What is “It”? Looking Back at a Misunderstood Word 

We live in Taylor Swift’s world, and Taylor Swift cares about Clara Bow, all of a sudden, and so we all care about Clara Bow, all of a sudden. 

You have probably seen one or two introductory articles about Clara here and there, maybe tempting you to click from the margin of your screen. 

Maybe you saw one in this fine publication, a reprint from somewhere else. 

Clara Bow, born in Brooklyn in 1905, was an American actress who became a silent film star during the 1920s and later, somewhat successfully, she transitioned to “talkies” in 1929. 

She starred in the very first Oscar-winning best picture, Wings, which for most people would be their biggest claim to fame, but not Clara. Instead, most iconically, she was the original “It Girl.” The very first of many, many, many.

You may think you know what this means. When Gwyneth Paltrow first burst on the scene, in 1996, with the film Emma and her high-profile relationship with an A-list celebrity, and because of her potential to be the Next Big Movie Star (which, in fact, she turned out to be), she was described as the new “It Girl.” Because she was terrific! Because she was everywhere, and because she would soon be even bigger. That’s what it meant to everyone; Gwyneth was the tops, the Coliseum, the Louvre Museum, a symphony by Strauss, a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet (literally) and Mickey Mouse.

Now her daughter, Apple Martin, is this year’s new “It Girl,” according to the Evening StandardPeople and W Magazine

“Like her mother,” writes Teen Vogue, “Apple Martin is fast-becoming an It-girl — earlier this year, she attended Chanel’s haute couture show as a special guest, clad in a black-and-white tweed suit by the house.” 

So, just based on the example of Gwyneth Paltrow and her daughter, today and in recent decades, an “It Girl” is an influential woman, au courant, a trendsetter, admired for her lifestyle, full of fame-potential or even a famous-for-being-famous socialite (or nepo-socialite) who graces magazine covers or gets invited to a “haute couture show as a special guest.” 

“It” is new, and “It” is more likely to be “It” if the fame of the woman in question seems fleeting. No one, for example, calls Meryl Streep an “It Girl.” 

If you are newly famous, if you are the name that is suddenly on everyone’s lips, if everyone wants to be seen with you today but didn’t last year, if you are the middle of (or just about to dive into) your fifteen minutes of fame, then you are “It.” And, thus, you are an “It Girl.” And “It” means only girls.

But this wasn’t the case at all, back then, when the word originated. Not every starlet was an “It Girl,” not even those whose fame and popularity eclipsed Clara’s. Clara was the only “It Girl” of the Jazz Age. And if you were a man, you could be an “It Boy.” 

What Made Clara Bow the It Girl

So what was it about Clara Bow? Why was she Hollywood’s one and only It Girl? 

Most simply, she was called the It Girl because she was in a movie named It. The way a woman from the latest James Bond movie is called a “Bond Girl.”

So by this criterion, Sophia Lillis, who was in the 2017 film adaptation of Stephen King’s It, would be today’s It Girl. Annette O’Toole, who had the lead female role in the 1990 version of Stephen King’s It, would have been 1990’s It Girl. 

But Clara Bow was in It because she had “It,” not the other way around. 

And note this distinction: Today’s It Girls are “It.” A hundred years ago, Clara Bow had “It.” 

But  the modern interpretation diverges from its original meaning. Clara Bow’s “It” was not about superficial celebrity status. Clara Bow’s appeal was unique — she exuded confidence, playfulness and sensuality. Her bobbed hair, expressive eyes and radiant smile contributed to her captivating presence. But there was more to “It” than that. 

“It,” in other words, was a different thing in 1927. 

What Was “It”?

In It, the 1927 romcom that started everything, based on Elinor Glyn’s serialized novella about a working-class shop girl in love with a rich suitor, “It” referred to a certain irresistible sex appeal, authentic magnetism, warmth, charisma and effortless charm, a quality that made someone tantalizingly attractive — an intangible allure that transcended mere physical beauty. 

