Fashion and Feminism: The Brand of the Suffragette

With the centenary of the Representation of the People Act being celebrated this year, images of the Suffragettes have been very much in the public consciousness. The banners, colour palette and clothing in these images are so recognisable to the modern eye that it can be easy to forget how consciously and painstakingly this identity was created; so much so, some historians have argued, that it amounts to a kind of early publicity campaign centred on the ‘brand’ of the Suffragette. The WSPU utilised colour, merchandise and clothing to publicise the ‘Votes for Women’ cause, counter-balance negative publicity and fit their cause into the rhetoric of the age.

The tricolour of the WSPU featured across all aspects of campaigning and became a powerful visual signifier of the suffrage movement, bringing cohesion to the campaign. White, green and purple – representing Purity, Hope and Dignity – highlighted the values of the Suffragette woman but also resonated with the wider social rhetoric of femininity as pure and virtuous. The extensive dissemination of merchandise was particularly innovative, creating a recognisable ‘brand’ and spreading understanding of the suffrage cause. Ties, badges, banners, sashes and waistbands were all available in the Suffragette colours, allowing members to take their political cause with them into their everyday lives, showing their solidarity and raising awareness.

Clothing was also central to the image of the women’s suffrage movement, and was employed by the WSPU to construct an image of the Suffragette which would encourage women to join the cause.  Edwardian cultural norms dictated that women should exist largely in the private sphere, as the ‘Angel in the House’.  Women who entered into the public sphere of political campaigning were widely ridiculed, with derogatory cartoons – depicting such women as masculine, ugly and unfit mothers – springing up across the media. In order to counteract this, the WSPU actively encouraged its members to follow the latest fashions. This allowed the WSPU to construct its own image in the public consciousness, an image which was, in the words of Shelia Stowell, ‘at once both feminine and militant’.

As the government continued to ignore the issue of women’s suffrage, and militant tactics became more widespread, maintaining this feminine image became even more essential. The press released images of Suffragette run-ins with the police, and the police took a number of under-cover surveillance photos of activists. These images directly opposed the gender stereotypes of the age, showing such women as bold, loud and even dangerous. In response the WSPU organised mass demonstrations, and clothing played a key role.  A ‘uniform’ of white dresses combined with WSPU sashes created an almost military presence to catch the government’s attention, while flowers, bright colours and fashionable hats reinforced the idea that a woman could be both pro-suffrage and feminine.

The WSPU realised that clothing and accessories could be utilised to support their political campaign, creating a powerful and easily recognisable ‘brand’ around the ‘Votes for Women’ movement that still resonates with us today.

References

Blackman, C., ‘How Suffragettes used fashion to further their cause’. The Guardian [online], 8 Oct 2015. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2015/oct/08/suffragette-style-movement-embraced-fashion-branding [Accessed 18 September 2018].

Boase, T., 2017. Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change. London: Aurum Press.

Kaplan, J. and Stowell, S., 1994. Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Exhibition: ‘Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote’, Killerton House, Devon

Exhibition: ‘Votes for Women?’, Killerton House, Devon

 

Dissertation Discussion: Jamie

Aubrey Beardsley, cover for The Yellow Book, Volume III, 1894. British Library. Photo by Jamie Vaught.

What is your title?

Decadence, Defiance, Death: The Last Years of Aesthetic Dress

What prompted you to choose this topic?

While studying dress reform as an undergraduate, I became enamored with Aesthetic dress, an alternative style of clothing adopted by followers of British Aestheticism primarily during the late-1870s and early-1880s. Female Aesthetes channeled medieval, Greek, and pastoral styles in muted-color dresses outfitted with puffed sleeves, straight, trained skirts, and unconstricted waists. As I researched, I was surprised to discover that very little scholarly work had been done on Aesthetic dress in the 1890s. This dissertation allowed me to explore that last decade of this style and the impact Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial had on its reception. More specifically, I examined how three groups interpreted Aesthetic dress through extremely different ideals of womanhood, as elucidated in their respective writing and illustrations: Decadents (The Yellow Book, The Savoy, and the works of Wilde), artistic reformers (Aglaia and The Queen), and department stores (The Queen and Liberty catalogues).

