Round Up

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Lobby at the Museum of Art, BYU, with Gabriel Dawes’ ‘Plexus’ installation.  An inspiring setting for my presentation at the Branding the American West symposium, March 2016.

I fly back to Manchester tomorrow after a very productive and adventuresome trip to Utah.  I’ve learned all sorts of lessons and met some interesting people.  I have had my faith restored through the friendliness I’ve encountered along the way as well as the loveliness of the natural landscape that has been the backdrop to my travels.

The main purpose of my trip has been academic.  The Branding the American West conference at the Museum of Art (MoA), BYU, has more than outstripped my expectations.  Every paper I attended was well delivered, well constructed, well researched.  I once heard that the secret to a good presentation – and the secret to a good reception – was simply to show an audience that their time and attendance was valued.  Being prepared and evidencing effort, constructing an argument, showing care and thought in what is argued, then, serves the idea that an audience wishes to be – and is – appreciated by the speaker (and, no doubt, vice versa). This sentiment was played out at the MoA conference in spades (or should that be copper miners’ shovels, I wonder?)

Janalee Emmer, Director of Education at the Museum, and conference organiser had put together a carefully curated programme of speakers.  My two panel mates, Sonya Abrego and Caroline Jean Fernald, formed the perfect complement to my own presentation on dude ranch clothing in the Thirties.  Sonya, with a recently-earned doctorate from my old stamping ground in NYC, the Bard Graduate Center, switched the focus to the 40s and 50s with a detailed discussion of Western clothing brands (think Wranglers and Levi’s) and their use of cattle brand hieroglyphics.  Her argument was illustrated with some super examples, including a  denim line for children by Lee, which sold pint-sized jeans with a blank leather patch on the back left pocket ready to be scorched in-store with a personalised name (how I’d like some of those!).   Caroline, Director of the Millicent Rogers Museum, Taos, New Mexico, focused on Native American objects as tourist artefacts and showed us photographs of holiday-maker Albert Einstein (no less) during visits to the West on the Santa Fe railroad.

It’s both difficult and a little unfair to pick out highlights from the symposium.  I enjoyed Phil Deloria’s (University of Michigan) keynote speech on Western branding, in which he proposed the mythologizing process to be as much about ‘Westing’ the brand (as branding the West).  His talk took me back to my doctoral thesis and my own past work on Britishness and branding and the commodification of national identity (refer to my book, The National Fabric).  Leo Mazow from the Universiy of Arkansas rounded off the first day’s programme with a tour de force, ending his presentation on Thomas Benton and Edward Hopper with a 10-song guitar and vocal performance. Surely every conference should include a singing professor?  The conference banquet was held in the University’s ‘Skyroom’, a viewing gallery set on the top floor of the Student’s Union building, with awesome views of a setting sun over the Wasatch range.  We marvelled at the scenery whilst dining from enamel plates with bandana napkins, channelling the chuck wagon and chowing down (to use the vernacular).

Day two of the conference served up the opportunity to hear from the curators of the MoA’s latest exhibition, also titled ‘Branding the American West: Paintings and Films 1900-1950’, which is a collaboration between BYU and the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas.  We were treated to a panel discussion with the essayist contributors to the exhibition catalogue, too.  As a result, I am much more knowledgeable about the works of those Western painters such as Maynard Dixon, Frederic Remington and the Taos School (and was honoured to view the originals in the excellent exhibition curated by Marian Wardle and Sarah Boehme).  And I was introduced, too, to artists unknown to me such as the Mormon painter, Minerva Teichert, with her signature delicate and ethereal style.

There is more to attending a conference than simply turning up or to ‘scoring’ a presentation point to put on a CV.  Finding out about other academics and their work – and learning from them is an enriching process.  But, so too, are the enrichments from the unexpected or unscheduled experiences.  During my visit, a group of us went up into the mountains to dine at Sundance Ranch (of film festival and Robert Redford fame) and marvelled at the floodlit ski runs replete with their after-dark skiers swooshing dramatically into the night.  I was also invited by the director of the Redd Center for the American West (Brian Cannon) at BYU to go on a tour of Provo Canyon and was delighted to have the opportunity to see Bridal Veil Falls in snow.  And, after the conference concluded on Saturday afternoon, I was up bright and early on Sunday morning to catch a lift into Salt Lake City for the renowned live broadcast (the longest running continuous radio broadcast in history) of ‘Music and the Spoken Word’ at the Mormon Tabernacle.  My trip to Utah?  Stirring in both mind and spirit.

 

The Hills Are Alive

 

YMountain

It’s ‘Y’ that marks the spot in Provo. The Wasatch mountains with Public Library building (left). March 2016.

Just like the Pioneers during the Gold Rush, I’ve struck it lucky on many counts during this trip out west.  The weather, for example, has been unseasonably warm (it’s a balmy 21c today) and the skies have been bright and blue from morning to night.  This is unusual for the beginning of March.  Needless to say, my thermals, down jacket and woolly hat are languishing at the bottom of my suitcase: I packed for snow rather than sunshine.

