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.

 

 

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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.