Thursday, February 25, 2016

The 1950s: the Dress, the Dream, the Reality

If you read Sublime Mercies with any regularity, you know that I often find that something small becomes starting place on a winding and interesting path of ruminations about a million, seemingly unconnected things. This 1950s day dress, for example, is no exception. It got me thinking about the huge difference between people's idealized visions of the American 1950s, and the reality of the American 1950s. 

This great vintage clock was a present from Sal.
I often hear people say of past eras, "Things were so much simpler then. They dressed so much better then. Life was better then." Don't you believe it! If we take advertisements, television shows, movies, and fashion shoots as our models of reality for any period it will seem better, simpler, and spiffier than reality, past or present.

Because I love vintage style, people often think that I would love to live in the past. God no! Of course I wouldn't have wanted to live in the 50s. They were not a good time to be female, or middle-aged, or queer, or anything but white and Christian. I'll delve into all this more throughout this post.

But, of course, this post is also about fun: 50s fashion, 50s décor, and our fabulously kitsch, 50s kitchen.

When most of us think of women in the 1950s, we think of something like this smiling young blond here, beautifully attired in high heels, and a full skirted dress with a painfully narrow waist -- all while she does housework! But was this the reality? My feet ache just thinking about it, as do my gut and my back: a girdle, to clean the house? Are you kidding me?

Dress, brooch, locket, chain, and shoes: vintage; Tights and cardigan: Mod Cloth; Earrings: boutique; Apron: I got it at a discount store

Because of the dominant image of the perfectly quaffed 1950s housewife, I found my dress a bit of a mystery. The women selling it on Etsy billed it as 1950s house dress, but it did not conform to my image of one. I wondered if it might actually be a dress from the 1930s.

But what did I know of 50s reality? I could be much closer to 50s reality here, in my more comfortable dress, with my messy hair, and wan, tired face, unaided by even a spot of make-up.

I mean, seriously, was anyone ever this delighted by a dishwasher? Did women really cinch their waists and wear crinolines and high heels to do dishes? Maybe. But did the majority of women do this? I have my doubts.

As with today, the magazines in the 1950s were full of images of such housewives. As with today, my guess is that these images served less to reflect reality and more to make women feel inadequate and insecure so they'd buy more products: make-up, household cleansers, tinned foods, kitchen gadgets, etc. Sadly, some things don't change much.

Take the average age of the women depicted as housewives in old magazines. It's true that, on average, women did get married much younger then, but they did not simply disappear the minute they passed thirty-five. 

And what I found over and over again in my search for examples of 50s house dresses, was that, while some young women did attempt to wear those wasp-waisted dresses, women "of a certain age" invariably wore dresses more like my own, complete with sensible shoes and freer waists.

So maybe I was dressed like the real 1950s housewife, at least the older one, after all.

Wouldn't you agree? God I love this woman!

I'm becoming increasingly disinterested in trying to wear what I'm calling young women's vintage. Less and less often do I take my sartorial cues from old advertisements and fashion shoots.

Instead, I'm more and more enchanted by sartorial choices of the less glamorous, more practical, and wiser middle aged woman of yore. I want to honour the thicker, bosomier, worldlier, grownup women of the past (and present), not the lithe young ingénues. They get plenty of the spotlight.

I like to shine that light on other women, the older ones, the ones more like... me. I take pride in emulating them, even as I know that I no longer have the kind of beauty I once had. So what? I have so much more to give the world than mere beauty. Don't we all have more to give as we mature? 

So, yes, I enjoy looking like a middle-aged, 50s housewife but I would never actually want to be one.

I would have had very little access to the pursuit of any dream but marriage and motherhood. My only access to security would have been marrying well. If I'd tried to have a career, I would have faced discrimination, harassment, and an impenetrable glass ceiling. And I would have been expected to quit my job when (not if) I got married, well before my 30th birthday. (As you all know, I didn't get married till my 45 birthday and I'm proud of that!)

