“Have you seen the newest girl with her hair all in a whirl?,” asked Harry B. Smith in his lyrics for “The Nell Brinkley Girl,” a song from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1908.
This sweet curly-haired girl was not to be missed, he continued. In fact, if you ever found one like her, you would have a pearl. With her never-failing smile, her pretty tilted nose and her mouth just like a rose, she had a certain air and style. And she wore the smartest clothes!
The Nell Brinkley girl was the creation of Nell Brinkley, a cartoonist for the New York Journal. American women were so captivated by her distinct style of clothing and hair that they even bought “Nell Brinkley” hair curlers.
Visit the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum to see Cartoon Couture and you, too, might consider reviving the Nell Brinkley look.
The exhibition pairs depictions of fashion fads, trends and innovations in cartoons, comic strips, comic books, and paper dolls with real-life examples of garments and accessories from the time period during which that artwork was produced, loaned from the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection.
It begins in the 18th century, when migration to cities sparked nostalgia for country life, classical civilization and its simple fashions. Growing industrialization and the advent of new technologies like sewing machines and chemical dyes changed how garments were produced and even designed in the 19th century. At the same time, the art of caricature and cartooning emerged. Fashion was an irresistible topic of comment in these mediums.
By the early years of the 20th century, mass-produced, ready-to-wear clothing and the rise of the department store made affordable reproductions of the latest Parisian fashions accessible to American working women. The Sunday newspaper introduced them not only to department-store advertisements for the latest ready-to-wear fashions, but also to popular syndicated cartoon characters like Richard Fenton Outcault’s Buster Brown. In this December 17, 1905 comic strip, Outcault comments on Buster Brown’s line of licensed fashion accessories.
With her “Flapper Fanny” and other cartoon characters, Ethel Hays set the standard for how young women of the 1920s and 1930s were depicted. Gladys Parker, Hays’s successor, later created her own comic-strip version of herself, named Mopsy after her short wavy hair that looked like a mop. Parker, who studied fashion illustration, also was a fashion designer, creating costumes for Hollywood film actresses and garments that were sold in department stores under the name “Gladys Parker Designs.” The exhibition provides a QR code to watch “Femininities by Glady Parker,” a February 4, 1935 fashion show of Gladys Parker Designs in which Parker is the first to emerge from the comic strip backdrop.
Young newspaper-readers turned to the paper dolls cartoonists created in comic strips, dressing their favorite characters in new outfits every week. Dale Messick, the creator of the fashionable Brenda Starr, Reporter, designed some dreamy outfits for Brenda in both her comic strip and in its paper-doll counterpart.
From Christian Dior’s romantic, feminine “New Look” and the practical, comfortable “American Look” for suburban housewives to the blue jeans, poodle skirts and saddle shoes favored in young wardrobes, cartoonists of the 1950s explored new fashion tastes of the day. They continued doing so by documenting the individual fashion styles of the mods and hippies of the 1960s…
Cartoon Couture continues through April 15 in the Robinson Gallery of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.