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.

 

 

Twists and Turns

Side-saddlers are oh, so smart! Scrupulously correct position in the seat, with and without skirt, as illustrated in Doreen Houblon's instruction manual of 1938, titled 'Side-Saddle'.

Side-saddlers are oh, so smart! Scrupulously correct position in the seat, with and without skirt, as illustrated in Doreen Houblon’s instruction manual of 1938, titled ‘Side-Saddle’ (Country Life and Scribner’s)

To every thing there is a season – turn, turn, turn! Academic life has a certain rhythm.  Annually goes the round of semesters, assessment boards, exam results and graduation ceremonies.  This circularity was brought home to me when my latest publication dropped on the doormat (well, when it dropped on the MMU receptionist’s desk in actual fact), just last week.

What’s the publication?  It’s a chapter, on side-saddle dress, titled ‘Riding Dress History with A Twist:  The Side-Saddle Habit and the Horse in the Early Twentieth Century’ and it appears in a book, Domesticated Animals and Leisure, edited by my much-respected colleague, Neil Carr, from the University of Otago, Dunedin and published by Palgrave Macmillan.

But where’s the circularity?  I first presented a draft version of the chapter way back last February (2015) at the annual Sport and Leisure History symposium, held at MMU Cheshire.  Then, the piece was still in its gestation period and the symposium, master-minded by Dr Dave Day (another valued colleague and sport historian par excellence), proved a useful opportunity to test out some of my ideas and, perhaps even more importantly, to kick start me and my thinking and writing into action.  Twelve months on, as I now begin to draft out an entirely new and different paper (on dude ranching and vacation dress), for delivery at the 2016 Sport and Leisure History symposium, the marking of a passing year is never more timely.

So, without stepping on my publisher’s toes, here’s a brief snippet from my ‘Riding Dress History With A Twist’ chapter.  My premise is that the horse is too often overlooked in scholarly analyses of riding dress and that dress historians forget to consider that side-saddle skirts and ‘habit dress’ were intended to be worn in the pursuit of beastly activity on the back of a horse – and that this duly impacted and influenced the style and design.

Goodrum, in Carr (2015: 193-4):

…no matter what the style of the habit skirt, it is undeniable that it remained a garment of significant material yardage, comprising a sizeable quantity of darkly hued, hard wearing melton, whipcord or broadcloth textile.  If these skirts were unweildy for the female rider, then they too interfered with, or were at least troublesome to, the horse.  Horses were trained specially to carry side saddles, and as part of this process of breaking in, they also had to be trained to become accustomed to the vast expanse of fabric that was the side saddle skirt.  With the potential to flap about in the wind, to fly up over a jump and to flop around on mounting, the skirt was a source of unease and anxiety for an inexperienced horse.  As Houblon (1938: 3) warned “when a horse encounters ‘drapery’ for the first time he may quite possibly think it strange.” Hayes (1903 [1893]: 440), too, offered counsel on those horses that she described as being ‘habit shy’.  “I use this term”, she wrote, “to designate the trick that some horses, chiefly those which are unaccustomed to the side-saddle, have of sidling away from the skirt.”  Both experts – Houblon and Hayes alike – recommended that a groom be engaged to assist in the steady initiation of the horse to mocked-up approximations of the skirt’s fullness.  For example, a rug worn by a groom at exercise or a long mackintosh were suggested as proxy devices to be used in the training of a habit-shy equine.

 

Gore Blimey!

Speaking a thousand words... Title slide from International Conference of Historical Geographers at the Royal Geographical Society, Kensington Gore, July 2015

Speaking a thousand words… Title slide from presentation to the International Conference of Historical Geographers at the Royal Geographical Society, Kensington Gore, July 2015

Last month, and getting in touch with my geographical roots, I returned to the ‘mother ship’ that is the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) at Kensington Gore in London.  The occasion was the International Conference of Historical Geographers (ICHG), an enormous 5 day-long gathering with a 40 year pedigree.  The logistics involved in organising a conference on the scale of the ICHG are almost unfathomable.  Near on 700 delegates, 60% of whom travelled to Kensington Gore from overseas, were in attendance.  The conference booklet (which detailed the abstracts of all the presentations) was the size of a telephone directory.  Following in the footsteps of Darwin and Livingstone, it seems that present day geographers who frequent the RGS remain up for a challenge.  I refer here to the sticks of Brighton Rock supplied in our complimentary conference goodie bags, which were not for ingestion by the faint hearted (or, for that matter, by the weak toothed).

I delivered my paper, on ‘Dressing For The Dude Ranch In 1930s America’, as part of the programme comprising the ‘Materiality and Historical Geography’ session.  The session presented me with a well-timed opportunity to test out some of the themes and ideas I had encountered during my Buckskin and Ballgowns project at the Autry museum archives in LA only a month or so prior.  I found room in my allocated 15 minute presentation slot to include some of my blogged-about findings on denim and divorce ranches.  I also forwarded my thesis: that the dude ranch vacation of the 1930s was not only about holiday makers dressing up as their wild west idols but that it was also a space in which a novel cult of dressing down was emergent.  Being short on time, I made full use of the opportunity to illustrate my paper with supporting images, and showed off the rich – and sometimes just plain amusing – visual sources I’d been working with out in Los Angeles.  A picture, after all, is able to speak a thousand words.  And there is no greater truth when it comes to the ‘hit and run’ scheduling of an academic conference.

Many years ago, as a doctoral student, my PhD supervisor assured me that only good things could come of delivering a conference paper.  Today, I remain convinced that conferences are worth the effort, or efforts (including those labours that involve searching for the funds to support travel and attendance; actually having something relevant to say; and, mustering the courage to set oneself up in front of peers).  One of the ‘good things’ relates less to one’s own work and more to others’.  I was thrilled and delighted to share a stage with some other academics working in my broad area (for example, Merle Patchett on the study of incomplete or half-made historical objects, and Bethan Bide on repaired clothing held by the Museum of London).  But I was equally thrilled and delighted to engage with subjects outside of my area, too (the BBC 2LO transmitter and the InterCity125 train among them).

Also ‘good’ was the Society’s close proximity to Exhibition Road and, especially, to the Victoria and Albert Museum.  After my conference session, I hot-footed it (stick of rock and all) to the V&A’s Savage Beauty/McQueen ‘blockbuster’ show, which lived up to all of its rave reviews.  Even in its final few days, the exhibition was jam-packed (and possibly even over-stuffed) with visitors taking in the awesome theatrics of it all.  Viewing McQueen’s work tout ensemble was a reminder of just how influential his designs were (and remain), not only conceptually, but also on the more commercial world of the everyday wardrobe, impacting everything from hipsters to peplums.  I also managed to squeeze in a late-entry ticket to the new ‘Shoes: Pleasure and Pain’ exhibition, which is bound to be as equally enticing a draw card.  But just one thing: explain to me, V&A, why no inclusion of podiatry or orthopaedics?

Good things, so the saying goes, are threefold. Thirdly and finally, then, I returned home from my adventures in London to find a copy of my latest publication on the doormat.  Good things, in this particular case, come in brown cardboard packaging from Routledge.  [Click here for book details – noting chapter 3 in particular].

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.