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.

Flights of Fancy

Detail of swimsuit by Fellegi for Cole of California, 1936.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.74.76.11), Costume and Textiles Collection.  An example of the Matletex process.

Detail of swimsuit by Fellegi for Cole of California, 1936. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.74.76.11), Costume and Textiles Collection. An example of the Matletex process.

If my ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’ project brings together cowgirl dress, resort wear and 1930s fashion (which, I believe, it does), then my latest Youtube discovery is right on message.  My ‘find’ is a short, 20-minute film from 1940, titled  Fashion Horizons (click the link to watch).

Although new to me, Fashion Horizons has, so it seems, something of a cult following in the online world of discussion boards and fan sites, particularly so among aviation aficianados*.  While for some, the aircraft may be the star of the show, for me, and anyone with a penchant for American fashion history, the clothes are out of this orbit (to use a suitably airy phrase).  The location, the looks and also the brilliant musical score (which will stay with you as an earworm for days hence) are so evocative of the era.  It’s a must-see.

It’s difficult to fathom the provenance, or even the purpose, of Fashion Horizons.  The film is a travelogue made, I assume with some guesswork from the opening credits, in collaboration with Paramount Pictures and Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) .  It’s, presumably, a promotional piece that showcases a number of loosely-related creative industries: the sleekly modern aircraft of TWA; the burgeoning talents of ascendent Paramount film starlets, and the glamorous resort fashions of the early forties (just to clarify, the film was made in 1940 and debuted collections for 1941).  The somewhat curious premise is that Paramount’s leading lady, Mary Martin, along with some aspiring actress friends, are called to a screen-test ‘Out West’.  Taking the luxurious TWA Stratoliner (complete with its own ‘Charm Room’ to cater for the needs of female travellers) across the US from La Guardia in New York City to Los Angeles (via Chicago, Kansas City and Albuquerque), the viewer is treated to panoramic views and is tempted by a richly poetic (and, at times, socially and culturally problematic) narrative from CBS announcer Wendell Niles.  “It’s a fairy land of tumbling castles far above where the raindrops form”, goes Niles’s voice over.  Oh, what stirring stuff!

The fashions showcased in the film are described in great detail, and lingering shots, enhanced by glorious technicolour, give a sense of the vibrancy of resort dressing, which was fun, bold and colourful.  During their tour of the West, the would-be actresses stop off for a week-long vacation at Camel Back Inn in Phoenix, Arizona and this vignette offers a glimpse of contemporary ranch life.  A couple of the women go for a breakfast ride dressed in what is termed as ‘frontier costume’, comprising “frontier pants, western high-heeled boots and ten gallon Stetson hats”.  But the ranch vacation is depicted as far from being only about horses and cowboy hats.  All manner of (slightly bonkers) scenarios are deployed to display the latest fashionable styles: a dinner engagement; sun lazing by the pool; a game of shuffleboard;  a cocktail party; sightseeing; a boat trip etc.  The ranch vacation, as my thesis for the ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’ project asserts, required a diverse and distinctive wardrobe.

American sportswear of the thirties (or, in this instance of 1941) catered for women who required a versatile, practical, yet stylish, form of dressing (and I’ve written about this in previous blog entries such as this one in relation to the contemporary designer Elizabeth Hawes).   Fashion Horizons features an entire raft of examples, one such being when ‘Margaret’ plays a game of shinty, casting aside her wrap-around skirt to reveal a swimsuit worn underneath.  This mixing and matching of combinations was a typical feature of thirties (okay, 1941) fashion, which catered to the changing demands of modern lifestyles.  Midriff-showing shorts and cropped top combos, short-legged playsuits and swimwear separates were all the rage.  Importantly, for the dress historian, the narration goes on to describe to the audience the way in which Margaret’s swimsuit was manufactured: “shirred and elasticised in a new process called Matletex”, which had “a slenderising effect”.  Technological advances in textile engineering and clothing design were celebrated and lauded as a means to promote garments to women seeking to embrace innovation and a modern sensibility.

