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.