The Final Frontier

The 'Singing Cowboy' himself, overseeing my daily research activities as the Viva Foundation Fellow 2015 at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, LA.

The ‘Singing Cowboy’ himself, overseeing my daily research activities as the Viva Foundation Fellow 2015 at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, LA.

Four weeks at the Autry have zipped by in a flash.  And a couple of days ago I gave my ‘Research Frontiers’ lunchtime presentation to co-workers and colleagues at the museum as the culmination of my ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’ study.  ‘Research Frontiers’ is a programme of seminars delivered by the various Fellows hosted at the Autry each year and it offers an opportunity for permanent staff to learn about what the temporary visiting scholars have been up to – and celebrate them, their endeavours but, most importantly, the depth and diversity of their own, grand, collection.

I spent a couple of afternoons preparing for my hour in the sun (so to speak), and enjoyed pulling together my disparate notes, scribblings and thoughts into (what I hope) was a coherent whole.  As ever, once I’d summoned my energies and efforts to crank up my laptop (and my brain), the content of my PowerPoint presentation just grew and grew.  It’s not until such moments of enforced review and reflection that one realises just how much archive material has been collected, and noted, and dealt with.  I’ve (almost unknowingly) covered a lot of ground these past few weeks.  What’s more, preparing a seminar is a really useful step in the analytical process because it requires the researcher to take up a new position in their project, having both proximity to and distance from their work.  The close reading, deep focus and utter absorption of solitary days in the archive are usefully punctuated by the ‘going public’ that a presentation brings.  There’s an important shift of gear as one has to serve an external audience rather than a lone, internal, voice.  Putting it another way, having to explain the significance and importance of a ‘find’ or ‘finding’ to make sense to someone else assists, I think, in moving a project along to the next levelIt is, as the saying goes, ‘good to talk’.  My final presentation consisted of 40 slides and mapped out the key themes I’ve been conjuring with these last few days and weeks.  And while there’s a long way to go, those 40 slides present maybe the bare bones, or just the merest whiff, of a more formal piece of writing such as a journal article or chapter.  The exercise certainly got me working with, and using, the material I’ve been busy collecting in the archive.  And that raises an important point about research, particularly of the type with which I’m concerned.  I can ‘slam dunk’ as much archive material as I desire (and by that I mean looking at, and recording, folder upon folder of archive documents and texts: tagging them, labelling them, coding them for future use once I get back to Manchester and my workaday routine).  But it doesn’t really count a jot unless I write up those records and notes into fully fledged, theorised, prose and get my interpretation of them ‘out there’.  Research has to be released from the hard drive, the notebook and the memory card.  And that process of release is the tough part because it requires saying something meaningful, slogging it out at the computer keyboard and running the gauntlet of peer review (among other things).  A dose of courage and conviction is required for this stage of the academic process.  Cups of tea are also very helpful.

Happy memories of California will warm my cockles if the going gets as tough as I suggest above.  For there have, of course, been highlights here at the Autry (or, perhaps more accurately, a small but satisfying inching forward of progress).  These small pleasures add up to a splendid whole.  The leathery smell of Helen Ruth Zeigler’s 1930s cow skin chaps, for example, as I (the first visiting researcher to do so) examined them fresh from the storage freezer.  The gasp-out-loud moment as a dozen tissue-y neck scarves were unfurled, in turn, from their bespoke roller casings, revealing dazzlingly-preserved crimson, orange and gold printed silk.  There was even a glorious moment in the permanent exhibit as I happened upon none other than Champion The Wonder Horse’s bridle.  But perhaps most memorable will be the enthusiasm and encouragement from my Autry co-workers, who provided expertise, kindness and companionship on the long trail through ‘Archive Country’.  And what a pleasant and scenic place that particular country has proven to be this last while.  One of the dude ranch vacation brochures from the Autry collection that I’ve been working on  likened a trip to rural Montana as being ‘Big Medicine’ back in the 1930s.  Some 85 years or so later, my own trip ‘Out West’ has similarly proven a true fillip.

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Rodeo, Drive

The Levi's '100% Electric Rodeo' puppet show as it toured the West, performing here at the Southwest Exposition & Fat Stock Show, 8th March, 1940.  Source: Fort Worth Public Library Archives.

The Levi’s ‘100% Electric Rodeo’ puppet show as it toured the West, performing here at the Southwest Exposition & Fat Stock Show, 8th March, 1940. Source: Fort Worth Public Library Archives.

