Saturday, September 9, 2017

Fighting Racism with Mid Century Modern Style

This is a post about early 60s, Mid Century Modern fashion, but it's also about the American Civil Rights Movement. While the MCM aesthetic was all about the optimism of the modern space age, this supposed forward thinking optimism was in direct contrast to the turmoil of the time, especially the virulently racist opposition to civil rights for African-Americans. With what's being going on in the States these days, I cannot, in good conscience, write about one without the other. 

The Civil Rights Movement was, first and foremost, a fight for African-American equality and its main and most important fighters were themselves African-American. As a Jew, though, I'm also inspired by the fact that, because Jews had also been and still were the targets of racism, many of them were active participants in the movement. With today's rise of American racism, including neonazism, I take my cue from the Jews who came before me. They knew that a fight against racism is our fight too.

It's fun to emulate the MCM fashions of the women of the early 60s. But, regardless of your racial or ethnic heritage, it's imperative to emulate the courage, dedication, and moral certitude of the civil rights activists of the day, many of whom had a poised, fashionable style that we can only hope to achieve today. They were the very picture of class and dignity, and this post is for them.

My dress is obviously and strongly influenced by early 1960s fashion ...

Dress: Cherry Velvet; Shoes: Ecco; Sunglasses: Aldo; Right hand ring: Birks; Gold chain: vintage; Pendant and earrings: bespoke
... which is why I made a point of posing in front of backdrops left over from the MCM period. I love how this rock face isn't wildly dissimilar to the one the young ladies are posing in front of above. Even the colours are just right, MCM-wise.

I often like to go for a look that strongly alludes to the past but isn't slavishly devoted to it. If I'd wanted to fit right in with the stylish young ladies above, I'd have done a lot of things differently. First of all, I'd have worn toe-pinching, kitten heels, not comfortable mary-janes. 

I also would have worn a firm girdle and a frothy crinoline under the dress to create just the right shape. My dress is made of stiff cotton so it holds its shape pretty well without all those foundation garments and, if you squinted when the wind blew, you could almost imagine that I was wearing a crinoline. 

I didn't give much thought to whether or not my sunglasses were just right... 

Audrey Hepburn in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's
... but, happily, I'd say they were. 

Not so with my makeup. I actually did try. By my own standards, this is a lot of makeup, with "heavy" eyeliner on my top lid and everything. (Check out how the red of my eyelashes still shines through the mascara.)

But I'll never be the type to wear as much makeup as some other women do, no matter the era. I wish I could, but it just doesn't feel like me somehow, and everyone says I look better without it. I'm not even sure why.

I own a lot of vintage jewelry that would have fit the bill perfectly, but I felt like wearing gold and diamonds that day instead. It boosts my morale and, Lord knows, I've got a lot of reasons to want to boost my morale these days

In a sense then, the only thing about my outfit that was Mid Century Modern, was the dress itself. 

But the dress did the job very nicely, I think.

Its cut was close to spot-on ...

... as was ... 

its pattern. 

Ultra modern angularity and stiffness were the order of the day, in hair, clothing, architecture, art... in pretty much everything!

I'm not kidding when I say that MCM fashion was space-age fashion. Sputnik had a huge influence on the aesthetic of the day.

Cast of the original Star Trek
Huge. It all seems terribly dated and obviously 1950s and 60s now, but it all seemed terribly futuristic at the time.

Curtis Jeer
Just in case anyone missed the point, starbursts were absolutely everywhere. I have several delicious, starburst brooches from the time. If you see them in thrift stores, do snap them up. They're back in style these days, not that I'd care either way. I'd wear them regardless.

Imagine my delight, when I set out for this fashion shoot and found this fence! I've lived in this neighbourhood for most of the last 27 years and I'd never noticed it before! I love how fashion causes me to notice my surroundings in new ways.

The Jetsons
So these were the days of great excitement about the future - and yet, even in this imagined future, many things were achingly, sadly, exactly the same as they'd always been. Women's roles were fixed. Main characters were white. And even robot maids were still... well ...

... black.

It was clear that this shiny new world was not meant for black people ...

... unless they were there to serve whites.

There were some exceptions. I suspect that part of why the incredibly kitsch, original Star Trek remains so popular today is because its makers really were trying to imagine a more equitable future. It was a flawed one, of course, but, even so, it broke new ground. In 1968, a year after the Lovings won their legal battle to legalize interracial marriage, Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on television.

So rare was it to see a professional black woman on television, that, when Nichelle Nichols thought of leaving the show, Martin Luther King Jr. asked her to stay. That's how important he felt that Lt. Uhura was to the African-American community.

