Zdeněk Rossmann, The Civilised Woman, poster, 1929

Artwork of the Month, October 2021: The Civilised Woman by Zdeněk Rossmann (1929)

‘In Zurich, the head of a hospital dismissed a female attendant because she had her hair cut short. Would it be possible for the female head of a hospital to fire a male attendant for this reason?’ asked Adolf Loos (1870–1933) in his response to the question ‘Kurz oder lang – männlich oder weiblich?’ (Short or long – masculine or feminine?) posed by the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse in 1928.[1] Subtitled ‘Comments from prominent artists on the women’s fashion crisis,’ the questionnaire appealed to seven respondents – six men and one woman – for their views on the recent trend of women having short haircuts. Loos’s response was the odd one out, because he saw no reason to even ask such question. While it would be a stretch to portray him as a defender of gender equality, Loos’s argument for the short haircut could be seen as part and parcel of his belief in modernity and the practicality of design. All the other respondents were much more critical of the short hair, citing as problems the masculinisation of women, slavery to fashion, or the need to look after a short haircut much more. The actress Lili Marberg (1876–1962) also noted that while she could see the benefits of short hair for sports, it did not go well with evening dresses, which she liked wearing.

The ‘crisis of women’s fashion’ was a phenomenon widely discussed not only in Austria but around Central Europe at this time. At the same time, short hair in the form of the bubikopf (a bob) became a symbol of women’s emancipation, modernity and their liberation from the tradition of the home-bound woman. It, nevertheless, quickly gained new connotations and apart from signifying freedom, the short hair quickly became associated with a lack of femininity, with promiscuity, and even Jewishness.[2]  In Czechoslovakia the symbolic cutting of long hair became the main subject in a poster promoting an exhibition on women’s modernity called The Civilised Woman. The exhibition, which took place in the city of Brno at the end of 1929 and beginning of 1930, tried to put forward a vision of the modern way of dressing for women.

Zdeněk Rossmann, The Civilised Woman, poster, 1929

Zdeněk Rossmann: The Civilised Woman, poster, 1929, UPM Prague – photo: UPM Prague

The poster, designed by Zdeněk Rossmann (1905–1984), is an important witness to the universal concept of the new woman, die Neue Frau or la femme nouvelle. This concept accompanied the crucial changes in women’s emancipation in Czechoslovakia, including the introduction of suffrage in 1919, and therefore invites questions not only about appropriate hair length, but also about women’s place in interwar society and their agency in constructing interwar modernity. And as the Moravian Gallery in Brno is currently hosting the exhibition ‘Civilised Woman. Ideal and Paradox of the Visual Culture of the First Czechoslovak Republic,’ curated by Martina Pachmanová, Kateřina Svatoňová and Andrea Březinová on interwar women‘s modernity, these questions are more than topical.

Emancipation by haircut

The poster is an effective photomontage of a suggestive image and text. The image is the core of the poster that refers to the symbolic act of removing the ‘burden’ of the long hair.

The black and white photograph shows the back and the head of a woman with a long, dark braid. A right hand of a person who possibly is a hairdresser holds a large pair of scissors that are wide open and ready to cut off the braid. The end of the braid is out of the picture and is most probably pulled by the left hand of the cutter in a diagonal. This hand also remains invisible, and so do the faces of the two protagonists. From the sleeve of the black jacket which is the only visible part of the ‘executer,’ we can nevertheless speculate that this is a male hairdresser. Yet the woman is not covered by any protective gown as would be normal at a hairdresser, which may suggest either urgency of the action or a different setting than a salon. The fact that the cutting is not done by the woman herself, or by a fellow female, is also significant as the agent of emancipation here is a man, and this will need more explaining later. And as we do not see his or the woman’s face, they remain anonymous but also universal. This could be any man and any woman that give and receive modernity and freedom.

The image itself is set in an oblong, bordered from two sides by a black edge. A sharp contrast is created by the use of orange colour behind the figures and in some of the text that is placed in the edges. The large lettering at the top of the poster composes the title of the exhibition in Czech and in German in an attempt to address both Czech and German visitors. The title bears similar adjectives in both languages and Rossmann used this to his advantage. He split up the word from its shared start: ‘CIVILIS,’ which is also Latin for civic, is the beginning of the Czech ‘Civilisovaná žena’ and the German ‘Civilisierte Frau,’ both meaning civilised woman. The white capitals of the title dominate the poster and slope in a diagonal from left to right, creating a dynamic movement, which follows the direction of the pulled braid.