These opening words aren’t just ‘filler’ or small talk reflecting a British obsession with the weather.  My conference paper, which I’m delivering tomorrow at the ‘Branding the American West’ conference (at Brigham Young Museum of Art) is on the history of vacation dress and packing for the unfamiliar ranch climate.  Dude ranches around Yellowstone Park, Wyoming and Montana were warm by day and cool by night, so versatility was an essential wardrobe requirement.  I know how those dudes must have felt!  Of course, the very term ‘dude’ has a dress-related etymology.  Said to be of Germanic heritage, the term is derived from ‘duddenkopf’, meaning drowsy head.  The abbreviation, dude, was applied to incomers to the West who were often dressed inappropriately in garish, flashy or impractical outfits.  Dudes stood out as different and were seen as being inauthentic.  The term ‘dude’ was used in the late nineteenth century in a derisive way to ridicule those that didn’t understand the subtleties of Western lore. 

As with many colloquial terms, and with language in general, meanings and usage change over time.  By the 1920s and 1930s (my particular period of interest), dude ranching had begun to be organised into a formal industry.  Ranch owners faced a dilemma: if ‘dude’ was a provocative term applied to hapless holiday-makers, how would they sell ‘dude ranching’ to paying clients?  So began a re-branding project, which is writ large across the primary source material (particularly the dude ranch vacation brochures of the Twenties and Thirties).  Ranch owners were keen to dispel the idea of ‘dude’ as a negative term and made explicit statements to that end in the opening pages of their brochures.  For example, an original tourist pamphlet for ‘Montana: The Dude Ranch State’ dating from the 1930s, went to great lengths to explain its use of terminology.

“Rural Yankees refer to city visitors as summer boarders; swanky resorts elegantly dub them paying guests; the frank and unabashed West calls them dudes and b’jinks they like it, and why not? There is no approbrium attached to that word dude as so applied.”

If the weather has been kind to me, so have the people.  I spent an interesting morning talking to Gregory Smoak and Leighton Quarles (Director and Asst. Director respectively) at the American West Center, University of Utah.  They were generous in sharing their knowledge of Western history and also very enthusiastic about my dude ranch project.  It was fascinating to find out about the University itself (after all, if you want an historical overview, ask an historian).  The campus was spectacular, with wide open spaces, many beautiful old colonial buildings (it was formerly the military Fort Douglas encampment…as well as the athletes’ village during the Salt Lake City winter Olympics in 2002), and encircled by those monumental Wasatch mountains. I couldn’t help but be charmed, too, by the white Shaker-style rocking chairs that sat invitingly on the porches of each of the Faculty buildings.  What a far cry from the inner city All Saints campus back at MMU.

After my meetings in Salt Lake City, I took the FrontRunner commuter train to Provo, where Brigham Young University – or, as those in the know call it, ‘The Y’ – is located.  I sat for the entire hour of the ride with my nose glued to the carriage window, ogling the scenery.  Those mountains!  I just can’t get over those mountains.  And, did you know, there’s even a ‘Y’ mountain standing guard over Provo town with the letter etched, in epic proportions, into the rock?  (Discover more about its provenance and the wranglings over its creation here).  This morning, I walked the mile or so from Downtown to The Y (well, I had to make the most of the sunshine).  The campus is big and immaculately maintained.  In Utah it seems that everything is done on an epic scale (and that, I know from first-hand experience, includes the cro-nuts).  I was at The Y for a seminar hosted by the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.  The guest speaker was LeAnne Howe, Eidson Distinguished Professor from the University of Georgia, who spoke about story telling in indigenous cultures.  The land, she said, has been ‘written on’ for millennia in order to communicate meanings and beliefs between generations.  Howe’s interest is in ancient mounds in the North American landscape but I can’t help thinking that Y mountain  here in Provo is also a sign, if cast in more of a pop culture rendering.  For an erstwhile geographer such as me, the idea that the landscape is bursting with  meaning isn’t new.   But in my current locale this idea is so very pertinent: so live and real.  The landscape of the Wasatch range is speaking to me with a voice that is loud and clear.

 

A Taste of Honey

Come West

This advert for dude ranch vacations in American Vogue, April 1936, urges the reader to ‘Come West Young Lady!’  Well, I did just that.  And here I am in Utah…in February 2016.  Source: Conde Nast

I’ve just arrived in ‘The Beehive State’ of Utah.  I’m in Salt Lake City for a couple of days  before moving on to Provo, 50 miles South, for a conference at Brigham Young University (further details of that follow below).  And in my travels, I am, if you’ll pardon the toe-curling pun, as busy as the proverbial bee.