This new world was not for Jews either. Many country clubs explicitly prohibited Jewish members right into the 1970s, and most of the best universities still maintained very limited quotas for how many Jewish students would be admitted each year.

In an effort to avoid this sort of discrimination, many Jews changed their last names to sound more Anglo and therefore hide their Jewish identities. Obviously, this was something black people could not do. Obviously, they had it worse. But then (and now) a fight against racism was a Jewish fight too.

If you're my age or older, all this was happening in your life time. Is it any wonder we're worried about this current rise of neonazis?

We can look at this kidney shaped pool and see a delightfully MCM setting. 

But we must also remember that many such settings were still segregated.

When a group of people tried to desegregate James Brocks' hotel pool in 1964, he poured acid into it, endangering the lives of the swimmers. That kind of hatred is intense - and enduring.

When I researched this event, I quickly fell upon articles claiming that James Brock was the real victim here! It was not fair, these articles said, that he was forever remembered for this brief moment of... poor judgement! These articles were not written in the 1960s. They were written here, now, in the 2000s. 

Think about that for a minute. Think about that for the rest of your life.

People often look back on the Mid Century Modern aesthetic with praise for its angular simplicity. I get it. But, when we think of the cultural context in which this aesthetic took hold, it starts to feel restrictive and rigid, leaving no room for the reality of human life. 

When even nature had to be tamed into controlled, angular shapes... 

... where did the human body ... 

... and the human soul fit in? 

Where did the oppressed body fit? 

Where the oppressed soul? 

And how did it liberate itself?
The Canadian, Marshal McLuhan was mandatory reading when I was a Communications major in the early 1990s. Yes, my degrees in English, Communications, and Women's Studies are often reflected here in my blog.
I'm not the first to notice this. Intellectuals, beatniks, poets, artists... many of them noticed this at the time and it was often reflected in pop art such as fabric designs, book covers, movie posters, and magazine covers. They often depicted the human as diminished, contained, or threatened by modern, machine-like shapes and patterns.

Am I crazy to think that just this sort of struggle is embodied in this 1963 Time Magazine cover? There is James Baldwin, a living, breathing, thinking human being; and there are the harsh, angular spikes of society impeding and even threatening him.

In looking again at the patterns so popular at the time, I feel that I can see this push/pull between humanity and rigidity. In my own dress, the softness of the circle is intruded upon by the sharpness of the square. And the pattern on my dress is quite tame by MCM standards.

As I was researching this post, over and over again, I saw this sort of clash between softness and harshness, the organic and the "man" made ...

... the earth and the space age ...

... with neither fully containing nor conquering the other. 

Perhaps I was unconsciously thinking of this when I chose rounded organic shapes ... 

Read about this necklace, including the tiny Hebrew inscription on the back here.
in my jewelry that day. 

More on these fantabulous diamond earrings (and 1930s, everyday style) here
They go well with the dress but, in a way, also clash with it.

Perry Mason in his office. Note the "primitive" painting and mask on the walls.
One of the trends that really disturbs me in this motif was the MCM obsession with "primitivism." Some of the more intellectual types of the day felt that civilization had become repressive of the individual human spirit, quashing human expression and passion. I get that. But, what they saw as being in direct contrast to that was the "primitive," the "uncivilized." This manifested itself in an upper class vogue for such things as African art, especially traditional African masks. 

In other words, white intellectuals were equating blackness with primitiveness ... 

... and whiteness with civilization, hardly a new form of racism. 

Once you're aware of this MCM vogue, you'll see it everywhere. Novelty prints are full of it. Over and over, you'll see "primitive" art "contained" by more "modern" angles and lines, as in the yellow skirt above.

These racist notions took hold of other aspects of fashion too. Is it any wonder that women tried to look not just white, but Aryan and WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) white? For example, take a look at the women above. Look at their sleek, shiny, straight hair.

Now take a look at my hair. Notice anything different?

The Supremes. Note Diana Ross' outfit and the similarity of its pattern to the pattern on my dress. Why don't they make clothing with such good quality wool anymore?
Women's hair was supposed to look like this ...

... or maybe this.

Not this. At its best, my own hair that day looked like this.

Nature will have its way. If we let it. If we're allowed to let it.

As the wind hit my hair, it quickly took on its natural, frizzy, Jewish volume. It would have taken a lot of work for me to make my hair look fashionable in the early 60s. In other words, it would have taken a lot of work to erase my ethnicity from my hair.

Obviously, it would have taken far more work for an African American woman to do the same.

And so, to this day, you find advertisements like this, though I'm sure many women skipped this stage and went straight to wigs. I know my Jewish grandmother did.

