Stealing wicker baskets from around the house to go “gather berries” in your suburban backyard. Hiding in closets under the stairs to read like you were an orphaned princess. Saving pretty pieces of scrapbook paper to use as wallpaper in the big wooden dollhouse you wanted for Christmas. If any of this rings a bell for you (you know, a little brass bell, like one a governess carries around in her apron pocket), then, my darling, you were a Big Bow Girl.
I first heard the term Big Bow Girl on Sarah Marshall’s podcast You’re Wrong About, in an episode all about Anastasia, the Russian princess (of course). In the episode, Marshall spoke about the hold that Anastasia and her story had on so many of us ‘90s girls, especially those of us with a penchant for daydreaming. And yes, I was a Big Bow Girl. I read The Secret Garden and wore the locket that came with my VHS copy of A Little Princess. I was jealous of kids whose parents loved them enough to send them to ivy-covered British boarding schools and of all the stories I read that featured stables and girls who could just wave down some farmhand and ask them to saddle up their horse to go for a “nice, good gallop” before doing homework. Every corner of every house I entered could’ve held a secret compartment, and I often read books in my mother’s walk-in closet so I could pretend like it was a castle turret. (These books were, of course, Black Beauty and Little Women and Little House in the Big Woods.)
Dreamy and romantic with a big dollop of tragedy — it’s the Big Bow Girl aesthetic.
I had a lot of Titanic knowledge and was also supremely interested in Anastasia and her potential European whereabouts. I coveted the American Girl dolls and was 11 when I finally got Samantha Parkington and wore the matching nightgown — white with pink ribbon laced through — until it fell apart. I played with dollhouses and miniatures way longer than any of my friends dared to admit, and I climbed every tree I could find, hoping there would be one with a branch large enough to hold a picnic basket full of sandwiches.
There’s a theme here, right? Dreamy and romantic with a big dollop of tragedy — it’s the Big Bow Girl aesthetic. We dyed pieces of paper with tea and burned the edges with a lighter so we could write letters, rolling them up tightly to tuck into a bottle as if we were lost at sea and in desperate need of help. (We were always looking for a penpal.) We picked up hobbies like needlepoint and dreamed of doing it on a sun-warmed cobblestone path while we waited for a long-lost relative to whisk us away on a European grand tour. We played dress-up far past the age of seven and took great care with the lacy tablecloths, pretending they were the most expensive dress we owned and that we’d have to sell them at the market if the crops were bad again this winter.
I just wanted the dreaminess of it all — the idea that simple joys and pleasures could still abound even in the worst of times.
Look, it’s not that I wanted one of my parents to die or to be cared for by a mean-spirited governess while my remaining parent was at war. I didn’t really want there to be a constant fear of dysentery or to have to fight for my right to vote. I just wanted the dreaminess of it all — the idea that simple joys and pleasures could still abound even in the worst of times, the earthiness of foraging and gathering, of finding a way even when it seemed like there wasn’t one left. I admired the plucky persistence of little girls who had gone through hard times and still believed there was more goodness to come, the hard-fought optimism of women celebrating a holiday when there was so much fear and turmoil, the courage of children pushing past their own uncomfortable feelings to say and do what was right, even if everybody else thought they should stay quiet.
Now that I have three daughters of my own, that energy has become a happy (floral, lace-trimmed) corner of the world where I raise my children. I recently told my 8-year-old Alice (of course she’s named Alice, what did you expect from a BBG) that I spent many afternoons sitting in a tree with a book, and now she does it every day when she comes home from school. I have taught her and my other two girls to appreciate gathering flowers, to enjoy punching yeasty dough into cinnamon rolls, to find immense joy in putting on fresh nightgowns before they crawl into their white, wrought-iron beds. They will interrupt people to say, “Look at the sky! It’s so beautiful!” and they find going to Barnes & Noble to be an absolute adventure.
We grown up Big Bow Girls are now the Calico Critter moms, placing tiny heads of cabbage into wee refrigerators, pulling little floral quilts over itty bitty felt kittens in trundle beds. We are the moms who drag blankets out into our own backyards for picnics, who still believe in enormously cumbersome wicker baskets that are stupidly heavy with the Bonne Maman jam jars we refuse to leave behind. We find reading bedtime stories to be the most important part of our day (we would still really love bookshelves with a rolling ladder), and firmly believe that screen time doesn’t count if we’re watching Great British Bake Off. We want the Penguin Classics Clothbound Collection for Mother’s Day and are also supremely satisfied with Rifle Paper stationery as a gift. (We are still looking for a penpal.)
And we still believe in the joy and goodness of the world. We are still the optimistic ones, holding out hope that a lost princess could be in Europe, living her wildest dreams in secret. We still, unfortunately, have to fight for our rights as women, but we don’t mind doing it. Because we believe in ourselves and our daughters. We believe that the simplest pleasures and moments are the ones that will see us through, and we believe that if anybody is going to survive turmoil and rage and grief, if anybody is going to turn a tragedy or hardship into dreamy magic, it’s a Big Bow Girl.