Clara Bow embodied this definition. Her appeal extended beyond looks; she had an inner radiance that drew people in. 

Indeed, in the past, an It Girl was closely associated with a specific type of sex appeal, but “It” wasn’t characterized by elegance. Clara Bow was not especially elegant at all. The Mona Lisa may be tops according to Cole Porter, but she wasn’t an It Girl. And while the term “It Girl” was linked to sex appeal, it didn’t adhere to a specific physical type.

The word is explicitly defined in the film by the author herself.  During a pivotal scene at the Ritz dinner, Elinor Glyn makes an appearance, as herself, and she describes “It” as “self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not – and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold.” Earlier in the film, we learn that “the possessor of ‘IT’ must be absolutely ‘un-self-conscious’, and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible.” In the novel, Glyn declares, With ‘It’ you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man.”

This definition captures the essence of the elusive allure that Clara Bow’s character, spunky and captivating shopgirl Betty Lou Spence, embodies in the film. Clara Bow’s portrayal of Betty Lou epitomized this elusive “It” factor. Her performance resonated with audiences, and she became synonymous with the term. Betty Lou uses her “It” to chase after her wealthy boss, Cyrus Waltham Jr. Elinor Glyn’s involvement in the film further solidified her position as a pioneer in screen sex and turned Clara Bow into a superstar of the late silent screen era, the first and only real It Girl and the first explicitly defined sex symbol, before anyone could really say that term out loud. 

Clara Bow embodied this concept flawlessly. Unlike previous stars, she didn’t shy away from her sexuality. Instead, she embraced it on-screen. Her characters exuded confidence, playfulness, and much more than a hint of sexual allure that resonated with audiences hungry for something new. Talking about Clara Bow’s sex appeal publicly, even in the kind of couched terms that were used in 1927, was indeed something new, and downright groundbreaking.

Clara’s off-screen life mirrored her on-screen reputation. She engaged in affairs with actors, directors, and other influential figures. Gossip about her private life was rampant, and the public believed scandalous tales of her escapades. This blurred the lines between her real self and the characters she portrayed, adding to her mystique.

Clara Bow’s “It” wasn’t about rigid physical standards; it was about being unapologetically captivating in one’s own skin, regardless of societal norms. And it was not about being the girl of the moment, the famous one who everyone is talking about now. You could be an It Girl and work at the local soda shop (which they had back in 1927). You didn’t actually have to be famous to be an It Girl. You didn’t have to do anything noteworthy at all to be an It Girl. You didn’t even have to have sex to be an It Girl. It wasn’t in fact necessarily an especially flattering thing, to be called an It Girl. 

We hope this makes everything perfectly clear. 

“It” After the Silents

Clara Bow was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 29, 1905. She rose to fame during the 1920s, captivating audiences with her vivacity, charisma and distinctive bobbed hair. Sadly, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood took a toll on Clara Bow. After an initial boost, her career faced challenges due to the transition to talkies and her Brooklyn accent, but it wasn’t her accent that ruined her career. Instead, personal struggles and mental health issues played a significant role. Still, Clara Bow remains an iconic figure, not just as an “It Girl,” but as a trailblazer who left an indelible mark on early cinema. Her story serves as a reminder that true allure lies beyond physical appearance — it’s the spark within that captivates hearts and endures through time.

Why This Matters 

Before Clara Bow, actresses were often portrayed as demure, virtuous or tragic. She shattered these conventions by celebrating her sensuality. Her openness about desire was both refreshing and scandalous. Clara Bow’s unapologetic embrace of sex appeal marked a seismic shift in Hollywood. She paved the way for future stars to explore their sensuality, forever changing the landscape of film and celebrity. She created the conditions for an openness within American society that changed us, and the world, for better or for worse. 

Stereotypes often arise when concepts become diluted or misunderstood, and to forget and misuse that little two-letter word that describes all that is to bury and piece of history.

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Image of Clara Bow designed by Kaylee Srithnam. Content by Oblivioni.

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