The idea of adopting yin/yang for use in describing personal style came from Belle Northrup, a professor in the 1930s at Columbia Teachers College. Northrup used “yin” and “yang” to denote the two possible extremes in women’s appearance and nature. A yang-dominant woman is strong, powerful, vigorous, and forceful. The yin-dominant woman is delicate, piquant, graceful, soft, sweet, and gentle. A true yang woman is tall, while a true yin woman is short, but you can have tall yins and short yangs; what matters in Northrup is “soul.”
While I haven’t been able to access Belle Northrup’s 1936 article “An Approach to the Problem of Costume and Personality,” I did find, via Seasonal Color, an article in the Laredo Times from 1934 entitled “Are You Yin, Madam, Or Are You Yang?” (available here) that gives a short introduction to Northrup’s philosophies. Rather than the familiar Romantic, Dramatic, etc. categories we’re used to, Northrup uses animals.
Alla Nazimova is a Leopard Woman, and “sinuous, clinging, sophisticated draperies, monkey fur, other exotic, rich, glorious furs and fabrics will set off that leopard quality”:
Lillian Gish is a Bird Woman, and that “calls for delicacy and piquant demureness” in fashion:
Northrup goes on to explain that you can also be a Horse Woman (good and strong), an Elephant Woman (strong, staunch, and wise), a Pony Woman (jaunty and jocose), and so on. The author of the article suggests matching up your favorite actress to a zoo animal.
Northrup’s ideas would be developed further by Harriet Tilden McJimsey in Art in Clothing Selection in 1963, which will be the subject of my next post. All of the style systems that rely on using a woman’s essence to define her style have their roots in Ms. Northrup’s work.
Alla Nazimova photograph from here.
Lillian Gish photograph from here.
All other information, quotes and pictures from here.