As I've written before, the aviator is one of the most enduring icons of masculine glamour. Amelia Earhart gave that glamour a feminine face, and feminine grace. She was modern and sexy, but in a ladylike way. Her mysterious disappearance only heightened her glamour.
Last June I was lucky enough to catch this exhibit, "Amelia Earhart: Icon and Image, at the International Center of Photography in New York. Through a host of images, ranging from news photos to Steichen portraits, the exhibit documented how Earhart, her husband, and an enthusiastic press constructed an image of the iconic "Lady Lindy"--a representative of the "new woman" but also of the traditional values of modesty and hard work (as opposed to decadent flappers). This slide show of images offers a small sample of the exhibit. Although Earhart was far from the best of the era's female aviators, she was the most photogenic and image-savvy. And it didn't hurt that she looked remarkably like a feminine version of Charles Lindbergh. ICP's Kristen Lubben writes in the excellent exhibit catalog:
Amelia Earhart is among those rare celebrities who are as familiar today as they were in their own time. Photographs of the iconic aviator, with tousled hair, leather jacket, and silk scarf, helped to secure her fame and ensure its perpetuation. Her disappearance over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 is undeniably part of the story; the dramatic and unsolved circumstances of her demise, and the lack of physical evidence, are powerful factors that contribute to keeping her image alive in the popular consciousness, and the trope of the popular hero who dies dramatically at the height of fame is a familiar one. However, her end does not explain the appeal of her image in her own time--particularly for a woman--or its continued currency as shorthand for a range of cultural and stylistic ideals today.
Two ad campaigns from the 1990s make clear that Earhart's image continues to represent much more than her spectacular finish. In the late 1990s, Apple launched its "Think Different" campaign: a series of magazine ads, billboards, and posters with a single black-and-white portrait of an iconic innovator, along with the Apple logo and the tagline "Think Different," an attempt to underscore Apple's position as rebel to IBM's mainstream (whose longtime slogan was "Think"), and to associate the brand with creative risk-takers. Along with images of Gandhi, Albert Einstein, and Miles Davis, Apple employed an early portrait of Earhart. It shows her in white flying helmet with goggles perched on her head. Her white shirt and tie are out of focus, so that the suggestion of menswear is present without being foregrounded, and creates a foil for her model-like looks, youthfulness, and femininity. Her expression is doe-eyed and determined. Earhart's image needs no caption: it is understood that the viewer will recognize her, and will associate the Apple brand with daring and adventure, as well as unconventionality, conveyed by the gender-bending signals in the portrait. In a similar campaign by Gap in 1993, the company employed a series of American icons to sell khaki pants. The photograph of Earhart selected for this campaign shows the aviator (in khakis) next to her plane. Her mastery of the machine that dwarfs her in the photograph telegraphs her confidence and modernity, while her boyish, almost childish demeanor disarms and lends her an air of vulnerability. Both ads rest almost solely on the array of associations with Earhart's photographic image, identifiable and potent enough to sell clothes and computers seventy years after her disappearance.
In her own time, Earhart was appealing because she represented the physical embodiment of heady new ideals circulating in the culture. Chief among these was the figure of the New Woman, an independent and convention-defying version of modern womanhood...She also represented, whether by design or synchronicity, a physical style that reflected the changing fashion in clothing and body type in the 1920s and '30s. She was in sync with styles promoted by Hollywood and fashion designers, in her thinness, androgyny, short hair, and even sunned skin. An outspoken advocate of women's rights in the postsuffrage era, she offered women a new, seemingly more modern feminist model, one which did not look like the matronly older generation of suffragette activists. Above all else, her profession endowed her with an aura of excitement, advancement, and risk. In an era before commercial aviation, the aviator was a heroic symbol of modernism. His female counterpart, the aviatrix, was the ultimate glamorous and daring modern woman. Earhart stepped into the stylistic template established by other female flyers....But while Earhart's image incorporated existing iconography, it was also essentially authentic: like her name--almost too good to be true--her leather jacket, short hair, and other key elements of her signature style were not the constructions of a publicist but perfected, refined versions of her own (prefame) self-presentation.
Camille Paglia wrote about how Earhart "pulled me out of my tailspin as an alienated adolescent and social misfit" in this 1999 LAT piece.