Liberty gowns drew heavily from historical dress. In this ad, the cut of the coat resembles the Empire period, while the tea gown is very medieval. Detail from a Liberty & Co. ad in The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper, 3 June 1899, Vol 106. Courtesy of the British Library.

Most interesting research find so far?

I have found some absolutely odd gems during my exploration of Queen, including an embroidery pattern of a duck wearing a robe à la polonaise, yearly coverage of the Crystal Palace cat show, and a story on the flammability of dresses in the home. My all-time favorite line of text was from the 22 May 1897 installment of ‘Vista of Fashion’ in which author Mrs. Aria begins the article, ‘“GIVE ME FROCKS,” I cried, as I rushed up the stairs.’ I aspire to enter every clothing store this way from now until my last day.

Of all my research, Max Beerbohm’s satirical essay ‘1880,’ published in the fourth issue of the The Yellow Book (1895), left the greatest impression on me. Its tone when discussing the Aesthetic Craze is simultaneously mocking and maudlin; Beerbohm’s observations are truths with a bite to them. This sentimentality affected me considerably. After working on Aesthetic dress for two years, I have grown very attached to that elite coterie’s eccentric cast of characters and do sometimes wish I could experience what it was like to live among them. One passage in the essay stuck out to me the most:

‘All Fashion came to marvel and so did all the Aesthetes…Fairer than the mummers, it may be, were the ladies who sat and watched them from the lawn. All of them wore jerseys and tied-back skirts. Zulu hats shaded their eyes from the sun. Bangles shimmered upon their wrists. And the gentlemen wore light frock-coats and light top-hats with black bands. And the aesthetes were in velveteen, carrying lilies.’

I will admit to shedding a tear in the middle of a British Library Reading Room when I read that final sentence.

These four figures are examples of Greek-inspired dress designs in Aglaia, the journal of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union. Straight, flowing skirts epitomize the loose styles advocated by artistic reformers, and the sleeves are a less exaggerated version of the gigot sleeve fashionable in the mid-1890s. ‘The Empire Dress’ from Aglaia No. 1, July 1893, page 35. Courtesy of Senate House Library.

Favorite place to work?

I only really work in three places: the Book Library, the British Library (most often in the Newsroom), and a café near the Courtauld. I am most productive in the last, since jazz standards and the customers’ soft conversations give me writing tunnel vision. And the baristas are great­–they start preparing my usual breakfast, black tea and a blueberry muffin, as soon as I walk through the door!

My cafe workspace, complete with laptop, notebook, draft, and tea.

Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, Elegance: A complete guide for every woman who wants to be well and properly dressed on all occasions (1964)

contents page
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Summary 

Elegance: A complete guide for every woman who wants to be well and properly dressed on all occasions, written by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, directrice at Parisian fashion house Nina Ricci, in 1964.  Dariaux, used her status as an authority within the haute couture scene, to construct a series of laws of personal adornment. The book serves as a comprehensive A-Z style encyclopedia that covers a multitude of dress-related choices that the modern woman might be met with in her day-to-day life. Ranging from accessories, to zippers, to shopping in the Orient, the topics are linked by the author’s prescriptive guidance on the correct way to achieve both sartorial and behavioral elegance. Dariaux does not evaluate the relevance of dress in relation to fashion, but rather how best to construct a single outfit to negotiate the changing demands of the day.

Though informed by her relationships with high society women, Dariaux’s definition of elegance supersedes socio-economic boundaries. It is unlike beauty, or ‘chic’, in that it can only be learnt and is never a given. Whilst fashion is an undeniable component of elegance, Dariaux maintains that strategic combinations of separates and colours will allow the individual’s appearance to outlive passing trends. It is therefore available to any woman willing to abide by the author’s insightful rules, regardless of whether she shops at Macy’s or Balenciaga. Minimal excess and the ability to construct an elegant appearance regardless of means, equates the book with popular women’s magazines of the time, such as Ladies Home Journal and McCalls.

