Osa Johnson in safari gear in Africa. (Martin and Osa Johnson Safari…)
For years, L.A.-based author Lizzie Garrett Mettler thought "tomboy" was a dirty word.
"I was a definite tomboy when I was a kid," she says. "It was a nightmare for my parents to get me into a dress for a stretch of years."
As she became a teenager and young adult, she pushed that side of herself away. That changed when she started reading street fashion blogs like the Sartorialist and A Cup of Jo, and saw comments from readers who couldn't get enough of Alexa Chung and Lou Doillon's "tomboy style."
Maybe, Mettler thought, there was something to her lifelong fascination with Belgian loafers, tattered Lacoste polos and Barbour jackets.
Indeed, in recent years, men's wear-inspired fashion for women has gone mainstream. It's seen at J. Crew, where you can find a "schoolboy blazer"; on the streets, where the Breton sailor stripe shirt trend won't go away; and on the runways, in Scott Sternberg's neo-preppy Boy by Band of Outsiders collection and in the 1970s-inspired trouser and oversized button-down shirt looks by Phoebe Philo at Celine.
"Something clicked in my head," Mettler says. "So I started a blog to answer my own question about what makes a tomboy stylish."
That blog, launched in May 2010, inspired the book "Tomboy Style: Beyond the Boundaries of Fashion," which was published this month by Rizzoli. The book is a visual history, documenting 80 years of women who blur the gender lines.
In her research, Mettler realized she discovered her own tomboy style while at boarding school, trading clothes with her frilly best friend Kingsley Woolworth, who favored bubble-gum pink bed linens and diamond stud earrings. By borrowing some of Kingsley's things and mixing them with her old favorites, many of them borrowed from her older brother, Mettler found her own style vocabulary, epitomized by a shirtdress cinched with a men's ribbon belt.
"A tomboy is a girl," Mettler explains. "Tomboy style is about a woman who channels her tomboy childhood, and mixes masculine and feminine elements in her wardrobe. It's not just wearing men's clothes."
And it's not just wardrobe; it's substance too.
Mettler had a particular interest in how tomboy style pertains to the past, "to women who pushed the boundaries," she says. These women include Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Jane Birkin, as well as those we're not so used to seeing in the style pages, such as Amelia Earhart, pictured after a deep-sea dive off the coast of Block Island in 1929, and presidential progeny Susan Ford, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt in 1976, washing her car in the driveway of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
"I was looking at everything from 1980s movies like 'Some Kind of Wonderful,' in which the drummer Watts is a huge tomboy, to photos of women skiing from the 1950s. I noticed a broad range of women, but a neat thread that bound them together was a rebellious, adventurous confidence," Mettler says.
She consulted out-of-print fashion books and the Life magazine archives. "There are the obvious icons you'd expect, but there's also Ginger Rogers," she says. "I always thought of her as Fred Astaire's dance partner, this super-feminine, glitzy woman. But she also had a ranch in Oregon where she fly-fished and canned her own vegetables. I have a photo of her in her waders sitting outside on the ground."
Mettler organized the book into seven tomboy style archetypes. The "rebels" are rocker chicks Deborah Harry, Courtney Love and Patti Smith, poet laureate of punk, who would buy an expensive coat and immediately throw it into the washing machine to distress it and make it her own. The "sophisticates" include Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, Diane Keaton, Janelle Monae and tomboy godmother Coco Chanel, who turned a fascination with borrowing duds from her paramours into a new way of dressing and introduced it as sportswear to the women of the world.
A 1940 photo of Osa Johnson dressed in safari gear, riding a zebra in Africa, exemplifies the "adventuress" archetype. The "jocks" push their bodies, along with the bounds of society. There's Chris Evert, pictured mid-game in 1972, wearing a butterfly-appliqued tennis dress and ruffled panties, and Eartha Kitt, swinging a bat while playing ball with the boys in Central Park in 1952. In the "prep" category, there'sMonaco's Princess Caroline, having a smoke outside her family's French villa in 1982, bundled up in an Irish fisherman sweater and rain boots and snuggling her German shepherd.
Attitudes about tomboys have certainly changed over the years, Mettler says. And tomboy style doesn't seem to be going away.
To that end, she plans to continue her blog, spotlighting tomboy style icons such as Françoise Sagan and tomboy style resources such as New York-based label Thom Dolan. "There's always something new to find," Mettler says, "whether it's a music video or a family photo someone emails
me of their mother scaling the Alps."