2.Rudolf Sandalo, photograph from ‘The Civilised Woman’ exhibition

Rudolf Sandalo: Photograph from ‘The Civilised Woman’ exhibition, 1929, Moravian Gallery, Brno, MG 26095

The remaining text in the poster refers to the place where the exhibition was held, the dates and the content of the exhibition, which showed ‘how a cultured woman should dress’ again in both Czech and German. The small text also states that the interiors of the exhibition were designed by ‘J. Vaněk’ and that the event was organised by ‘Index,’ with work by ‘Šíma of Paris.’ This was a reference to Josef Šíma (1891–1971), an abstract painter of Czech origin who was based in Paris and occasionally exhibited his work in Czechoslovakia. His paintings appeared in the same exhibition, as is visible from the photographs. But who was Vaněk and what was Index? Jan Vaněk (1891–1962) was an influential entrepreneur and furniture designer, a communist and member of the Levá fronta, a leftist organisation of intellectuals aimed at addressing and mobilising the working class. Vaněk’s politics did not prevent him from working for some of the richest people in Czechoslovakia; he provided furniture for the interiors of Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat in Brno, for example, or for Loos’s Villa Müller in Prague. As the director of Standard, A Housing Company (Standard, bytová společnost) based in Brno, he promoted the serial, and therefore more affordable, manufacture of furniture. Modern furniture was for him an integral part of modern living which he promoted through various housing projects, exhibitions and publications. Many of them were produced by Index, a publishing house established in 1929 and managed by Vaněk for the initial few years. Index also published a magazine of the same name which became a platform for the avant-garde in Brno and Olomouc, following the dissolution of the Brno branch of Devětsil.

Zdeněk Rossmann was the main graphic designer of Index and he created a recognizable visual style for the publications, which combined photographic details, typography and geometrical shapes in a limited range of colours. Apart from Index, Rossmann worked as a graphic designer for many other magazines and publishers, as well as a stage and exhibition designer. He later studied for a short while at the Bauhaus (1931) and took part in a number of projects for the Baťa company, including advertising their products, designing the interior in the Tomáš Baťa Memorial and floats for pageants for Baťa May Day parades.

Zdeněk Rossmann, Písmo a fotografie v reklamě, 1938

Zdeněk Rossmann, Písmo a fotografie v reklamě, 1938, Moravian Library, Brno

The image of The Civilised Woman poster was replicated on the book cover of the exhibition catalogue. The entire exhibition, which took place in the pavilion of the Aleš artistic society in the centre of Brno, was meant as a statement against the fashion that so often denigrated women, the catalogue argued. It set out instead to promote clothing that was dignified and ‘noble,’ yet also practical. The target group, according to Vaněk, were ‘liberated women, educated women, the women who already cooperate with us men successfully on progress and the work of humanity.’[3] It seems that if a woman wanted to be on a par with men, she needed to civilise her outfit so that she was not preoccupied with it all the time. These may be seen as external changes to women’s attire but also to their lives.

Zdeněk Rossmann, Civilisovaná žena, book cover, The Moravian Library

Zdeněk Rossmann: Civilisovaná žena, book cover, Moravian Library, Brno

Yet this exhibition was not the first attempt at highlighting the issue of female modernity. The Civilised Woman project appeared shortly after another exhibition that was also organised in Brno. This was the Exhibition of Modern Woman, one of three events in the recently built trade fair ground that took place alongside the exhibitions of Modern Trade and Brewing between 3 August and 15 September 1929.

The Modern Woman at Home

The Modern Woman exhibition set out to show ‘the woman especially in the family and in gainful employment and last but not least, in fashion.’[4] There were sections on the education of girls and women, showcases of various female occupations ranging from female factory workers to academics and artists, displays of domestic life and the household, women and sport, social care and fashion. The exhibition also showed women in public life (national and local governments) and women’s clubs and associations. The ‘House and Home’ section included a model laundry and a working school kitchen and female students performed crafts there like pottery painting, embroidery, and carpet making for a show.[5]

5.Ladislav Sutnar, ‘The Exhibition of Modern Trade, Brno, poster, 1929

Ladislav Sutnar: The Exhibition of Modern Trade, Brno, poster, 1929, UPM Prague – photo: UPM Prague

Despite its attempt to show the concept of modern woman, critics, some of them writing in the magazine Index, emphasised the lack of imagination in the presentation of the material and the displays of old-fashioned clothes, toys, and decorations for the home.[6] Yet some of the furniture in the exhibition was provided by Vaněk and the exhibition catalogue, titled Žena doma (Woman at Home), also published by Index, had a cover by Rossmann. Female legs in tennis attire and a tennis racket dominate the image and show another cropped and anonymous figure. Together with the large lettering of the collection title, the photomontage dominates over a tile with a view of a heavily decorated interior with a woman in a long dress. Through this image and the accompanying texts, including one on Vaněk’s designs for a modern apartment, the catalogue somewhat distances itself from the exhibition as a whole and emphasises only certain aspects of it.