Response 

Genevieve Dariaux’s dictatorial voice is softened by her witticisms and humorous analogies that democratize women’s experience with dress. From wearing an item to death, because it was exceedingly expensive, to wanting to incorporate every new purchase into a single outfit, women both past and present are united by their sartorial fallibility. Dariaux’s rules of elegance are still applicable, as they arose in order to manage common behaviours that persist today.

Many references to popular designers and shopping destinations are anachronistic remnants of the 1960s, making the book a valuable record of consumerism.  However, the refreshing outlook on subjects such as age, weight and comfort, can be used as examples to show how the modernity that is inherent to elegance foreshadows developments in fashionable aesthetics. The book is therefore relevant to the spheres of consumerism and design.

 Dariaux proposes that elegance and fashion have become distinct frameworks due to the loss of creative ingenuity that stems from mass-market copies. With gems such as, “one cannot afford to buy cheap”, the reader can infer that there is a particular bias towards the high fashion industry, undoubtedly a result of the author’s occupation. In her eyes, elegance is a means to rectify the discord created by the vast availability of lower quality examples. Dariaux’s laws that dictate selectiveness and restraint also suggest that her agenda is to promote the rejection of cheap ready-to-wear. She asserts that even if the consumer cannot afford high fashion, investment in quality separates allows her to align herself with couture values.

War, Women and Lipstick

WarWomenLipstick

‘War, Women and Lipstick’, House of Tangee Advertisement, Vogue, July 15, 1943, page 75.

In recent months, countless hours perusing the US Vogue database has enabled, or rather become an outlet for, my intense cosmetics and advertisement addiction.

There is much pleasure to be had in tracing the origins of what we now consider to be heritage brands, and the pivotal campaigns that have shaped their iconic status. In many cases, Second World War years were fundamental, as the backdrop of turmoil and increased social changes inevitably became a barometer of cosmetic houses’ ability to adapt and remain relevant. At the same time however, the progression from the 1930s into the 1940s stood to magnify the deeply complex relationship shared between the cosmetics industry and women.

In a recent Man Repeller article, the modern use of cosmetics was categorized as either ‘shield’, or ‘weapon’. This echoes a study undertaken in 2008 by LVMH researchers that attributed two inherent abilities to cosmetics: the ability to ‘camouflage’, and the ability to ‘seduce’. Hardly a revelation, yet the recognition that camouflage relies on an internal desire, while seduction relies on the external surface, was as pertinent if applied to examples from the 1930s and 1940s, as it is to today’s cosmetics.

As we saw in Nicole’s January post, ‘Cosmetics: freedom in a tube’, the 1930s was synonymous with possibility and opportunity. Not only for the liberation of the female body in terms of activity, but for the promotion of a new visual discourse that encouraged exploration of surface identity through the use cosmetics. In this respect, the cosmetics industry was pivotal in mobilizing both the wearer and spectator, as makeup became a recognizable symbol of free will and autonomy- a ‘shield’ with which to navigate, or identify modern femininity. What is clear moving into the 1940s is the apparent reversal of feminine ideals, repositioning women both as wearer and consumer, and cosmetics as ‘weapon’. Though this is surely to be expected during such upheaval, the wearer becomes a vessel though which the aims of the nation can be expressed, and thus loses her individual identity under the guise of ‘femininity’.

It was a common strategy for all cosmetics houses, not limited to industry behemoths such as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, to focus on the collective identity of women rather than their individuality. In doing so, they expressed what David Clampin has stated as the desire of the industry to participate in wartime society. The above advert from the House of Tangee, for example, encourages women to wear lipstick as a show of ‘strength’ for adapting so courageously to their new roles in masculine spheres. Superficially, the imagery employed by the advert suggests support for the freedom of female expression solidified in the ‘30s. However, such a ‘shield’ is re-positioned by the cosmetic house as a ‘weapon’, as femininity itself becomes an extension of the nation’s ambition to assert supremacy over Germany – a country that discouraged such displays of femininity. Makeup therefore becomes emblematic of carrying out a task, even if it is not a product of the wearer’s free will. The spectator recognizes cosmetics as national ambition, over the ambition of the wearer. In this light, solidarity is achieved, but external forces manipulate ‘self-expression’.

