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.