At first glance, certain archive objects, such as a postcard, may appear mundane.  Yet, with just a little bit of investigation, that same mundane postcard can become mesmeric, opening up avenues into history unfathomable. Telling the stories behind ordinary artefacts (such as a mass-produced souvenir) is what makes research about material, and popular, culture so compelling.  The ordinary becomes extraordinary with a bit of digging and insight.

I had one such encounter in the Autry archive last week as I went diligently about my labours up in the reading room on the first floor.  A search of the archive catalogue had thrown up this reference to a postcard from 1939 featuring an image of the ‘Levi’s Electric Rodeo’.  Almost dismissing it outright, since rodeos aren’t my research focus, I did a quick Google search (yes, the last refuge of the research scoundrel) with surprising results.

1939 was not only the year of the World’s Fair in New York but also the year of the, now lesser known, West coast counterpart, the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.  The theme of the GGIE was ‘Pageant of the Pacific’ and land was acquired to build the campus of ‘Treasure Island’, which promoted San Francisco as a hub for arts, culture and business in the Pacific Rim.  Home town company, Levi Strauss, the famous denim jeans manufacturer created an ‘Electric Rodeo’ for the Expo, which was pioneering in its technology as an automated sideshow and proved to be exceptionally popular with visitors in the ‘Vacationland’ entertainment area.  The reverse of the postcard held in the Autry collection (which was distributed at the GGIE along with a booklet, apparently, that described the making of the attraction) lauded Levi’s innovation thus: “A 100% electric rodeo.  It moves.  It talks.  Its figures are all hand-carved  likenesses of famous rodeo people.  And they’re all dressed in authentic Western togs…miniature replicas of garments made in California since 1853 by Levi Strauss & Company”.  31 wooden puppets performed to a vinyl soundtrack of western music in a 20-minute show that featured a bucking horse, a clown and mule, announcers and judges.

Although the Expo itself had wavering success (it was open only between February and October 1939, reopening in May through to September of 1940), the Electric Rodeo was a hit. After its stint at Treasure Island, the Electric Rodeo was adapted to take to the roads on the back of a streamliner truck (this splendid 1938 international Harvester D-300 truck and trailer, to be precise) and made a 25,000 mile tour of small towns and livestock shows throughout the West.  The designer and builder of the show, Leonard W. Mitchell, was accompanied by his wife on the tour, which The Hemphill County News (Fri May 23rd 1941) reported as figuring to the sum of $50, 000.  That same report gives a lyrical account of the ingenuity of engineering:

“The rodeo carries its own power plant to operate the twelve electric motors and scores of electric magnets that actuate its tens of thousands of moving parts.  From behind the scenes, it has the complexity of Rube Goldberg’s mechanical nightmares.  Yet, so perfectly has the mechanism been designed that it works automatically throughout, without the necessity of any attendant to pull a wire or so much as throw a switch.  The entire action and sound of the rodeo are directed by the electric brain of a concealed robophone.  So exact is the coordination of sound and movement that when any performer speaks, his mouth moves in time with the words he is uttering.”

Ain’t that a thing?  It appears that the touring Electric Rodeo had a reasonably long and illustrious career, thrilling spectators throughout the 1940s (as this wonderful, and decidedly fifties-style, image testifies). For example, The Lodi-News Sentinel from Thursday August 14th 1947 announced that “rodeo-minded youngsters will be preparing for a treat when the big Levi Strauss puppet rodeo” rolls into town for the annual nine-day long Lodi Horse Show.  A similar announcement was made in The Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light from September 22, 1950.

The tale of the Electric Rodeo, once so sparky and sizzling, ends here with mixed fortunes.  The shell of the streamliner truck now languishes in a parking lot in Newcastle, CA, bereft of its interior treasures.  Rather poignantly, too, only a couple of the miniature jeans (bereft of their puppet-y owners) are said to be stored in the official company archives of Levi-Strauss, along with some promotional papers from the original 1939 Expo in San Francisco.  But Levi’s have not restricted their voltaic moment in history to a pair of pint-sized pants.  For, in 2014, the company took inspiration from its highly-charged past and commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Electric Rodeo by reproducing some of the puppet outfits in their aptly-named 2014 ‘Treasure Island’ collection, which you may marvel at here and here. And all power to them!

