Academic journal article Hecate

Modernity's "New Women": Visual Culture and Gender Play in 1890s Australia

Academic journal article Hecate

Modernity's "New Women": Visual Culture and Gender Play in 1890s Australia

Article excerpt

    The body is not passively scripted with cultural codes, as if it    were a lifeless recipient of wholly pre-given cultural relations.    But neither do embodied selves pre-exist the cultural    conventions which essentially signify bodies. Actors are    always and already on the stage, within the terms of the    performance. Just as the script may be enacted in various    ways, and just as the play requires both text and    interpretation, so the gendered body acts its part in a    culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations    within the confines of already existing directives. (Butler    1988, 526)  

As the turn of the twentieth century approached some white women in Australasian colonies were gaining their citizenship rights. (1) It was also during this period that a range of increasingly feminised commercial practices enhanced women's visibility and participation in public space. These included advertisements targeted at female consumers; window shopping; browsing in arcades and department stores; a feminised public and semi-public workforce; photographic portraiture in mass print and as a domestic and commercial leisure activity; and the "modern" spectacles through which women's bodies and fashion were commodified. (2) These new practices, as with organised suffrage campaigning, did not go unnoticed. Australian women's interest and involvement in the governance and structure of the newly born state and nation were filtered through, and were a part of society's preoccupation with women's visibility. As a result, how women dressed and appeared symbolised much more than any one woman's taste in fashion and/or pursuit of modern leisure, and/or choice of work. And arguments about women's right to work and the conditions under which they did it; about control of their bodies and the freedom to avoid enforced maternity, were not just carried on over the bodies of women at work and at play, but through an expanding "modern" representational culture. Judith Butler's argument that introduces this article is apposite in reading representations of women's bodies in this period. This is because, as this article demonstrates, it was within "culturally restricted corporeal space[s]" that women performed and embodied their modernity. The ways in which modernity is marked upon women's bodies in representations of this period tells us much about the contemporary cultural conventions that signified bodies, and analysing gendered performances through representation offers unique insight into women's own interpretations of existing gendered directives in this period.

The field of representation that emerged in the late nineteenth century shaped social and cultural practices in novel ways and, in turn, shaped women's politics. Photographs of women for the first time littered the pages of daily and weekly papers, and women replicated those images in photographs taken of them by inspired family members and friends. Theatres performed plays showcasing fashions imported from the continent for different classes of female spectators, including the dress and appearance of "New Woman" characters. (3) Stereographs of "New Women" were bought and sold from shop fronts, and passed around at home so friends and family members could marvel at the three-dimensional images that the hand-held wooden stereographic viewer brought to life. Amateur photographers entered photographic competitions. By the new century, women were scanning "women's pages" in newspapers like the Melbourne Punch and the Australasian, and women's journals like New Idea and Vanity Fair for the latest fashion trends from Paris, Milan and London, and they made them up with their own new sewing machines or bought them off-the-peg. Developments in photographic technology and retail culture were thus central to women's modernity, evidenced in no small part through the quintessential expression of "modern" femininity during this period--the "New Woman". …

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