And a note of explanation for those not entirely au fait with Matletex.  Pioneered in 1936 by Margit Fellegi when she was working for the Californian swimwear label, Cole’s, Matletex enabled cotton fabric to be shirred (that’s a  sort of smocking technique) on elastic thread.  The result was an ability to manipulate style lines without sacrificing closeness of fit.  Figure-hugging designs and functionality were brought together.  Matletex gets several mentions in the film, which suggests techy-talk was a selling point for consumers: what those in the trade would term as a ‘value-adding’ property.  Consumers were seduced by the ‘latest thing’ and bought (literally and metaphorically) in to technology in order to signal their own credentials as forward-thinking and fresh.

It only remains, then, to quote from the closing lines of Fashion Horizons, which invoke a suitably awe-inspiring and thrusting tone.  Onwards, and, indeed, upwards!

 “…the girls are reminded that horizons in the air, like fashion horizons are reached only to reappear again and again.  As Tennyson said only a century ago, ‘For we dipped into the future as far as human eye can see/ Saw the vision of the world and all the wonder that would be'”.

* You know who you are!

Westward-Ho!

'Dude Ranch Vacations' print advert for Northern Pacific/Yellowstone Park Rail Line, in The Sportsman magazine, March 1933.  (BNSF Railway Company)

‘Dude Ranch Vacations’ print advert for Northern Pacific/Yellowstone Park Rail Line, in The Sportsman magazine, March 1933. (BNSF Railway Company)

The more eagle-eyed of my followers will have noticed that a new-ish tab has appeared on The Style Stakes’ menu bar, a tab titled ‘Buckskin and Ballgowns’.  This is the name of my latest research project, which sees me taking up a month-long Viva Foundation Fellowship funded by the Autry National Center for Western Heritage in Los Angeles.  Very soon, I will be headed ‘out West’, to sunny California, to spend a blissful (and no doubt blistering) month in the archives at the Autry researching female dude ranchers and resort wear from the interwar period.  For a longer explanation of the project, click on the Buckskins and Ballgowns tab post-haste.

On the face of it, a project about dude ranch vacations (dude ranches being working holidays where Easterners could sample a version of cowboy life) may seem an obscure departure from my usual scholarly territory of riding dress, sportswear and American fashion.  But my forthcoming foray into ranch- and resort-wear isn’t so far removed from my regular interests.  In fact, it seems (to me) an obvious trajectory on my interwar, equestrian, female, fashion research journey.  Dude ranch vacations were, essentially, horse riding holidays and peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s as Easterners sought respite from the agitations of modern living.  Dude ranches were opportunities for play and playfulness in the sublime setting of the great outdoors and the process of ‘dressing up’ for the West (to varying degrees of authenticity) was part and parcel of that escape from the formalities of (sub)-urban routine.  Dudes (the term used to describe, sometimes somewhat hapless, Eastern tourists) were often motivated and influenced by portrayals of the West on the silver screen.  The Hollywood movie industry was booming and the buying and wearing of a theatrical interpretation of ranch costume enabled dudes to perform the role of cowboy and bring their fantasies closer to life.

Travelling to and from dude ranches was all part of the exciting vacation experience, too.  Modern, luxurious, airliners and long distance rail routes catered for tourists making the journey West.  Many rail road operators teamed up with dude ranch owners to promote their related services and packaged these through enticing, richly-illustrated, promotional materials such as posters, print ads and brochures (and I’ll be working on some of these original travel brochures as part of my study at the Autry).  Indeed, these tantalising marketing images, which were featured in equestrian and sporting magazines of the day, were what first piqued my curiosity for Western riding dress.  As a researcher, seeing these, I began to realise that there were stories to be told about interwar riding dress beyond my studies of the East coast formality of hunting turnout, side saddle attire and show ring uniforms.  And thus, I too now am making my own journey West (in every sense).

