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What does tomboy mean? And where does it come from?

Back in the 16th century ‘tomboy’ would stand for “rude, boisterous boy”. A few decades later, it changed meaning to “wild, romping girl who acts like a spirited boy”.

It quickly developed as a trend and fitted just about right with the early 19th century first-wave feminism for women’s suffrage. However, it would mainly be representative of the middle and upper class white women during the 1850s. Along with the abolition of slavery came the fear that white people would become a minority so women were strongly encouraged to be more active and get outdoors in order to maintain a good physical and psychological condition. Michele Ann Abate wrote a book on the cultural history of the tomboy where she explained how the symbol was far from breaking traditional gender roles as we might look at it now, but rather supportive of the white-supremacist principles. The concept changed and further rooted itself into gender serving as a relevant identity for queer girls. However, according to psychoanalyst Diane Elise, regardless of their sexual identities, some women choose to fully embrace the tomboy identity while others don’t do it at all. Therefore, tomboy represents solid proof that gender expression does not correlate with sexual orientation.

Moving on from tomboy’s past and mixed cultural roots, we turn our attention to the woman who saw the wonderful potential conveyed by this symbol, the original tomboy fashion icon, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. Coco, inspired by comfort and practicality, revolutionised women’s clothing by dressing them in trousers and replacing the flashy corset with comfortable jersey: “I gave women a sense of freedom. I gave them back their bodies: bodies that were drenched in sweat, due to fashion’s finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding.”

Merci beaucoup, madame. Merci for what I personally find as probably the greatest sense of fashion – unconventional, comfortable and sexy – inviting us to experience whole new dimensions of clothing, to develop an essential relationship with our bodies and let that define our style. However, one would find it hard to believe so and question this great status attributed to menswear. After all, it’s actually just menswear, manly tees and pants, and oversized sweaters. How is that amazing? You might want to ask yourselves. Let’s have a look at some of our best tomboy style icons:

Katharine Hepburn, a fierce Hollywood lady, an American actress known for starring in numerous classics such as “The African Queen” (1951), for her spirited personality and her wardrobe of loafers and wide-legged pants. In the very golden times she lived in, the Hollywood stage was dominated by skirts and petticoats, red lipstick and waist cinch belts. Meanwhile, Katharine had a different approach to clothing: “Dressing up is a bore. At a certain age, you decorate yourself to attract the opposite sex, and at a certain age, I did that. But I’m past that age.” So do we have to get past ‘that age’ or we can spare ourselves the effort and realise we don’t dress to impress, but dress how we like and feel. So did Katharine and that’s one of the reasons we look at her with great respect today.

Jane Birkin, English actress, singer and songwriter based in France, muse of Serge Gainsbourg, was best known for their relationship, the film he directed and she starred in “Je t’aime moi non plus” and their musical collaboration which left us with the most beautiful love song (of the same name as the film) which you either know and love or should play immediately. Birkin, a bohemian beauty, is the free spirited tomboy that would jump in the first pair of jeans she could find in the morning, put her a large sweater and her cap on and look effortlessly gorgeous: “Everything I wear doesn’t put me in the league of women. If I were a boy, I could look at a lot prettier than a lot of boys I know.”

Kristen Stewart, American actress and model, not only known for her role in the Twilight series as clumsy Bella. She’s obviously moved on from that and has appeared in other films like ‘The Runaways’, also starred in the Rolling Stones – Ride’Em On Down video where she’s recklessly driving through post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in her blue Mustang. Did you watch it yet? Just watch it again when in need of a little tomboy inspiration. Or you can watch her play Coco Chanel in Karl Lagerfeld’s short film about the designer called “Once and Forever”. However, Kristen is rarely seen out of her Converse, but when she is, she’s rocking the red carpet in her playsuits and jumpsuits: “I’ve always had an aversion to looking sexy, but I’ve grown out of it”.

Janelle Monáe, American singer, songwriter, actress and model, she starred in both ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Hidden Figures’ which received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture. Janelle is a beautiful R&B, soul and funk artist and her music has brought her six Grammy Award nominations. Her signature outfit is well known as being the monochrome and tuxedo suits, a formal ‘red carpet’ tomboy. However, what is less known and amazing about her fashion is that while on the red carpet Janelle is paying tribute to the working class through her ‘black and white uniform’: ““People like my mom, who had to leave school early because she was pregnant with me. She was a custodial worker. My dad was in prison and the first job—the only job—he could get was being a trash man. They raised me and for this organization to create jobs for high school dropouts, people who have been in prison or homeless, hits home for me.”

These are only very few examples of the best ‘tomboys’ out there, but very representative of how the concept as I like to perceive it, as unconventional and dynamic. They were fierce or bohemian, and they are rebel, non-conformist and inspiring. On top of that, they were and are more than just ‘tomboys’, they are women who play by their own set of rules, who do not conform to whatever standard of beauty and will never do because they are who they are and that is beautiful.

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