Taking the Six-Week Cure

Adrian gowns in glorious technicolour, as seen in 'The Women', 1939.  Source: backlots.net

Adrian gowns in glorious technicolour, as seen in ‘The Women’, 1939. Source: backlots.net

In the 1930s, tourists were variously motivated to head West for the Season and take a vacation on one of the dude ranches that proliferated at that time. Getting away from it all; the nostalgic pursuit of the Old West; the indulgence of a Hollywood cowboy fantasy; the healthful benefits of leading a simple life in the restorative outdoors: all of these are themes that are looming large in my readings of touristic ranch brochures from the period (and I’m finding that the Autry has a wonderful collection of brochures and related ephemera in its holdings).

One slightly more novel reason, which, admittedly is less prevalent in the standard marketing material is what we would term today as the ‘quickie’ divorce.  The 1930s saw the inception of the ‘divorce ranch’, a phenomenon that was restricted to the state of Nevada, and, particularly the locale of Reno, which came to be known as ‘Sin City’.  In the midst of the Depression, the State authorities capitalised on an opportunity to build on existing liberal legislation and generate revenue from, often wealthy, often female, divorce-seeking visitors: part of the ‘migratory divorce’ trade.  And this was no small trade – the statistics are remarkable.  In her excellent article for the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, Mella Harmon suggests that during the ten-year period from the stock market crash in October 1929 to the end of 1939, approximately 30,300 divorce-seekers alone (not including defendants, soon-to-be spouses, children, parents, attendants, and others accompanying a plaintiff) were present in Reno.

Of course, all of these incomers required accommodation and entertainment.  Some (certainly not all) found that local dude ranches, such as Pyramid Lake, offered a suitable, secluded, setting for ‘sitting out’ the statutory six-week long period required of the law to claim residency in the state of Nevada, and thus invoke its lenient divorce laws.  Reno became infamous as the divorce capital of the USA (and even Europeans travelled, on occasion, to take advantage of its fast-tracking).  ‘Going to Reno’ entered common parlance as a shorthand for ‘getting a divorce’, as well as terms such as ‘Reno-vation’ and ‘taking the six-week cure’.

While all of this is incredibly interesting social history, the question arises, what relevance does it have for a dress history project such as my own ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’?  Good question, indeed!  I’m a firm believer in casting my net pretty wide when it comes to research, a symptom, I think of my interdisciplinary tendencies (or, maybe, megalomania?).  And, perhaps I must reconcile myself to the fact that divorce ranches are tangential to the core of my current labours here at the Autry in Los Angeles.  On a general level, though,  many of the women who were seeking ‘Renovations’ were fashionable Socialites.  And the brilliant Austrian-American photographer (and my latest obsession) Lisette Model (1901-1983), went about documenting them on this assignment (albeit during 1949) for Harper’s Bazaar. [Curiously, too, I have a hunch that Model frequented the same artistic circles in interwar New York as none other than our very own Elizabeth Hawes (who regular followers will recall as the central protagonist in my ‘Style Stakes’ research project).  At least, by my reckoning, they both contributed to PM magazine at around the same time.]

No blog entry attempting to forge a connection between dress history and divorce ranches would be complete without mention of the important and iconic film The Women.  Produced in 1939, the film is of a suitable vintage not to trouble my twenties and thirties focus.  But where to begin with a synopsis of its plot? For this film somersaults with twists and turns, and, to my English ears, the dialogue is so incredibly pacey and wise-cracking it requires every ounce of concentration with viewing (and you may view its full-length entirety here).  Directed by George Cukor and based on the play by Clare Booth Luce, the cast includes Norma Shearer, Joan Fontaine and Joan Crawford.  Set in Manhattan, the comedy-drama follows the life of Mary Haines and her pampered acquaintances.  At a beauty parlour, a loose-tongued manicurist reveals that Mary’s husband is having an affair, which (cutting a long and involved story short) leads to Mary and her friends heading to a Reno divorce ranch to file for divorce.  The costuming throughout is spectacular, showing the high fashion get-ups of 1930s New York, and also the Western-wear donned by Eastern would-be divorcees at a dude ranch.  But, most astonishing of all, is a ten-minute long interlude mid-way in the film when the women attend a fashion show. Shot in full techni-colour (the remainder of the film is black and white), the show features a host of gowns by the celebrated Hollywood costumier, Adrian.  This is extraordinary stuff, quite ahead of its time, and nothing short of bedazzling.  It has it all.  And it offers a useful organising frame through which my seemingly disparate interests (ranches, fashion, divorces, dudes, 1930s and so on) may logically be corralled (pun intended).

Thanks to Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow, we’re already familiar with ‘conscious uncoupling’.  Thanks to The Women I may have just discovered what fashion-conscious uncoupling looks like.