It is arguable, when following the trajectory of advertisements after the war that the use of makeup never quite returns to being the show of independence that it was in the ‘30s. There is always a task to be completed, often requiring seduction of some sort. Next time you are browsing the pages of a magazine, question whether the advert is positioning makeup as a shield, or as a weapon. I think you will be surprised.

Sources:

David Clampin, Advertising and Propaganda in World War II: Cultural Identity and the Blitz Spirit (New York: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2014)

R. Korichi, D. Pelle-de-Queral, G. Gazano, A. Aubert, Why women use makeup: implication of psychological traits in makeup functions, J Cosmet Sci, 2008 Mar-April, 59 (2)

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18408870

MA Study Trip to New York City: The Dress Archive at the Museum of the City of New York

The Dress Archive in MCNY; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Dress Archive in MCNY; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jumpsuit; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jumpsuit; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Museum of the City of New York archive is an absolute treasure-trove of old clothes. Unlike the majority of other archives we have visited as a group, both in New York and London, the clothes are not wrapped in tissue or stored in boxes, but rather are hung, as if in a shop, on rails. The whole experience of being inside the archive is, thus, one of visceral, fashion-loving pleasure. All of us had to constantly fight the urge to reach out and touch everything.

We were taken through the archive by Phyllis Magidson, curator of costumes and textiles at the museum. She showed us dresses ranging in date from the early 1920s to the 1960s. The glittering 1920s party dresses and gowns for costume balls and the brightly coloured, heavily tasseled ‘60s dresses were amazing, but what was most memorable, and indeed most pertinent to recent discussions on our course, were the late 1930s and early ‘40s WWII uniforms.

Vera Maxwell Summer jumpsuit for Sperry Gyroworks factory; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell Summer jumpsuit for Sperry Gyroworks factory; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

The Museum has a large collection of Vera Maxwell garments, including jumpsuits designed for women workers in the factories in 1942. Before creating the jumpsuit, which is both fire retardant and oil repellent, Maxwell conducted a survey of women to find out what they most wanted from their uniforms. Besides the obvious, highly functional elements, these women also requested a neckline that would prevent men from putting ice down their backs – indeed the jumpsuit is perfectly ice-proof too! However, Maxwell was keenly aware of the aesthetic elements too. Very careful attention to detail is paid in the design, such as the shape of the pockets and top stitched pleats in the front, which ensured that the fit was as flattering as possible. It is not only highly functional and utilitarian, but also a carefully made, designer garment, and Maxwell received a government award as a result.

The collection includes both her winter and summer jumpsuits. War restrictions limited the types of fabric available to designers and manufacturers, and extraneous decoration was largely prohibited, so Maxwell used elements such as pleats and darts to make her jumpsuits attractive. The summer jumpsuit is short sleeved and made of a lighter material, with red piping down the side. Again, Maxwell has used a series of pleats down the front of the garment to give it aesthetic appeal and make it flattering on the body.

Vera Maxwell jacket decorated with ribbons imported from Peru; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Vera Maxwell jacket decorated with ribbons imported from Peru; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Detail of the Peruvian decoration on the jacket; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Detail of the Peruvian decoration on the jacket; photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

In her other designs, she found imaginative ways to decorate. She traveled to South America, particularly Peru, and imported ornamental ribbons and braids that she used to adorn her garments. She worked hard to ensure that her clothes did not feel as though they were lacking anything. She wanted the wearers to not feel at all deprived, an aim that resonated with the fashion media of the time. Despite the shortages caused by war, the message perpetuated by magazines and films was that there was no deprivation. People used garments such as aprons to spruce up their outfits, and became imaginative, using natural objects like seashells in their jewellery. The prospect of wearing a uniform had an appeal in itself, and magazines ran articles about how to look good in military clothing. Many women who volunteered for service chose which in area to do so based on the attractiveness of the uniform. Vera Maxwell understood this basic, universal desire to look good, and channeled it in the design of her jumpsuits.  The aesthetic qualities she incorporated, as well as the highly functional elements, both contributed to her success as a wartime designer.