Back in 2012, I very, very briefly referenced the three ‘nodes’ of dude ranch vacations, Western riding dress and rail road advertising in one of my published articles, laying the groundwork, I guess, for the bigger ‘Buckskins and Ballgowns’ project that is, only now, coming to fruition.  That article was a piece, in the main, about female equestrians and formal dress codes (titled ‘A Severity of Plainness’) but towards its end there are hints towards alternative versions of riding dress.  The most relevant extract refers to the Northern Pacific ad illustrated, top left, in this blog post, and reads:

“Riding holidays also emerged in another, very different, form during the 1920s and 1930s.  Dude ranch vacations were increasingly popular and opened up ‘The West’ as a viable destination and leisure space for Society women.  Importantly, the ‘Old World’ regulations of English riding turn-out were considered inappropriately uptight or ‘academic’ to use the words of Amory (1933, 47), in the more casual American ‘wild’ West.  This point is visualized in the imagery (see image, top left) used by Northern Pacific to promote ranching holidays in the Montana-Wyoming Rockies (The Sportsman 1933: inside cover).  A young woman is perched on a cliff top gazing across the wide open spaces of the West.  Her tousled hair blows, untamed, in the wind.  Her bright red neckerchief hangs loosely.  Her hands-on-hips stance is unchecked.  The freedom from centuries old Anglo-European codes is marked symbolically through her appearance.  She is dressed for riding but not in the traditional sense.  As much as the 1920s and 1930s were about the enforcement of long-held codes in riding dress, they were also a period in which conventions were re-written for the emerging spatial and sartorial territory of the American West (Albrecht, Farrel-Beck and Winakor, 1988).  The West marked a literal and metaphorical frontier for female riding dress.”

Citation: Goodrum, Alison (2012) ‘A Severity of Plainness: The Culture of Female Riding Dress in America During the 1920s and 1930s’ Annals of Leisure Research, 15(1): pp. 87-105.

 

Swans A-Swimming

'Sport in History', the journal of the British Society of Sport History, published by Routledge.

‘Sport in History’, the journal of the British Society of Sport History, published by Routledge.

Fashion designers are said to be only as good as their last collection.  And rock stars, only as good as their last album.  Does the same hold true for academics?  Are we only ever as good as our last article or book or lecture?  I’ll leave you to ponder the answer to that.

It’s a good twelve months (or more) since my last flurry of blog posts.  I wonder, have I been only as good in the ensuing year as my own last blog entry: ‘The Final Cut’?  Again, I’ll leave you to ponder the answer to that.

Just this month, the journal article I was chiselling away at in January 2014 whilst in snowstruck New York City (and reporting on its lumbering progress here) has emerged, swanlike, as a fully-formed publication.   Its swanful grace (if you can call it that) owes a debt of gratitude to the magnificant images that illustrate the piece and that I sourced at the National Sporting Library and Museum, VA.  How fortunate I’ve been to work on their ‘Gerry Webb’ collection, comprising thirteen, large, scrapbooks of sporting (equestrian) photographs.  Many of these were snapped by a professional journalist(s) who, even in the 1930s, produced some crystal clear, and compelling, shots that document fashionable men and women having fun on race day (among other things).  Glorious.

There’s an inevitable no-man’s land, a sort of literary interval, between packaging up a manuscript for a publisher and then, sometimes many, many months later, receiving the final, hold-in-your-hand, bookshelf-ready copy of a publication.  It would be easy to write here how that moment is so satisfying and gratifying (which, of course it is).  But engaging such well-worn cliches about ‘worthwhile effort’ does not capture the full complexity of what it is to go to press (so to speak).  In particular, that interval, that expanse of time, that lull, does peculiar things to written words.   So that – and for fear of getting a bit mystical here – the words that are returned to you in type-set, printing press and glossy cover form seem somehow strange, foreign and unknown.  ‘Did I write that?’ ‘I don’t remember saying that?’ There’s an element of forgetting with the passage of time.  But, too, there are other elements at play to do with ‘taking the ego’ away from the words, loss of immediacy, distance, removal.  At least, that’s what it feels like for me.

So, am I making a case here for writing as anti-climatical and, ultimately, rather disappointing?  Quite the opposite.  I wouldn’t be without it.  And, to ensure this particular blog entry ‘delivers’ as it should, here are all the details of that very journal article (and you may view it here)

Goodrum, A. (2015) ‘The Style Stakes: Fashion, Sportswear and Horse-Racing in Interwar America’ Sport In History 35 (1) pp. 46-80. Special Issue, Kit: Fashioning the Sporting Body.