If I had wanted to date and -- gasp -- be sexually active before I got married, I would have had a very difficult time finding birth control. It was often illegal for doctors to give birth control to unmarried women! Even if I had gained access to contraceptives, I would have been considered a "loose woman" and, therefore, unmarriageable. And that, in those days, was understood to be the worst possible fate for a woman. If a man didn't want you, your life was ruined.

It was inconceivable that marriage just might not suit some woman. It was inconceivable that a woman might not want to get married -- ever.

I can hear some of you thinking, "What about lesbianism?" Yes, there were lesbians then as there have always been but it was a damned rough time to be queer. I would have had to hide my own lesbian relationships for fear of being fired from my job, kicked out of my rental home, banished from my family and religious community, thrown in jail, or put into a mental institution and given electro-shock "therapy" to "cure" me of my "perversion."

Some lesbian and bisexual women were brave enough to be themselves and pursue lesbianism but I think we can all forgive those who capitulated and followed the expected path: heterosexual marriage and life as a housewife and mother. We can equally forgive those women who followed the expected path even though they would have preferred to pursue a career, or remain single or childless.

Once married, I would then have been expected to immediately begin having children. At my age, 45, I would have been married for about 25 years, my children would be grown or mostly grown, and I would be a grandmother a few times over.

And I would be considered entirely past my years as an attractive, desirable woman. At best, people would say of me, "You can tell she was once an attractive woman." I know this because I see such statements over and over again in novels from the period and earlier.

And I would be invisible. Even as male movie stars were allowed to age, their love interests remained in their 20s. Cary Grant was 20 years older than Eva Marie Saint in the 1959 movie, North by Northwest. Fred Astaire was 30 years old than Audrey Hepburn in the 1957 movie, Funny Face. Models in magazines were in their teens and early 20s.

Sadly, some things don't change.

What is it with a world that renders older women unworthy of even photographing? It's getting a little better, but not much. 

Were middle-aged women unworthy of love? Had we nothing left to give the world? Were we all used up?

How absurd! Of course we were and are loved.

Let's get real!

And even if some think we are no longer beautiful and sexually desirable, is that really all we're good for? We have so much to offer! We have laughter ...

... lots of laughter ...

... love and loyalty ...

... sisterhood ...

... and friendship ...

... in sensible little cardigans.

Why render all that invisible?!
There is also our value on our own, on our own terms, not as sisters, wives, mothers, or grandmothers, but as individuals, as ourselves.

But wait, that's not all! Do you notice something else wrong with all those stereotypical images of 1950s housewives? Who else is missing?

Even in the "real life" photos from the 50s that I was able to find, the images form a monolithic wall of white faces. 

A segregated bus in the southern United States
The 1950s might have been a nice time to be a white woman, and that's highly debatable, but they were most definitely not a nice time to be African American, or, using the now distasteful, politically correct term of the 50s, Negro. Look at this photo taken on a segregated bus. Most of the women, black and white, are wearing dresses like the one I'm wearing in this post, but no-one but a racist could look at this photo and feel nostalgia. Look at the hard faces of the white women. This is not a pretty picture.

Here's another beaut: white women, wearing typical house and day dresses, haranguing a girl simply trying go to a newly integrated school. I get a smug satisfaction seeing that this girl is about ten times more fashionable and well put-together than the racist white women are. Good for her! Without opening her mouth, she is saying a lot just by being fashionable and having wonderful poise and deportment.

Anyone who looks squarely at the reality of the 1950s, or the 1500s, or today, simply cannot say it was (or is) "simpler, kinder, and better."

The white, suburban life most of us think of when we think of the 50s wasn't even great for the people living it, let alone for those firmly excluded from it.

It was a fantasy for most, not a reality. And, yes, this is just the fantasy we had fun trying to duplicate in our kitchen. 