Sources:

Pat Kirkham, ‘Keeping Up Home Front Morale: “Beauty and Duty” in Wartime Britain,’ in   Atkins, Jacqueline M. ed., Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931-45 (New Haven and London: BGC/Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 205-228

Observations from Several Sides of the Lens: on Women, Fabric and Space in Maria Kapajeva’s Photographs

Maria Kapajeva, from the 'Interiors' series

Maria Kapajeva, from the ‘Interiors’ series

Women and space are frequent points of inquiry for London-based artist Maria Kapajeva. In her series entitled Interiors from 2012, she manipulates amateur photographs of Russian women in sexualised poses, and replaces their skin and bodily features with the bold pattern of surrounding wallpaper. Viewers’ sense of haptic visuality is roused by the tactility of the pictured textiles of home furnishings and clothing, including crushed velvets and synthetic satins. Pattern and texture intertwine so that space engulfs and integrates women subjects, while bodily absence paradoxically serves to remove their subjectivities from the image.

'Interiors' series

‘Interiors’ series

When I met Maria on 23rd May 2014 to discuss her work, she admitted that she chose the photographs for their post-Soviet interiors—easily recognisable through the wallpaper and bed covers’ prominent patterns—that she knew in her native Estonia. Yet the dated styles of the photographs’ interior decoration belie their more recent time of photography. This stylistic retrogression mirrors that in women’s lives. Wallpaper in lieu of skin serves to show the extent to which women in certain Eastern Bloc countries must still conform to a “domestic ideal.” Even as they attempt to stand out and become visible through poses in states of undress, they fail to escape the domination of their environment. In these absurd, integral images, objectified women are equated with domestic settings.

'Interiors' series

‘Interiors’ series

Maria explores women’s roles and the notion of integrality in different ways in her ongoing series A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, in which she photographs women in their work environments. She explains that “[m]ost of these women have moved to a new country, as I have, not to get married, but to realize their own potential in whatever they do: write, draw, paint, photograph or invent. Working in collaboration with them, I try to find the ways to photograph each of them as a unique and strong personality in her own working environment.” The subject of one photograph, Elena, is thus defined as an artist by her studio space yet she stands out as an individual against its blurred details. Maria draws on such details—stacks of papers, folds of clothing, bric-a-brac—to shape the composition of these images. These minutiae also inform and complicate the construction of the sitter’s identity, but do not dominate as in Interiors.

Helena, from the 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman'

Elena, from the ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’ series

Eugenia, from the 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman' series

Eugenia, from the ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’ series

Maria prefers that the sitters dress as they would normally in their ‘natural’ environments, and clothing varies as widely as their diverse personalities. As opposed to the original viewers or photographers of the Interiors series, she withdraws herself from the equation. The image is untouched and raw, in the sense that she does not use supplemental lighting, filtering or cropping techniques. And the subject is meant to dress for no one but herself. Eugenia, for example, who wears a garment of her own design, stands in the open space of a London rooftop. As the wind blows her voluminous collar it comes into contact with her face. Her body is the site of narrative and identity, informed by the interaction between dress and exterior.

During our conversation I sensed that Maria, who believes that too much importance is placed on specific dress codes, did not want to broach the subject of clothing. She likes that, as a photography lecturer at the University for the Creative Arts (Farnham), she can dress as she wishes. But this freedom poses its own problems.

My experience as Maria’s most recent sitter for the Portrait of the Artist series in October replicated my own research into the use of dress and its representation in the construction of identity, and the relationship between dress, ideas of appropriateness and how this relates to specific space.