Abstract: Despite an acknowledgement that, historically, the relationship between horse racing, women and fashion was important, existing literature provides little detail on the actual clothes that women wore as racegoers. The aim of this article is to add missing depth on the clothing of fashionable women at horse races, focusing on the United States during the inter-war period. In so doing, the discussion extends understandings of the history, and the material culture, of sporting spectatorship more generally. The article also introduces original work on the male spectator and his racegoing wardrobe. Climatic considerations to do with dressing appropriately for the great outdoors are discussed along with other influential factors on spectator dress such as contemporary fashion journalism and photography. The industry supplying fashion consumers was in transition at this time also and New York acquired prominence as a centre for a new mode of sporty, all-American fashion that was termed ‘sportswear’. As well as dealing with the clothes and the individuals who wore them, then, the article tells the story of the broader socio-economic conditions of American fashion, sport and sportswear that formed – and informed – their wearing.

 

A View From The Grandstand

IMGP3356

Serendipity at the thrift store came in the form of a grandstand badge from the 1936 Epsom race meeting

Chance, fate, coincidence.  Give it whatever name you care, sometimes the uncanny can offer a message that is not easy to ignore.  I have just experienced one of these strangely curious moments of fortune.  Whilst rummaging around the sinewy and intoxicating corners of my favourite local thrift store, Vintage Thrift, which is operated by the United Jewish Council of the East Side, I chanced upon a small, old, pin badge, in near mint condition.  I handed over my $5 immediately, knowing exactly what I had ‘discovered’.  This is (I refer you to the image, left, of said object) an entry tag to the spectator grandstand at the Epsom racecourse, on the day prior (I think, with the help of Google) to Derby Day itself in 1936.  I’m amazed by my find for several reasons.  Firstly, who would have thought that such an artefact would find its way to a charity shop in Manhattan?  Presumably, the badge was kept as a souvenir by an American visitor to Epsom almost eighty years ago (although we’ll probably never know for sure)?  Who would have thought that the object would have survived all of this time, too?  Made of stiffened card, the object is the essence of horse racing ephemera and was not intended to be durable beyond the few days of a race meet.  And, finally, what were the chances of finding a date so pitch perfect for my 1930s ‘Style Stakes’ project (Wed., 27th May 1936)?  The Derby has a history dating back to 1780, so there is any number of decades to go at.

The badge itself offers a fair deal of information about the event at which it was worn.  The date (wed, 27th May 1936), the price of admission to the grand stand area (£2.2.0), and, on the back, the issue number, 3736 (while contemporary news reports state that half a million people attended the headliner event, the Derby itself, in 1936).  Printed text on the back of the cardboard badge also gives some fascinating insight on the rules and regulations that surrounded conditions of entry to Epsom: “Issued subject to the Rules of Racing.  C. F. Oughton, Sec., Epsom GrandStand Association.  This badge is issued on condition that it is worn so as to be distinctly seen by the officials.  No money returned for lost or mislaid badges.” 

As well as some of the practical and logistical details to do with race attendance, the badge also acts as a departure point for the ‘unpacking’ of the role of material culture and dress at horseraces.  The foundations of much of the discipline of fashion theory are based around the idea of dress as a visual emblem or marker of identity.  This badge is a marker of identity in its most literal, and also sociological, sense.  Worn prominently (to be visible to the course stewards and personnel) on, say, a lapel, the badge becomes part of the recognised attire for a day at the races, and a symbol of the status and access that one either has bestowed or bought (for £2-and-something).  Entry to the exclusive space of the grandstand was allowed and demarcated via a small, cardboard, marker.  Clothing, the definition of which extends to accessories (as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog), was a key signifier of social and sporting belonging at the races.  Sociologist, Erving Goffman would, then, suggest that these badges served as symbolic ‘tie-signs’ beyond the practical ‘you’ve paid your money’ purpose.  Additionally, it’s apparent that this particular badge was invested with a mystical-type of meaning outside of its actual purpose.  After the event at which it was distributed it had a further ‘life’ as a keepsake and trinket, holding immaterial memories of a European vacation (perhaps?), re-valued by its owner as having a ‘worth’ beyond its cheap material construction: a disposable artefact that was worth keeping.