Guess what other advertisements I discovered as I looked for images of fashionable African-American women in the 1960s? This is an advertisement for skin lightener, telling women, "Don't let dull, dark skin rob you of romance," and promising that this product "works deep within the skin to brighten and lighten it."

This breaks my fucking heart.

Meanwhile, I am one of the whitest people I've ever known. My skin looks like this in the middle of the summer. I haven't even been wearing sunscreen!

And yet, according to neonazis of the past and today, I am not white. Seriously?

A little over a year ago, as Trump's popularity rose, I began to be the target antisemitic attacks from racists online. One of their favourite "insults" was to tell me that, though I really want to be white, I am not white. Apparently my rage and frustration over this fact leads to some of my many reprehensible acts, including ... eating babies. Yes, really. They really say this. Often. And they believe it too. 

This is how bad it is out there.

It's very confusing to be so obviously white and so obviously a target of white racism. I recently heard a woman on the radio use the term "racialized." I think she meant that race isn't something that we're born with. (Scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as race.) It's something that racist people impose upon others (and themselves, of course). They decide that "Jew" is a race, a race other than white, and, hey presto, I am racialized. At least, I think that's what she meant. It's a helpful term for me to mull over. If you know more about it, please do let me know.

So, as a racialized minority, of course many Jews knew that the Civil Rights Movement was our fight too, just as I know that today's fight against racism is my fight.

Then, as now, many racists saw Jews and black people not exactly as one common enemy, but as two enemies in collusion with each other to bring about the downfall of the white race. Then, as now, they thought that African-Americans weren't smart enough to orchestrate their own rise to equality. So they decided that Jews were behind it. We were the wily, sneaky vermin (yes, that's a word they used and still use), organizing and financing the Civil Rights Movement. Now, apparently, we are behind the Black Lives Matter movement too. 

It's sickening. But we couldn't afford to turn our backs on it. We can't now either. Remember the Holocaust?

Since the racists thought we were working in common, we needed to actually work in common ... 

The NAACP is The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It still does important work today. The hammer and sickle of the "C" represents the dreaded Communist nation, the USSR.
... to defeat them.

Eerily similar to the earlier racist marchers, these recent ones, including members of the KKK and men wearing nazi insignia, carry a sign that reads "Communism = Judaism" with a Star of David in the C.
We still do. 

We can't get complacent.

We must remember the past ...

... as we move into this very scary future. 

These three men were working to register blacks to vote, and to expose the violent white response to their work. It was later found that they had been murdered by members of the KKK.
All that said, I do not want to suggest that Jews had it as bad as African Americans did at the time. Nor do we have it as bad now. 

Jews did have our martyrs in the Civil Rights Movement. They deserve to be both celebrated and mourned. But we had it better. Where only a small number of Jews were admitted to Ivy League universities, virtually no black students were. We could "pass" for white. Virtually no blacks could. We could choose to help register black voters or fight for integration. In so doing, we were choosing to be more visible targets of racism.

African Americans did not have that choice. 

The only choice they had was in whether or not to fight racism. And even that choice was an extremely fraught one. When you have a family to feed, when white men can murder "uppity" black men with impunity, when the entire governmental and legal system is stacked against you, choosing to fight is dangerous. Nonetheless, many did make that choice.

A young woman chooses to hitchhike rather than take the segregated bus during the Montgomery bus boycott.
 And they did it with style. I mean, straight up, high fashion style.

There need be no contradiction between fighting for your rights and looking good. In a world that beats you down and calls you worthless, both can be a powerful expression of your sense of self-worth.

Young people protesting segregated lunch counters by sitting at a whites only lunch counter.
In fact, Civil Rights leaders encouraged activists to look good, in part to combat racist stereotypes of African Americans as slovenly, lazy, and dirty. Dignity was key. Pride in self was key.

Wouldn't you rather look like the above woman in the Harlequin pattern dress ... 

... than like this one in her Harlequin pattern dress? Why be merely decorative when you can also be active, when you can be an activist and know you are on the right side of history?

Being an activist was not easy. When young people were preparing to try to integrate lunch counters, they practiced maintaining their non-violent dignity in the face of white cruelty, violence, and humiliation.

But they weren't prepared for how bad it would get, or so I've heard in interviews.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, this lack of preparation for how bad things would get. I know my situation is not the same, of course, but I thought I knew how down and dirty my insurance company would get in their attempts to shrug off their responsibilities to me. I was not prepared. Not at all. I was not prepared to face the vast and systemic ableism that has made it possible for them to deprive me of my entire income. As I deal with the anguish of this, I look to other oppressed groups to get an inkling of how on earth to deal with it. I look to the Civil Rights Movement.