Alexis, from the 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman' series

Alexis, from the ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’ series

Like Maria’s raw photos, clothes on the body leave bare a host of personal paradoxes, details and foibles. My relationship with the black linen shirt I wore during my portrait, paired with black trousers, is complex. As is my connection to the space in which I was photographed—my bedroom—where personal and professional lines are blurred. The shirt’s long, well-worn life is evidenced by its loose weave in some places. Yet its history is concealed by its simplicity. Knowing that I loved to write about its designer, a dear friend found it for me at a Paris flea market. It is thus a piece of evidence and resource, and a link to people and places, yet its early life is a mystery. These elements, contained within the coarse fabric, are my secret, and constant reminders at each touch against my skin. As captured in Maria’s image of me, my clothing and surroundings combine to inform my ideas of self. Her photograph exposes these connections and foregrounds the emotional links we have to our dress, and the ways we use them to negotiate our presence.

Source:

Kapajeva, M. ‘About A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman’, http://www.mariakapajeva.com/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-woman/

 

Midcentury Modelling Techniques

Matthew Dessner, 'So You Want To Be A Model' (1942) 7b. Scenes of model training

Matthew Dessner, ‘So You Want To Be A Model’ (1942) 7b. Scenes of model training

The model agent Matthew Dessner wrote that modelling had ‘something of the spirit of the dance’ because models could express ‘their personalities in its graceful accentuated steps, its swirling turns and pivots, its musical timing.’ Dessner here attempted to imbue the relatively new and commercial profession of clothes modelling with the artistry of a more historic discipline, the dance. Indeed, an accompanying photograph to Dessner’s 1943 manual, titled So You Want to be a Model?: The Art of Feminine Living shows a procession of girls walking ‘rhythmically and femininely’ in satin slips as they balance books on top of their pin-curled heads and are surveyed by the eagle-eyed gaze of Barbizon School of Modelling’s Director, Rosilyn Williams. In the vignette above, trainee models in mid-thigh-length skirts were further required to demonstrate a dancer’s sense of rhythm and spatial awareness, when they practiced walking and turning to foxtrot music. With the exception of sportswear, where skating and tennis skirts were cut above the knee, American mid 1940s skirts worn for more formal occasions were uniformly below knee-level.  The shorter skirts worn by modelling students evoked the brief garments worn in both ballet and contemporary dance studios, and enabled model instructors to view and correct their pupils’ natural bodies.

The trainee model was also expected to condition her figure through diet, exercise and in some cases, a little bust padding, until it approximated the preferred standard size 12  (34 inch bust and hips; 24 inch waist). Ideally, she should measure between 5’4 and 5’7 inches tall, however, smaller girls were selected to model Junior (teenage) clothes, while the more statuesque specialised in coats and eveningwear.  This sense of varied body types within a specification of uniformity was also common in classical ballet, where dancers were generally expected to have petite, toned figures, but were cast in line with their physicality. For example, smaller dancers often played ingénues, while taller dancers who towered over their male partners created femme fatale roles.

After she improved her figure, posture and walk, a trainee model had to develop a repertoire of professionalised gestures, which included subtly showcasing the ‘smart lines of a frock’, or causing ‘all eyes to focus on you when you make an entrance into a room.’ Olga Malcova, another model agent, professed that over time, a model’s quotidian movements would ‘naturally’ merge with the ‘gestures and mannerisms which are part of the profession…’and called ‘business’ by the industry insiders. Interestingly, while Malcova advised that the ‘business’ should be acquired ‘naturally’, rather than being copied from another model, Dessner stipulated that aspiring models should copy the poses they saw in magazines before a full-length mirror and ‘originate others they never thought about’. Striving for a balance between imitation and improvisation was common to dancers and models alike, as a young woman’s success in either discipline depended upon her ability to execute the required gestures seamlessly and differentiate herself from her peers.

However, unlike contemporary dancers, who wrote about their experiences in memoirs and left personal archives, models’ voices have been obscured over time. This discrepancy between the model and dancer’s trace suggests that although modelling techniques had much in common with dance, the former profession was associated with contemporary commerce above the posterity of art.