Rather than all of this posturing, I should take the ‘hint’ supplied by my latest piece of cast-off treasure: that is, stop procrastinating and put pen to paper on my next writing project, an article on racing fashion for the Sport In History special edition on ‘kit’.  But before so doing, I need to do the service here of supplying  the winners and riders of the 1936 Derby.  With 22 runners, the winner was the Aga Khan’s 100-8 outsider, a grey, named ‘Mahmoud’, that romped home with a three-length victory.  For further delight and delectation, two evocative film snippets of Derby Day, 1936 can be viewed on the fabulous British Pathe archive website (5min film clip) and the British Paramount Newsreel site (3min film clip).  And they’re off!

The Eye Of The Needle

chrysler

Liz Hawes, 2nd from right, endorses Chrysler cars in this 1936 ad from ‘The Saturday Evening Post’. Her cultural capital, identified as ‘smartness’ here, enabled her to reach beyond the world of fashion to add value(s) to other consumer products.

By the 1920s and 1930s there were thousands of fashion businesses in New York, many of them run by women.  I’ve been spending my time in the library (in addition to making my, now usual, pilgrimages to Brooklyn Museum) and have been reading lots and lots including the excellent, New York Fashion (1989: 100) by Caroline Milbank.  In it, Milbank notes that “America’s first real crop of designers was predominantly female”.  During the Thirties, what were traditionally referred to as the ‘needle trades’ were undergoing a repositioning in the American public consciousness so that dressmaking was no longer looked down upon as a humble craft but had become a popular, and acceptable, choice of career for young, ambitious, modern, middle-class women.  Fashion design at the highest level allowed a clutch of talented American women – such as Muriel King, Nettie Rosenstein, Hattie Carnegie and Clare McCardell – to create and make clothing but also to be successful as business leaders, heading up their design houses and running commercial fashion  enterprises (albeit often in association with a male partner or husband).

Elizabeth Hawes sat centrally amidst this collection of contemporary fashion owner-operators.  At least, she did – and she didn’t.  As I’ve come to understand, Hawes was something of an enigma who tended to defy neat theorising.  Valerie Steele (2000: 188) alludes to this, writing, “Elizabeth Hawes was a more unusual candidate for fashion design”, and whereas her peer, Muriel King, was being described by Vogue (1933) as “a sort of tawny goddess” and embodying the very essence of the sporty, long-legged American female for which she designed, Elizabeth Hawes attracted descriptors such as ‘practical’, ‘feline’, ‘tiny’, ‘energetic’, and also ‘cantankerous’.  This point is borne out in a magazine article from Look of July 4th, 1939.  A four-page spread is titled ‘Hattie Carnegie Vs Elizabeth Hawes’ and continues ‘Hattie Carnegie, She Emphasizes Femininity.  Elizabeth Hawes…She Emphasizes Comfort’.  Whatever the media perception, Liz was, nonetheless, among a cohort of designers who emerged as celebrities at this time (a term that I have wrestled with, and avoided, using but that I think ultimately best describes her status by the late 1930s).  By way of evidencing this celebrity (there’s that term again), I refer to the several examples of product endorsement (or association) that the archives have thrown up in recent days, apricot brandy included.  Wrigley’s gum, Chrysler cars, Lucky Strike and also Camel (to which my obtusely-titled blog entry alludes) cigarettes. Drinking, chewing, speeding, smoking. Together, this selection of products provides an intriguing, nuanced, unorthodox ‘take’ on femininity, the gendering of consumer products and the discourses spun around them by marketers and advertising.  These endorsements suggest that Hawes brought a certain frisson to her celebrity.  But, by now, we all could have guessed as much.

Flouncing Around

1928

Parisite reported that designer, Louiseboulanger, favoured the colour blue for evening wear in 1928. This Louiseboulanger dress from the same year suggests that champagne hues and ostrich feathers were also ravishingly smart choices. Evening dress, 1928, Louiseboulanger (French, 1878-1950). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs Wolcott Blair, 1973 (1973.6a, b)

I offer here more morsels from the Parisite (aka Elizabeth Hawes) cables mentioned in my previous post of 27th November 2013.  These cables lend themselves perfectly to the blogging genre: short, pithy, colourful, amusing.  And as standalone pieces in themselves, they make for entertaining snippets requiring little additional input from me.