I've been thinking a lot about what it's like to face racism, day in and day out, for your entire life. I don't mean the kind of racism I face when people discover that I'm Jewish. I mean the kind of racism people face when their skin is not white, when they cannot hide who they are the way I can, when simply stepping out the door in the morning takes a fortitude I can't comprehend.

The March on Washington, 1963
If not all African-Americans felt prepared for the abuse they'd endure if they rose up and fought for their equality, they sure as hell were dressed as if they were! This is especially true of the women. Even as the men in the movement often pushed women aside and took control, these women outclassed their opponents in style and dignity every kitten-heeled step of the way. I get shivers just thinking about it.

And they did it wearing the Mid Century Modern style of the day. Look at lady in the hat, beside the young man in the pageboy cap. Look at her dress.

Now look at this dress. 


I can only dream of having a modicum of the poise ... 

The March on Washington, 1963
... and grace of these women. I am in awe.

I will never be that classy if I live to be 100. But, you know, being fashionable and poised wasn't the most important thing.

The March on Washington, 1963
Being there was. Let's face it: Thought they're dressed well, these Jewish women look a little schlubby. But they're there.

I hope to God I would have been too. 

At any rate, I'm here, now, fighting the rise of racism today. I can't go to the rallies and sit on the ground like that. I'm too disabled

But you and I can participate in other ways too. I can write. I can speak out. That's what I'm doing right now, with this post. 

If we want to celebrate Mid Century Modern style, let's do it right! Let's not just emulate the fashion and the kitsch. Let's emulate the activism and the dignity too. 

In 50 years, won't you be more proud to have photos of yourself like these women, messy hair and all ...

... than like these ones? 

The March on Washington, 1963
Wouldn't you rather be remembered for having done the right thing ...

... big belly and all ... 

... than for having looked like you stepped out of a magazine?

Amazingly, a lot of the women of the day managed to do both and that's spectacular.

The March on Washington, 1963
But being on the right side of history is even more spectacular, and, if you can't manage both, you know which one matters most. 

Enjoy fashion, by all means. Love it. Revel in it. Use it to show your pride and self-esteem ... 

... as you do the right thing. It's your choice. Make sure it's the right one. 

(I'm sharing this with Not Dead Yet, High Latitude StyleElegantly Dressed and Stylish, and Style Nudge.)


  1. Thanks for linking up to Top of the World Style. Great post and photos. You look stunning in that dress. Despite the print is modern, you are right it kind of has the same contrast of soft vs. edgy. I like the fabric prints of the 50s.

  2. This is beautiful. As a black-latina who loves MCM style I have been thinking about these same issues in the post a lot. It is very uplifting to know empathy like yours exists. Thank you for reminding your audience about the difference in our struggles without talking down either.

    Simply being a new yorker, I’ve known about Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement, as well as how poorly Jews have been treated in this country. All you have to do is watch an old movie to see just how much were are both maligned, marginalized, or simply omitted. Because of the tensions of the 50s and 60s I’ve often wondered if it were not regressive to adore the style, fashion, music etc. I realized how much my people built and contributed to this country, yours as well! They may have left us out, but we did have (albeit limited) spotlight, success, and lasting contributions to the movements and cultures of those times. No one can take that away from us! I love how you appreciated or class and style. I have always admired Jewish wit and humor myself ;)

    And you look lovely <3

    1. Your comments warm my heart right down to its core. If you're on FB, you should friend me. I'm glad to find someone else who thinks about the context of vintage style, and the social and political ramifications of wearing it. Blind glamorization of a "better" or even "simpler" past is irresponsible.

      I'm also glad to find someone who, like me, sees the natural alliance that should, can, and often does exist between Jews and Blacks in America. Since I wrote this, I've learned even more about how central anti-semitism is to the growing white supremacy movements in America and around the world. Sadly, I've also learned that some of my own, Jewish family were racists and actively fought Civil Rights. It's hard for me to imagine how they couldn't see that our struggles align, one with the other.

      And, man, our two groups sure did contribute to the fabric of American culture. As just one example, just think: without us, there would be no jazz!

      If you'd like to read more about the things I'm learning about my Jewish family, here's a the story of one cousin's Holocaust survival:

  3. Forgot to add, it’s funny how you mention the contrast between magazine looks and photos of people from the time. I found this post while looking for better actual vintage pictures instead of stiff magazine shots lol

  4. I found this post while thinking and surfing about the intersection of racism and MCM design after driving through a neighborhood full of MCM houses — that was built at the height of white flight. I’m glad I found your post and thank you for all these thoughts and connections!

    1. Thanks for the kind comments. I'm glad this piece spoke to you. I've thought about it often this summer of 2020, with both the rise of antisemitism, and the crescendo of Black Lives Matter.