned: women control their leisure, and the housewife has been replaced by a manservant.
Anita Parkhurst, Y.W.C.A./The Friendly Road. c. 1924.
William Welsh, Pullman/Vacation Lands Are Calling. 1936.
René Lelong, Kodak.
Edward M. Eggleston, Pennsylvania Railroad/Atlantic City. c. 1935.
By contrast, the British artist Dora M. Batty presents a more traditional housewife in her circa 1929 By Underground/From Country to the Heart of Town for the London Underground. Whereas male designers often idealized the feminine subject, women designers tended to take a more practical approach: though still running errands on her own, Batty’s lead woman is bundled in winter clothing while shopping for groceries.
Jesse Wilcox Smith, Suppose—Everybody Cared! 1925.
Dora M. Batty, By Underground/From Country to the Heart of Town. c. 1929
Jean Dupas, Go Out by “General” Bus. 1933.
Paul-Henry Lafon, Le Tourisme Moderne. 1920.
Edward Eggleston provides an American perspective on the modern woman in his circa 1935 Pennsylvania Railroad/Atlantic City. This unaccompanied young woman, happily waving to her friend (or perhaps inviting us, the viewers, to join her), sports a very modern swimsuit. In the 1930s, the development of latex and nylon made possible more form-fitting pieces with straps that could be lowered for tanning—which must have been a relief after decades of uncomfortable suits meant to hide as much skin as possible.
The Kodak Company fully embraced the intrepid traveler with an iconic poster series featuring the “Kodak Girl.” She often appears taking in the world blissfully alone, as in René Lelong’s Kodak. One needn’t understand the history of women’s liberation to feel her utter joy and emancipation.
The Y.W.C.A., founded in 1858 as the first American women’s organization, launched initiatives ranging from wartime support to athletics. Anita Parkhurst’s circa 1924 Y.W.C.A./The Friendly Road aims to reinforce the crucial value of sisterly bonds. Two young, fashionably dressed travelers exhibit a tender camaraderie as they embark on a journey together.
As women’s rights expanded, the issues of child care and maternal support came to the fore. Jessie Wilcox Smith illustrated dozens of tender moments between mother and child. In her 1925 Suppose—Everybody Cared! she rallies for donations to treat children in need through the Welfare Federation of Philadelphia. It’s a powerful statement: a woman designer drawing attention to the often neglected issue of child care.
From travel to politics, the current of change ran through the Art Deco era. “The Art Deco image is clearly less homogeneous than the Art Nouveau one, encompassing as it does the elegant Parisienne, the caricatured star, the boudoir baby, Ballets Russes opulence, Cubist lines, photographic collage, neo-classical massiveness of volume and geometric simplification. Yet it is always clearly recognizable because of the style, stylization and stylishness that bring unity to its diversity.”5 Read between the lines of a poster, and you’ll discover an entire world beneath the surface.
About the Author:
Jessica Adams is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She received her MFA from Pratt Institute and has been the Editorial Director at Rennert’s Gallery since 2018.
1. Flappers: A Guide to an American Subculture, by Kelly Boyer Sagert. California: Greenwood Press, 2010. p. 20.
2. Plakate aus Alter Zeit, by Karl Wobmann and Marianne Bernhard. Zurich: Varia Press, 1986. p. 28.
3. Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties: Flappers and Nymphs, by Billie Melman. London: Macmillan Press, 1988. p. 5.
4. London Transport Posters, ed. by Michael F. Levey. Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1976. p. 135.
5. Art Deco: Posters and Graphics, by Jean Delhaye. London: Academy Editions, 1977, p. 15.
All Photos: Posters Please, Inc., New York City
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 5, Issue 1, Winter 2020. View a digital version of the full journal here.