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The It Girl - What Makes Her “It” In Every Era

The “It” Girl represents something indefinable — a quality, charisma, or spark that makes her stand out and captures something of her time. She’s an eye-catcher, fostering an aesthetic or set of values that epitomize her cultural moment. Throughout generations, the It Girl shares common traits with her predecessors: a daring fashion sense, a willingness to use her voice, and a persona that often overwhelms her body of work, sometimes making her seem famous for being famous. So what truly makes a generation’s It Girl?

TRANSCRIPT

“You are the real thing. America’s next IT girl!” - Julia Warhol, Factory Girl

What makes an “It” Girl? The “It” Girl represents something indefinable — a quality, charisma, or spark that makes her stand out and captures something of her time. She’s an eye-catcher, fostering an aesthetic or set of values that epitomize her cultural moment. Throughout generations, the “It” Girl shares common traits with her predecessors: a daring fashion sense, a willingness to use her voice, and a persona that often overwhelms her body of work, sometimes making her seem famous for being famous. Her star emerges seemingly overnight, so where does she come from?

The term “It Girl” was coined in the ’20s, and popularized by silent film star Clara Bow who literally embodied the It Girl in the 1927 film It – a silent movie about a shopgirl living in a tenement who’s elevated to the elite by wealthy men who notice something about her. Capturing the spirit of the Jazz Age, Clara Bow set the model for future It Girls who similarly captured their zeitgeist — like Paris Hilton, who embodied the consumerism of the 2000s, Marilyn Monroe, the archetype of 1950s glamor and beauty, and Kate Moss, poster girl for ’90s British fashion.

So what truly makes a generation’s It Girl? And who are the It Girls of today? Here’s our take on this age-old archetype, and how by examining her we can unlock the spirit of the time when she was “it.”

Capturing the Zeitgeist

The “It” girl appears as a mirror for the cultural moment. Because of this, she sometimes seems to emerge out of nowhere.

Jimmy Kimmel: “How can this be your first movie, this big movie with Adam Sandler?”

Julia Fox: “I mean, it’s a miracle.”

- Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Although her overnight success story is almost always a myth —

“I didn’t have this overnight success story, I didn’t have this hit out the gate.” - Lizzo, Access Hollywood

— that myth has been an important part of the It Girl mystique since its origin, generating an enigmatic appeal and drawing attention to the value she possesses.

The ineffable quality that shoots her to stratospheric heights changes with the shifting culture: the It girls of the U.K. in the ’90s – socialites like Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Tamara Beckwith, and supermodels Kate Moss and Jodie Kidd — embodied a spirit of hedonism that mirrored the growing mood of optimism in the nation. A decade later, reality television and the tabloid press elevated Paris Hilton – her girly, materialistic persona reflected the idea of famous for being famous, a socialite who could hang with the hottest celebrities. Paris wasn’t a total departure from the super-skinny models of the ’90s, but unlike the It Girls of Cool Britannia, Paris embraced and celebrated consumerism. Her vapid, ditzy persona helped re-introduce the classic “dumb blonde” trope, this time with a subtle wink to camera. With that mocking self-awareness, she spoke directly to the rise of reality TV and the tabloid obsessed culture of the time. Then, Kim Kardashian’s meteoric rise in the 2010s reflected a cultural shift away from the rake-thin beauty ideal and towards a beauty standard that celebrated curves. She also reflected the shift away from the Paris Hilton era airheadedness and the glamorization of inherited wealth, towards an emphasis on self invention, hard work, and hustle culture.

“I have the best advice for women in business: get your f****ng ass up and work.” - Kim Kardashian, Variety

Looking back, the It Girl has always had a pulse on society’s emerging trends. Angela Moore argued that Clara Bow was the perfect embodiment of the Jazz Age, because “Her nimble agility—why walk when you can run, dance, or hop—made her utterly modern.” Edie Sedgwick literally embodied pop culture in the 1960s, achieving It Girl status after starring in several of Andy Warhol’s short films and becoming the face of the pop art movement. For the It girls of the 2010s, a carefully controlled social media image was key to their It Girl status — Chrissy Teigen’s irreverent, comic Twitter profile, or Kendall Jenner’s Instagram face, or Kim Kardashian’s mission to break the internet. For over a century now, as culture changes, so too does the It Girl. But being the face of a generation comes at a cost: because she so perfectly encapsulates the current, the It Girl is often blamed for the more negative and shamed aspects of her era’s attitude.