However, before reading on, it may be worth my while mentioning here that, although short in length, these cables are extremely useful to the dress historian and serve a studious purpose beyond mere entertaining vignettes.  The detailing of the specifics of Parisian fashion, which can be pinpointed to a particular day or week in history, allow for the tracking of passing and/or enduring tastes.  Parisite gives us insight on favoured colours, cuts and fabrics.  What I find particularly fascinating is that these cables also give the dress historian details and descriptions of the individual styling of garments, with advice – prescription, even – on how something should be worn in order to be considered truly ‘smart’.  In her cable dated 26th September (1927), for example, Parisite reports that “PARISIAN HATS ARE WORN OVER THE FOREHEAD AND WITHOUT FLOWERS”.  The published response to this news from Parisite’s New York-based editor (writing under the pseudonym ‘L.L.’) is as instructive.  This is “something of a sock in the jaw to a girl” writes L.L. “who climbed blithely on the bandwagon of those who sponsored the off-one-eye-and-one-ear hats when they first appeared and who now realize that most women look unpleasantly flapperish in them.”  Ah, the fickle follies of fashion!

The careful detailing of subtle changes in fashion styling (such as we see evidenced in the extracts above and below) may be used to open up a bigger discussion about the very discipline of dress history and its relative position in the academic hierarchy.  In their focus on the study of the descriptive minutiae of clothing, dress historians have, on occasion, been criticised from other factions of the academic Establishment.  (In)famously, in the early 1990s, Ben Fine and Ellen Leopold (socio-economic historians) suggested that dress history took the form of a “wholly descriptive catalogue” tradition, “which typically chart[ed] in minute detail every flounce, pleat, button or bow”.  As I go about my work with the Parisite cables, then, I remain mindful of the need to strike a balance between ‘the catalogue’ and ‘the critical’ (for want of a better way of putting it).  As well as offering valuable and valid descriptions of the fashions of the day, Parisite’s cables also hint at, and are constitutive of, the ‘workings’ of the contemporary business of fashion, too.  They supply insight on the power relativities that governed that business, the mechanisms used to communicate fashion information within it, the ‘players’ of influence (the ‘cultural intermediaries’), the nature of fashion reporting (which was descriptive rather than visual due to limitations of print technology) and the links between fashion journalism, design, retailing and consumption.  These critical concerns are hidden ‘between the lines’ of these brief little cables, and the dress historian is well positioned to extrapolate them accordingly.  There may well be more to this dress history lark than meets the eye.  Read on.

Paris, May 6 

SMARTEST WOMEN WEARING VEILS OVER EYES BUT GREAT KNEE DISPAY HAS LED TO LAUNCHING BY PREMET OF JEWELRY SETS TO INCLUDE REAL DIAMOND GARTERS STOP MIDSEASON COLLECTIONS REITERATE CHIC OF GRAY COMMA BLACK AND WHITE STOP PAY NO ATTENTION TO FACT THAT DEAUVILLE LADIES ARE TAKING UP RED IN A SERIOUS WAY  – PARISITE

Paris, April 15

GUIDE YOUR FASHION LIFE SOLEMNLY ACCORDING TO FOLLOWING RED-HOT INFORMATION GLEANED FROM LEADING COUTURIERS.  LOUISEBOULANGER SAYS DEEP BLUE IS ONLY EVENING COLOR.  PATOU SWEARS BY OFF-WHITES WHILE PAQUIN SELLS SOFT GREEN AND ROSES.  ONLY SMART EVENING MATERIALS ARE CHIFFON, TAFFETA, MOIRE, SATIN, MARQUISETTE, AND SO FORTH.  BEIGE REMAINS NEW SPORTS COLOR WHILE THOUSANDS CHEER.  NAVY AND BLACK STRUGGLE FOR STREET SUPREMACY FOR A CHANGE. YELLOW GREENS WERE FAVORED ON THE RIVIERA.  WEAR PRINTS AT ALL HOURS AND BE SMARTLY DIFFERENT  – PARISITE

And finally, before signing off, I must remember to doff my cap to academic convention by ensuring my citations are in order.  The first extract (above) is from The New Yorker, 14th May 1927, p. 66, the second from 21st April, 1928, p. 68.