It girl: Alexa Chung and how the phrase came to be

Did Alexa Chung know the full gravity of what she was referencing when she named her book ‘It’? Alas, probably not. In contrast to her popularly modest and humble approach to celebrity life, her writing debut’s title is a not-so-subtle reference to the phrase ‘It girl’. While nowadays the term is used often and lightly its full history begs to differ.

The phrase was popularised by the 1927 film ‘It’, which launched the budding silent-film actress, Clara Bow, to global fame and gave her the nickname ‘The It girl’. Bow came to personify the Roaring Twenties (though she is little remembered now) due to her acting skills and fashionable appearance. The film was based on the novel ‘It’ written by Elinor Glyn in the same year, she then going on to write the screenplay. Glyn is often credited with coining the term It girl, and in the book she describes It as:

‘To have ‘It’, the fortunate possessor must have that strange magnetism which attracts both sexes… In the animal world ‘It’ demonstrates in tigers and cats – both animals being fascinating and mysterious, and quite unbiddable.’

In the film this is loosely translated to:

‘Self-confidence and indifference whether you are pleasing or not and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold.’

Although she was perhaps the first to go into such detail trying to define It, Rudyard Kipling had in fact introduced this idea to modern literature two decades before in the short story ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ from 1904:

‘It isn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just ‘It’. Some women will stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down the street.’

Clara Bow stated that she wasn’t sure what It meant, but later she would identify Marilyn Monroe as an It girl, but more interestingly, Robert Mitchum as an It man, which brings us to an intriguing point. The phrase ‘It man’ has most certainly not passed into the cultural lexicon of modern language; It is a quality available only to women, and nowadays that is not disputed. It would be too easy to attribute this to the femininity and sex appeal part of It, and although this is a valid point I believe (and hope) that the truth is slightly less demeaning. I think that for someone to have It they must be attractive to both men and women equally, if perhaps in slightly different ways. Men may be sexually attracted, whereas women are attracted via the envy we feel: that bittersweet emotion where one is simultaneously in admiration of someone and yet also deeply jealous. This trait predominantly occurs in girls, if only for the reason that western culture dictates that men be fiercely opposed to being seen as possibly gay whilst also being pro-homosexuality. Girls idolise and fall in love with famous men, but when regarding other girls it’s another story. A girl might acknowledge that another is pretty, but beware, for this always leads to a pang of resentment, however small. For a girl to have It in the eyes of another girl is in fact a feat not lightly accomplished, and this in itself captures the nature of It perfectly.

To be a modern It girl is a status not easily achieved. It is important to remember that the original It girl, Clara Bow, was given that nickname by her fans on a very limited basis: her (mostly silent) films, and her appearances in magazines and newspapers. She was an It girl before the age of television and chat shows, before the hyper technology-dependent society of today where celebrities are expected to keep the world up to date on their day to day lives. We live in an era where the term ‘celebrity’ has become degraded to the point where anybody can seize their own 15 minutes through such a variety of ways as never seen before, and where those who truly deserve that status as someone to be celebrated prefer not to use that word, its meaning now having become vulgar and vague.

My point is that with every new social network and gadget from which to access it having It is becoming something which it should mean even more to have now than it once did, because for someone to possess that near indescribable It, almost everyone must agree. Which means that as soon as you learn something undesirable about someone or something they have said, their chances of being deemed an It girl are greatly diminished. There is only one kind of career that allows people to be forever seen and not heard. You knew it was coming because of who you instantly think of when you hear/read the phrase It girl: models.

Which brings us straight back to Alexa Chung. With her multi-racial good-looks, a slim figure that has ‘inspired’ so many adolescent girls and her very own Twiggy-esque, peter-pan collar donning style to charm all she is undoubtedly the world’s no.1 It girl, Kate Moss having been relegated due to her unfortunate drug habits and diminishing youth. She has borrowed retro fashions and climbed up the arms of several musician boyfriends to finally reach this status, which now seems to give her the right to write a book of her inspirations and advice that includes several pictures of, um, Kate Moss and Twiggy. She will make even more money and her fans will continue to grovel, but no one could ever say that the book is inspirational or that her advice is helpful, let alone necessary. But neither are It girls, and yet they are now an irrevocable part of our society; an impossible mirage of perfection which, of course, can never actually be reached.

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2 comments

  1. I really enjoyed this history here…had never heard where the term “It Girl” came from. Now I’m rather inspired to learn more about Clara Bow, though not necessarily buy the book IT (which was also the title of a horror novel by Stephen King that scared the pants off me when I was in college, and being IT in King’s book was something like being a murderous, psychopathic, paranormal clown.)

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