Tearing Down the It Girl

It Girls are beloved for how they embody culture, but they’re also hated for the same thing. Kate Moss and the It Girls of the ’90s in the U.K. reflected larger cultural changes also driven by Britpop stars and emerging film directors like Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie. But it was the It Girls who became the lightning rods for people’s anxieties. They were too thin, too poorly behaved, and their style was dubbed Heroin Chic. As the ’90s came to an end, Kate Moss was accused of promoting smoking by the Cancer Research Campaign, and eventually even the vice-president of Colombia blamed her for the civil war in his country, because she supposedly endorsed the drug use that fueled the conflict.

In recent years, Meghan Markle became an international It Girl as people were drawn to her modern-feeling outspoken style during her fairytale courtship with Prince Harry – but her lack of traditionalism soon led to her being viciously demonized in the British press as the face of millennial entitlement and whininess.

“Meghan Markle complained to my boss that I didn’t believe what she told Oprah Winfrey in that two hour whine-a-thon she did with Prince Harry.” - Piers Morgan, Extra

Kim Kardashian has been blamed by medical professionals for the increase in deaths from the dangerous “Brazilian butt lift” cosmetic surgery. Even Paris Hilton has retrospectively pointed the finger at herself for the mental health impacts of social media and influencer culture.

“Everyone says I’m the original influencer, but sometimes I feel like I helped create a monster.” - Paris Hilton, This Is Paris

To a degree the controversy is inseparable from the It Girl’s fame. Emily Ratajkowski’s breakthrough moment was as the beautiful, but anonymous girl in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video, and because she was at the center of a storm of disapproval over the video, her star as a model and actress rose. From there, what made her more than just a passing It Girl is how she leveraged her fame, and even eventually branched out into becoming an essayist and commentator.

It’s hard to separate the It Girl from the culture of the moment, but in our more fragmented digital age, what even is the cultural moment, and who are the faces of it?

Who Are They Today?

With the rise of internet subcultures, now there’s arguably not one unifying trend or fashion that could be represented by one It Girl. Of course, there’s always been more than one It Girl – Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan were the ultimate frenemies at the peak of their stardom. But unlike previous generations, today’s cohort of It Girls don’t collectively represent one unified culture. Instead, each of today’s It Girls represent one part of a collage of trends that make up our complicated culture. While Lizzo’s entrance to the music scene depicts today’s emphasis on body positivity and the value of self love, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rise speaks to the growth of progressive politics and social justice.

And like AOC, another of today’s biggest It Girls, Zendaya, proves how a commitment to social justice is important to younger generations. Even as a child star, Zendaya was outspoken about issues of racial equality – the only reason she returned to the Disney channel for the final season of K.C. Undercover was because of a lack of diversity on the network at the time.

“I want to be able to be a platform for other people and other Black creatives to be creative!” - Zendaya, Hoorae Media

The It Girls of today also reflect this generation’s obsession with streaming culture. Billie Eilish’s music reflects the wide range of influences that she’s been able to draw on growing up in the streaming era. And It Girl Olivia Rodrigo reflects another value of the streaming era: nostalgia. Because we have such easy access to the music of decades past, older artists can easily be rediscovered and celebrated anew. Olivia says her biggest influences are bands like Paramore, Alanis Morissette and Avril Lavigne – artists who were making music before she could walk.

Today’s It Girls of the fashion world similarly reflect an embrace of eclecticism - cherry picking, remixing, and repackaging nostalgia into something new and exciting.

“The first reference for this makeup look was Kate Moss, I mean, how can you go wrong with that?” - Anya Taylor-Joy, Christian Dior

Anya Taylor-Joy was elevated to icon status for her daring fashion sense and the variety of her movie roles. Julia Fox too has deliberately varied the looks she drops, saying she provides a “visual service” to the public.

Conclusion

The It Girl is tied to the moment in cultural history that she represents – when the moment changes, so too does the It Girl. Because there have been so many It Girls over the years, it’s easy to think that they’re disposable, or that they’re less valuable than other artists who seem to transcend the time they’re in. But It Girls are important cultural markers: they embody the spirit of their time, and they live to tell the tale. To understand the popular culture of any given moment, you don’t need to look further than the It Girl. And for that, she’s worth celebrating.

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