Zdeněk Rossmann, Žena doma, book cover,

Zdeněk Rossmann: Žena doma, book cover, Moravian Library, Brno

It is in this publication that Rossmann expressed his disapproval for the current vision of the modern woman and called for a change in women’s initiative: ‘Life gave women control over the household, but […] they betrayed the trust placed in them, because instead of becoming the ruler of the home, she turned into its slave.’[7] Women, in his view, lacked enterprising minds which was documented by the fact that they still hadn’t invented machines that would free them from household chores. Rossmann and Vaněk therefore took it upon themselves to create their own vision of a properly modern and civilised woman.

Whose modernity?

The two men had a well-defined vision of women’s modernity and of who should deliver it. The civilising, whether it was by cutting off of long hair or by provision of better household furniture, should come from the men, who were therefore in charge of women’s progress and liberation. ‘The Civilised Woman’ exhibition was not a purely masculine enterprise. It included work by the textile designer Božena Horneková (later Rothmayerová, 1899–1984), who promoted and designed modern dress for women in the form of practical and versatile clothing. The catalogue also contained a contribution by a female author (a single female author, one needs to add): Milena (Jesenská, 1896–1944), author of a number of articles on fashion, who outlined contemporary trends in women’s clothing but also the increasing equality of women in different occupations. She reacted against the conservative tendencies in fashion which saw an increase of decorative and impractical dresses of complicated cuts, excessive jewellery and the fashion of long hair.

Despite the focus of the exhibition on women and their adaptation to modern life, ‘The Civilised Woman’ was indeed a very male undertaking. The reasons are several. First of all, men had a head start in shaping modern life due to their privileged social position. Consequently, they often failed to see women as possible active participants. This imbalance was widespread across Central Europe, and the reasons may be partly ascribed to ingrained and lingering gender stereotypes of what spaces and expressions were considered feminine or masculine.

Despite the many gains women achieved in interwar Czechoslovakia, they continued to be primarily identified with domestic spaces which, in the views of many, excluded them from public life. Penetrating the established male world of selection committees, art education and design and architecture was very difficult and slow when one thinks of the art and exhibitions establishment. Often, too, the domestic space was seen as traditional and conservative, in need of modernisation by appropriate furniture and equipment, perhaps from Vaněk’s production line.


The Civilised Woman poster by young Rossmann is not only an example of graphic design that follows the most recent trends in the use of photomontage and typography, but also of a symbolic depiction of the current state of modern female identity. It reveals the continued and persistent imbalance in gender roles and relations in the interwar period. The unidentified, passive woman in the poster symbolises a generic emancipation envisaged and delivered by men active in devising various external improvements. And while Austrian men discussed the length of women’s hair, Czech men not only cut off the braid but also brought civilisation and modernity to the women’s looks and her home. They tried to create the new woman of Czechoslovakia, unrestrained by her clothes or long hair. Such attempts were indeed complemented by many other emancipation activities of various female individuals and societies, but they nevertheless tell us a lot about the thinking of the interwar avant-garde in Czechoslovakia and its limitations when envisaging modern life.

Marta Filipová

[1] ‘Kurz oder lang – männlich oder weiblich?’ Neue Freie Presse, 15 April 1928, pp. 34–35, responses by Hans Brahm, Anton Edthofer, Alfred Kunz, Adolf Loos, Adolf Lorenz, Lili Marberg and Alfred Piccaver.

[2] Helga Lüdtke, Der Bubikopf: Männlicher Blick, weiblicher Eigen-Sinn (Göttingen, 2021).

[3] Jan Vaněk, Civilisovaná žena (Brno, 1930), p. 9.

[4] Jindřich Petr, ‘Brněnské výstavy v roce 1929′ [Exhibitions in Brno in 1929] in Katalog brněnských výstav. 3. VIII. – 15.IX 1929; Výstava Moderního obchodu – Moderní ženy – Pivovarsko-sladařská – Brněnské trhy –Elektrostatek (Brno, 1929), p. 8.

[5] Scht. ‘Výstava Moderní žena’ [The exhibition Modern Woman] Lidové noviny 37, 10 February 1929, p. 19.

[6] Pavla Kuncová, ‘Glosy k Výstavě moderní ženy’ [Notes on the exhibition Modern Woman] Index 1.8 (1929), pp. 2–3.

[7] Zdeněk Rossmann, ‘Hledáme iniciativní ženu’ [We are looking for a woman who takes initiatives] in Žena doma (Brno, 1929), p. 7.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/52JVB

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