We did it with a keen awareness that what we were creating never really existed, any more than the "perfect" homes and families on television today exist.

I hope we also did it with a healthy dose of humour, irony, and even camp. The 50s dream is pretty darned camp, when you think about it.

Meanwhile, what was the reality? On whose backs were the white families standing? I think by now the answer is clear.

The most "benevolent" white conception of African-Americans was as servants ...

... and only servants ...

This ad is probably from the 1930s, not the 1950s but the image of black men as porters and servants persisted through the 50s.
... happy to serve, jolly, uneducated ...

... intimately tied to the white families whom they served, families who seldom cared or knew anything about their servants' own family lives.

If the supposed dream of the American white woman was to marry and start a family, the supposed dream for the African American woman was to serve such a family ...

... helping to create a life that was inaccessible to her and her children and grandchildren. Indeed, the very law itself often shut African-Americans out from this life.

That's why I was so pleased when, struggling to find images of African-American women wearing house dresses in the 1950s, I found this brilliant photos of two icons of the civil rights movement: Septima Clark and Rosa Parks. Indeed, it was, in part, finding this photo that set me on the path of writing about the realities of the 50s, about those who were excluded from or erased by the American dream of the day.

My slip was the other thing that got me thinking about the topic of race in the 1950s. Yes, my slip.

Let me clarify. A friend of mine recently gave me this beautiful, vintage slip and I absolutely love it. It has pretty lace trim, it's comfortable, it's warm in the winter, and it's lined! Yes, the slip itself is lined. They simply don't make them like this anymore.

Anyone with any interest in old movies will see a slip like mine immediately think of Elizabeth Taylor in the movie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

You see what I mean?

When I tried this pose, I decided that Taylor was a genius. How did she do it? Genius, I tell you. Of course, good lighting, make-up artists, professional photographers, nylons, girdles, hairdressers... these things helped a little too.

As usual, reality is so very different from fantasy.

Tennessee Williams
And Tennessee Williams, who wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, knew this all too well.

The play, first produced in 1955 on Broadway, addresses many of the issues I've already discussed in this post, especially homophobia and sexism, including the cultural irrelevance of older women.

Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in the movie version of the play. The movie excises the theme of homosexuality, thus rendering the tensions between husband and wife inscrutable.
His heroine, Maggie, had dreams of rising above her working class roots and, as I mentioned before, her only avenue for doing so was in marrying "up" which she did when she married Brick, the wealthy son of a plantation owner. The problem is that she is expected to start producing babies immediately, little heirs to the empire. This is difficult, since Brick is gay (and in huge denial about his homosexuality).

Luckily for me, Maggie's predicament is not my own.
She loves and desires him but he neither loves nor desires her.

Brick escapes from his self-loathing by drinking, a lot.

Maggie attempts to seduce him with alcohol, not just because she desires him sexually, but because his entire family considers her a failure as both a wife and a woman because she is childless.

(I tried this pose as well, to little success.)

So far, in describing Williams' play, I am describing something written by a man with great compassion and empathy not only for homosexuals like himself, but for women too. But Williams, like everyone, like you and me, had his blind-spots when it came to oppression. Just as in the 1950s families I've been describing, Williams grew up with black servants who seem to have become, to him, a mere backdrop to white family life. This is, sadly, evident in his work.

I taught Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to college students several times and was always deeply jarred by his treatment of the "Negro servants" in the play. While the cast includes two servants, Lacey and Sookey, our first introduction to them is as "a Negro voice," which, we are told, answers the phone with "Mistuh Polly's res'dence." Later, we again read of a "warm Negro voice"; again it doesn't even seem to matter whether the "Negro voice" is Sookey or Lacey. Apparently, to Williams, they are interchangeable, like set pieces, not real characters.

What, pray tell, is a "Negro voice"? Would Williams ever have dreamed of writing of "a white voice"?

