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  • Being Annie Oakley:Modern Girls, New World Woman
  • Ann McGrath (bio)

Dressed for New World play, little girls in Annie Oakley outfits domesticated and settled the psychic frontiers of colonizer nations. By using domestic spaces to play out action narratives of New World conquest, the Annie Oakley character's embodiment of "frontier freedoms" potentially unsettled the historical and contemporary imagery of domestic white womanhood. This article explores the multiple possibilities of the transformative, convergent persona harnessed by Annie Oakley gear.

In the mid-twentieth century, dressing as Annie Oakley featured as a popular persona for young girls throughout much of the world. Via the dress-up clothing for "cowboys and Indians"—a game involving pretend battles with indigenous peoples for domination over lands—this article considers some of the practices of repetitive historical performance. An investigation of how children wore the cowgirl/Annie Oakley outfit of their home wardrobes affords fresh clues into how colonizing histories were popularized in everyday life. In the domestic spaces of the mid-twentieth century, the Annie Oakley legend arguably became one of the most intimate, engaging, and enduring performances of gendered modernity.

The children's cowgirl outfit was replete with its own iconography, relations of exchange, and accompanying sets of role-play performances.1 Entwined with different sets of meanings, worn and handled through time and culture, the cowgirl outfit exemplifies anthropologist Nicholas Thomas's discussion of the essentially promiscuous, entangled object.2 Although cowboy outfits were very popular with boys, my primary concern here is the implications of the Annie Oakley cowgirl dress-up for girls. Strategies for femininity and lessons in being a modern white girl were implicitly part of the game.

By observing the cowgirl costume as material culture entangled both collectively and individually in human lives, this article observes what was involved when girls fashioned themselves as cowgirls. It aims to consider how this informal [End Page 203] child-organized pantomime required not only consumer demand, but a knowledge of specific "techniques of the body," physical routines that had to be learned and practiced.3 It explores how girls wore these outfits and considers cultural style-plays that went beyond fashion.

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Figure 1.

Backyard Militia: John McGrath, Alan Key, Ann McGrath, and unidentified neighbors, c. 1960. Note the holsters, toy pistols, and rifle; the background features a "chookyard" or enclosure for hens.

During the post-frontier era of the mid-twentieth century, the children's war-game of cowboys and Indians became not just a story but also an imagined and enacted experience of frontier. This was intrinsically familial, being commonly played with brothers, sisters, and neighbors in spaces of symbolic intimacy. In the now domesticated spaces of mid-twentieth-century settler societies, cowboy and Indian games enabled children to reinvent these places as wild and savage. Featuring make-believe reenactments of violent colonial contests, their everyday game-play intercepted past and present. In modern suburban and rural settings, it became the vehicle by which a mythologized frontier history, generically relevant to other New World societies, was naturalized and domesticated.4

Via the popularization of the Annie Oakley legend as the archetypal cowgirl heroine of television during the 1950s and '60s, this article thus considers modern [End Page 204] reenactments of an imagined past. Whereas studies of memorialization have considered organized anniversary events and tourism,5 this article focuses on informal, performative free play that could be endlessly repeated any day of the year. It especially considers the impact of the representation beamed into intimate spaces—the suburban lounges and living rooms of ordinary people. By examining the material culture and iconography of cowgirl costumery, along with rare home movie footage, it delves into the domestic archive.6 Popular culture, multimedia, and memory sources offer further information about the practice of donning the dress-ups. By the early 1960s, the clothing made by Australian mothers was starting to be supplanted by ready-made wear for those families who could afford them. An internet questionnaire survey and oral history research data collected between 2000 and 2002 provided further valuable evidence of the game's details and intimate meanings.7

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pp. 203-231
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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