Sources

Matthew Dessner, So You Want to be a Model?: The Art of Feminine Living (Chicago: Morgan-Dillon & Co, 1943), 12.

Olga Malcova, Wanted: Girl With Glamor, (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1941), 25.

The Social History of Lipstick: Why 1920s Beauty Journalism is useful for more than just retro make-up tips

IMG_2477IMG_2475IMG_2469-copyIMG_2472

“Beauty is the last true thrill left us in a mechanized age,” wrote American Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld in his foreword to beauty editor Josephine Huddleston’s 1929 book Secrets of Charm, “it is a precious gift that cannot be standardized. Everything else is routined and regulated and ordered but beauty cannot be had for the asking”. Ziegfeld’s opening declaration to this comprehensive volume, which details everything from skin and haircare to ‘how to cultivate a sweet smile’ immediately reveals more of the changing social climate of 1920s America than even the most ironclad social manifesto. The advent of new technology and social order dominated contemporary thought, while evolving attitudes to traditional femininity remained central to shifts within gender roles and occupations. It is for this reason that such unintentionally political literature assumes a significant value to anyone hoping to analyse or investigate the social landscape of any given historical period.

As the editor of a beauty column which boasted a readership of nearly seven million American women, Josephine Huddleston had “an unusual opportunity to study women’s needs” from the 1920s onwards. Years of such accidental research resulted in a publication that offered advice on not only the practicalities of maintaining a period-specific aesthetic allure (‘applying bleach paste for stubborn freckles’ and ‘how to promote growth of lashes’ are just two examples) but, more crucially, on the cultivation of an inner “charm [that was] far more vital than physical beauty alone”. Her descriptions of this so-termed ‘charm’ illuminate contradictory feelings about both the role and desires of women of this period:

It is the power that takes a chorus girl out of tights and puts her name in electric lights. It is the power that makes the Only Man place a diamond circlet upon the finger that tells the world you are his to love, cherish and protect for as long as you both shall live. And it is the power that makes most women hate with a burning intensity the woman who has it, for women know its great influence.

Huddleston’s conclusion that charm and beauty are essential to both a woman’s accomplishment of individual professional status and the securing of a husband who can provide for them is highly telling of a contemporary tension between women’s growing independence and an attitude to domestic ‘destiny’ and desire that might, today, be considered borderline sexist and stereotypical. “To be beautiful, one must be in love”, she declares, before adding: “it is not essential that one be in love with a man, but one must have something…whether it be husband or hobby”. Huddleston obviously remains acutely aware of such conflicts, and it is thus through the use of cosmetic preparations, fashion, exercise and deportment that she suggests a solution to this double-edged sword of femininity:

It is true that women, in surprisingly large numbers, are nursing the idea of economic independence because they are bringing home round dollars in sizable amounts each week- dollars that have been earned by their own efforts. But…Man is still the controlling figure in the world…[and] he expects women to profit by his efforts in an intelligent way and his idea of intelligence is beauty and charm. We may rebel at the idea, but we can’t change the fact.

To a modern reader, this book is undoubtedly a fascinating vintage gem, brimming with humorously outdated advice on sick bed beauty and superfluous body hair while simultaneously revealing the origins of much sworn-by old wives’ tales and cementing their tried-and-tested effectiveness. Yet, within its yellowed pages, we also become privy to a unique condensation of contemporary attitudes, norms and yearnings that reveal as much about the precarious position occupied by Western women during the 1920s as the correct medium for painting one’s lips at the time of press (good old-fashioned rouge, now you ask). Of course, it is only with the benefit of historical hindsight that such conventions and prejudices are truly exposed, but the book’s underlying philosophy is one that still rings true today, and can be related to whatever our social status, romantic situation or professional occupation: “is there anything lovelier than the habit of beauty?”

Source:

Huddleston, J. (1929) Secrets of Charm, New York and London: G.P.Putnam’s Sons.