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The Most Famous It Girls of All Times
An anatomy from Cleopatra to Petra Collins
Art Stuff 01 Aug 2018
Arguably the world’s first It Girl, Cleopatra ruled ancient Egypt in the first century BC. A millennium out from the first wave of feminism, Cleopatra already was running a kingdom, leading her fleet in naval battles, perfecting a cool twelve languages (when she wasn’t studying philosophy, math and science, that is), and seducing the two most powerful men in the world, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, with her charm and theatrics. Legend goes, she sailed into to her first meeting with Mark Antony on a golden barge with purple sails, dressed like Aphrodite—not that surprising for a woman who thought she was a living goddess. To top it off (pun intended), she started a drinking club with Mark Antony called, wait for it, the “Inimitable Livers.” Whatever It is, Cleopatra had it in buckets.
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Cleopatra (1887), John William Waterhouse.
Fast-forward 1000 years. It’s not that the century between Cleopatra and the rest of the women on our list produced no one worthy of our adoration, but since the It Girl needs visibility to fuel our obsession, the Era of the It Girl couldn’t really dawn until the twentieth century, when mass communications made it possible for everyone to know what everyone else was up to more or less all the time. What’s more, the rise of Hollywood created a ripe new breeding ground. Actresses were more or less the O.G. It Girls: gorgeous, talented and highly visible, they were the perfect objects to for collective obsessing.
We have two Brit sisters to thank for the concept of the It Girl: novelist Elinor Glyn and fashion designer Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon. Clara Bow, the first official It Girl and, predictably, a Hollywood actress, starred in the 1927 film It (Glyn wrote the screenplay). It featured Bow as a gorgeous shop girl who seduces her wealthy boss with her off-the-charts It factor; he falls so hopelessly in love with her that he generously offers to marry her even though she has an out-of-wedlock baby—or so he thinks.
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As times have changed and we’ve all realized that women might be good for something besides making fuck-me eyes and getting men to marry us, the meaning of It Girl has progressed from a woman’s ability to attract a man to a more general magnetism.
The style element of the It Girl came largely from designer and fashion revolutionary Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon, who, on top of her fashion industry pioneering (she held the first fashion shows with professional mannequins and was one of the first high-class couturiers to advertise in magazines), used  “It” to describe a well-dressed lady. In 1917, she wrote in Harper’s Bazaar: “I saw a very ladylike and well-bred friend of mine in her newest Parisian frock… she felt she was ‘it’ and perfectly happy.”
The Golden Age of Hollywood doesn’t suffer from lack of It Girls: Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor… you get the idea. Most of these women stuck to the classic recipe laid out in It: charm plus sex appeal, though fashion also played a role (the ones who didn’t have big boobs, like Audrey, got to be “elegant”).
But enough about Hollywood—in this author’s humble opinion, the most drool-worthy of all the It Girls belong to the counterculture. By the 60s, the studio system was getting stale; the film industry needed a breath of fresh air, and the culturescape needed a new mold of woman to obsess over.

Enter the waifish, heavily-eyelinered, hard-partying femme fatale of the 60s trans-Atlantic art and film scene. The polar opposites of the voluptuous, demure Hollywood actress, It Girls like Edie Sedgwick, Nico, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin ushered in a new age in popular culture. These women were edgy, still sexy but not in a “housewife cooking with nothing but an apron and heels on” way—they looked like the subsisted on nothing but coffee, cigarettes and art, their own and their bad-boy boyfriends’.
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Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo on the set of Une Femme Est Une Femme, 1961.
By the time the 70s were drawing to a close, the counterculture had lost some of its luster, with some of its brightest stars burning themselves out (Edie overdosed in 1971 in Santa Barbara), or, less tragically, just began to fade with age. A new type of It Girl was breaking into the scene: the leggy supermodel.
When Lucile was penning her Harper’s articles at the start of the century, she definitely didn’t have her newly-minted mannequins in mind when she used the term It, but some 60 years later, that’s exactly what models had become; Cindy Crawford, Brooke Shields and Iman were some of the biggest names. True to the decade’s fashion, these It Girls looked like the 60s girls wiped their faces clean and joined a gym: instead of a chic pallor from late nights and too many cigarettes, It Girls suddenly had a healthy glow, bright smiles—and leg warmers.
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Cindy Crawford.
Thankfully, the trend didn’t stick around for long—the 90s gave us the Internet, Kate Moss and Chloë Sevigny. Famous for her “spacey air of mystery and reserve” and her “street chic,” Chloë captured the essence of effortlessness: as Jay McInerney wrote in that article, “‘She just sits there,’ says her friend Rita Ackermann, a Budapest-born artist, ‘but she controls the whole scene. That’s her charisma.’”
Blending the fresh-faced youth of the 80s with more than a touch of 60s druggy waif chic, Kate Moss became the world’s favorite model, fashion icon and party girl with her iconic Calvin Klein 1993 campaign. While the 80s supermodels were squeaky-clean and healthy, Kate was a shameless partier who helped glamorize heroin chic, a “nihilistic vision of beauty” if there ever was one. The campaign provoked an outcry of the same complaints that followed the release of Kids, the gritty Larry Clark film that shocked the nation with its squalid realism—and some say pornographic portrayal of teen drug use and sex.

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The 2000s brought more unmentionable trends in It Girl history—tacky or trashy-fabulous, socialites and celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan ran the scene, as likely to accessorize with rhinestone-encrusted flip phones as with a prison bracelet. On the other hand, the turn of the century also gave us the rise of Alexa Chung, who thankfully moved beyond modeling to grace the world with her dazzling personality and spot-on style.
Who are today’s It Girls, you might ask? Just kidding, you don’t need to ask—you’re preparing a half-hearted eye roll for when we inevitably drop the K-word, the J-word or the H-word (Kardashian, Jenner, Hadid, obviously). Yes, those girls unquestionably rule the celebrity world, but allow me to propose an alternative. The burgeoning artist/muses are the true It Girls of the moment, the talented and visionary women making a name for themselves through their art and forging the way for a new type of It Girl, one who is defined by herself and herself only.
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Petra creating her own White Horse fairy tale.
With her distinctive aesthetic and her dedication to portraying the world of girls and women on their own terms, artist and muse Petra Collins is the most famous example. An entire generation of artists and young people are copying her (admittedly Instagrammable) approach to photography, and though it’ll take some time to know what her legacy will be, Collins is the girl everyone wants to be in one way or another. And isn’t that the golden standard of the It Girl?

Text by Katya Lopatko
Photos via Wikimedia Commons, Noir and Chick Flicks, AnOther Magazine, Fanpop, Missguided ,The New Yorker 

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