In yet another scene, "One of the Negroes, Lacey or Sookey," it doesn't seem to matter which, "peeks in, cackling" in her childlike excitement about Brick's father's birthday. If you think I'm going too far in saying that the African-American servants are presented as being like children, consider that Williams tells us that "everybody, even the Negroes and Children, joins" in singing Happy Birthday.

I don't want to belabour a point, and I don't want to attack poor Tennessee Williams, who was, for all his faults, light years ahead of his time in many ways. Instead, I want to illustrate the lies on which the 50s American dream was built. And I want us all to realize that our realities today are also built on lies, and blindness (wilful and otherwise). When you think life is or was "better" now, or then, ask yourself, "Who is left out? For whom is/was this life better? For whom is it not?"

This is why I never wish I'd been born in another time, no matter how much I might like vintage fashions and designs. And this is why I also refuse to assume that we are all "better" now, more enlightened, and less prejudiced. Like Williams, we have our blind spots our unrecognised prejudices. All we can do is try hardopen our eyes and really see the world in which we live.

And so we return to the fantasy and fun I created with this dress in this kitchen, even if my fantasy doesn't quite match the young perky one women were fed in the 50s.

My hair is a little messier, my face less made up, my shoes a little more practical, my tights a little less silky, my body a little curvier, and my age a little older.

But, as I said, this sort of dress seems to have been the territory of older women, not the young.

I wonder why. Did they just not want to bother with the cinched waists required of the new look? Were their dresses actually left over from the 1930s? Or did older women see no reason to mess with a good thing? Did they just make and buy more dresses like the ones they wore as young women?

These dresses certainly do seem to stand up over time. Here we see some in the 1940s.

My dress is now at least 55 years old and the cotton is still strong and sturdy, its colours bright and crisp.

Regardless of when my particular dress was made...

... it looks just great in our retro 50s kitchen. Our house was built in 1949 and we've had a lot of fun returning the kitchen to its 50s splendour.

These great, Deco style hinges are wonderful and original to the house, but the boomerang cupboard door handles are our own addition. They are original to the 50s as well. A fan of mid-century modern design was selling them on Craigslist and I snapped them up.

It's been fun to make our kitchen as 50s as we can, from our dishes ...

... to the ribbon on the light above our sink.

The cupboard made just for tinned goods is Beau's favourite part of the whole room. Though our landlords painted the whole darned house boring beige, some of the original colours remained, like the turquoise cupboard interiors you see here. It's almost what I call my "bad blue," the one that triggers me, but it's so right in the kitchen, that I decided I'd learn to be okay with it. So far, so mostly okay.

Even in own home, which is mostly set up to accommodate my disability, I do suffer a little bit for design. This tea kettle, for example, is much too heavy for comfort.

(But Beau does most of the cooking and kitchen work. We've learned that this is the best arrangement; when I try to help out, I end up hurting myself so much, Beau has more work while I lie in bed convalescing for days, or even weeks. The two times I've tried to unload and load the dishwasher, I've thrown my back out for a week!)

I knew what I wanted to do with this room from the very first minute I saw it.

Unlike in the rest of the house, when I decorated this room, I fully embraced my kitsch side. In my 20s, I was all about the kitsch, the camp, and heavy doses of irony in my sartorial and design choices. I'm less so now ...

... but this room just screamed to be restored to its original 50s kitchen kitsch.

Despite the kitsch, our kitchen is gloriously practical. By today's standards, it's huge, with tonnes of cupboard and counter space. It really is a delight to prepare food and eat in this kitchen.

You see? Even as I recognize the lie of the perfect, 50s American dream, I can still enjoy aspects of it. I hope I take the same approach to my own time, right here and now in 2016, enjoying the good and recognizing and working to change the bad.

Sushi is definitely one of the good things about 2016. This dress and slip are definitely good things about 1956.

To me, this is all part of living a full life.

Now get along with you, and live your life fully too! See you with my next post, in whatever decade it shall be.