There are lots of benefits to academic life: one being the opportunity to travel.  My trip thus far, and I’m only at day two, has been quite an expedition already. 14 hours in the air (although I thoroughly enjoy flying) punctuated by a frantic dash to transfer between terminals in Atlanta, Georgia and corral my luggage between planes.  Now that I’m at my destination (Salt Lake City), the pace doesn’t ease up any.  I’ve lined up quite a programme of meetings, visits and seminars in addition to the conference I’m speaking at (plus a train journey to Brigham Young University to add in to the mix).  Tomorrow, for example, I head to the American West Center at the University of Utah. I’ve arranged to meet with the Director and Assistant Director of the Center to discuss my on-going research on dude ranch dress and vacations ‘out West’ during the 1930s.  I’m looking forward to connecting with them and to getting a fresh perspective from experts in Western history.

There’s nothing like being ‘in situ’.  Utah is very much a part of the American West and had its far share of dude ranches back in the 1930s.  Just being here, albeit some 80 years later, is instructive.  Salt Lake City is staggering in its topography.  Although the city itself is sited on flat salt pans, the Wasatch mountains, snow capped and soaring, are so incredibly close as to seem touchable.  I’ve hardly experienced such a contrast between modern, urban, grid-iron streets and the sublime and awesome natural landscape.  They sit cheek by jowl. Truly remarkable!  No wonder the ranch owners of the 1930s pushed the idea of Nature – and its restorative powers – in the promotional material marketed to Eastern urbanites back in the day.   A vacation brochure for ranches in ‘Buffalo Bill’ country, dating from 1924, proclaimed Western life to be health-inducing, invigorating and life-changing.  ‘It’s Big Medicine!’ declared the promotional rhetoric.  Will my trip prove as much a shot-in-the-arm?  It appears so.  In being here, I get more of a sense of that: what the West was, and is, about. In turn, this first hand experience can only help my research and my ‘making sense’ of the history of vacations to the West.  This, surprisingly, is a bit of a ‘turn up for the books’.  I  hadn’t really thought through how my Utah trip was going to be such an ethnographic experience, reaching beyond the prime purpose of a presentation at a specialist conference.

So what, exactly, of the conference, then?  I’m presenting a paper at the ‘Branding the American West‘ conference, convened and hosted by Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art in Provo, Utah (4-5 March 2016).  The conference is part of the programming alongside its new ‘Branding the American West: Paintings and Films 1900-1950’ exhibition, a collaboration with the Stark Museum of Art.  By way of ending, here’s the abstract of my forthcoming BYU paper, titled:

Out West, In Vogue, On Vacation: Fashionable, Technical and Casual Clothing At The Dude Ranch, 1920 to 1940

Dude ranches proliferated during the 1920s and 1930s. They were a hybrid form of working cattle farm and holiday resort that offered paying guests (known as ‘dudes’) an opportunity to sample a version of Western cowboy life in situ as part of a summer vacation. A large number of these ranches were clustered around the sublime landscapes of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and the towns of Cody and Jackson (WY).  This paper is concerned with a very particular element of the dude ranch vacation: the dress worn by female dudes during the Twenties and Thirties.  Often being first-timers to the West, as well as novices at horse-riding, dudes encountered all manner of sartorial challenges: what garments and brands to purchase and where; packing appropriately and within certain weight and size restrictions; dealing with a basic laundry service; and dressing to fit in. 

 The paper draws on primary source material gathered during a month-long period of archive work at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles (May 2015). It compares and contrasts the (sometimes) competing advice proffered to Western ingénues on what to wear and how to wear it.  For example, the rolling, tying and styling of a neckerchief was highly vernacular and, as such, was able to signal an appreciation of, and assimilation to, the Western way of life by incoming visitors eager to belong.  The paper presents a discussion based on content analysis of dress codes and purchasing guides from a range of authors: those of touristic marketing material (railroad brochures, print advertisements, promotional films), trade catalogues from Western outfitters, as well as style columnists in high fashion magazines such as American Vogue.  Ranch owners counselled in their sales pamphlets that the West was a space of relaxation and informality, urging holiday-makers to reflect these values in their choice of clothing by sporting casual, simple, attire that was appropriate for active, outdoorsy, entertainments.  But the West was also a space of, and for, the promotion and wearing of innovative high fashion, too.  Technical materials and the latest advances in fabric production – rayon, Matletex and Sanforisation – were evident in, and well suited to, the female dude’s wardrobe, contributing modern, practical and stylish additions at the cutting edge of both fashion and innovation.

 Existing scholarship on the dude ranch has tended to focus on the perspectives of ranch owners and cattle farmers. Few studies have paid attention to the stories and experiences of the dudes themselves: the tourists, visitors and holiday-makers to ranches ‘Out West’.  Often represented in contemporary fiction and film of the Twenties and Thirties as feckless and naïve incomers to be ridiculed, loathed and/or pitied, this paper asserts the dude as an important but somewhat overlooked – or under regarded – figure in the history of Western visual, material and design culture.  This study of the dress that female dudes acquired, transported, wore and maintained intends to add both flesh – and fabric – to the academic debate.