Portrait of a lady

Women in early 20th-century photography, film and advertising

by
Sofie Taes (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)

Photographs, film footage, ads and posters are incredibly valuable witnesses to how gender roles and stereotypes changed throughout the 20th century, not only in what they portray but also in what they suggest, promote and assume.

In the early 20th century, women were often depicted in relation to their male relatives (husband, father, siblings) and children, or in relation to their roles and responsibilities at home.

Whenever portrayed on their own, women were mostly featured in dreamy compositions representing ideals of femininity, featuring elegant poses and accessories such as luxurious fabrics, lavish bouquets of flowers, gloves, lace handkerchiefs and parasols.

As the first decades of the 20th century saw women gaining more independence both in terms of suffrage and of (war) employment, a parallel realm of imagery emerged. Yet while stressing the importance of women’s role in society, the rhetorics were often pointing to the presumed temporary nature of this new gender equilibrium. After World War II indeed representations of women followed the societal and governmental impetus to return to the pre-war status quo. This dichotomy is emphasized by the imagery of the 1950s.

In this brief intermission - an advertisement for detergent - men are assumed to be watching the program, yet only women are addressed as being responsible for doing the laundry. The presenter is perfectly groomed and glamorously dressed, adding to the imagery of the perfect homemaker one could aspire to.

Persil A und B, 1952. Deutsches Filminstitut - DIF. CC BY-SA

The family was considered a safe, stable refuge in a world of chaos, by citizens and governments alike. That bubble came to represent peace and prosperity, and the ensuing ‘baby boom’ as a band-aid capable of healing the wounds of war.

Only as the second wave of feminism came about in the 1960s and 70s, the portraiture of women and the contexts in which they were shown in advertising and media started to systematically depart from deeply rooted stereotypes.

In parallel, the imagery of women started to diversify: previously only featured in their relation to men alternatives to the housewife ideal gained momentum in the public visual discourse and different representations emerged of what it meant to be a woman.

While not dissolved by the end of the century, the dichotomy of the image and expectations of women as being centred on family and morality, and that of men as being tuned to economy, politics and societal success became blurred at the edges. Notions of femininity, beauty standards and other gender-related conventions were also actively challenged by female photographers, filmmakers and artists who started to permeate visual culture from the 1960s onwards.

Read more about the changing roles of women in family life in the 'Family Matters' exhibition

by Sofie Taes, KU Leuven - Photoconsortium

This blog is part of the Europeana XX. A Century of Change project which focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.