Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Female Image

The Images as I Remember Them
Gene, age 29, 1943

Gene and Sid, 23 and 28, June 1937
Just as the present U.S. Chief of the Federal Reserve does not represent the same public icon as one of the young female celebrities, almost all of them elaborately made up, or Eleanor Roosevelt during WW II the same kind of public icon as Veronica Lake, for example, or, at the opposite extreme, the haggard mothers in FSA photos, who had no hairdresser and no dress but the cotton housedress, the self-presentation of most female authors or scholars does not represent their decade.  Nor do the debutantes or their mothers (as shown in the Press or in illustrations to novels intended for followers of soap operas).
The movie magazine photos of stars like Norma Shearer inspired the outfit that 'Gene' wears in a 1937 snapshot, and those clothes were for sale in all the readymade outlets.  The house dresses that went with them were used in ads in women's magazines (Edward Steichen when strapped for funds to pay alimony was one of the photographers who did excellent work of this kind, but he didn't choose the clothes or accessories).  The date of the snapshot, "Gene and Sid, June 1937" is that of their 4th wedding anniversary.
Just six years later, well into WW II, 'Gene' not only is posed in an attempt to provide a publicity picture for her attempt to fulfill an adolescent dream to be a pop singer.  Though taken with a good camera, a 4 1/4" X 3 1/4" Press camera, it is a naive disaster for its intended purpose; a professional with studio lights and training in that sort of imagery was called upon to make a Hollywood kind of glamor glossy.  That image used a softening lens, full pancake make-up, and lipstick extending much beyond her natural lips, which was the rule at the time also for close-ups of Betty Grable and Lucile Ball (and most of the other stars) who, like 'Gene', naturally had a cupid's bow mouth, more or less.
Try as I might, I cannot locate a copy of the pro close-up, but the hair style could not be disguised as other than that where she is posed on the piano stool.
Wartime was the decade of rayon acetate.  The white dress of 1937 was probably linen.  The dress printed with tulips, magenta, green, black on off-white, as well as the stockings were rayon, and shoe soles were a new product, neolite.  Linen, most leather, silk, "virgin" cotton, were unavailable (nylon, of course, was for parachutes).  But the skirts of dresses were barely knee length; things were skimpy to save materials.  Maybe so, but the styles, with padded shoulders and fitted jackets, were very perky and expressed more attitude than mere patriotic sacrifice.  Think Andrew Sisters in wartime movies; think Hollywood's Joan Leslie; think Petty Girls.  And that with permanented hair, often rolled over a "rat".
I repeat, though: neither Mrs. Roosevelt nor my grandmother was affected by that Look (nor our president by zoot suits, which, where I lived, were not confined to African-American or Hispanic men).
I wonder whether 'Gene' if she had stayed in her parents' small town would have changed so much as in that manqué-glamor photo: a chanteuse was not posed on a piano bench.  But her nurse's aide uniform also was knee length.
And everyone wore lipstick.  It was thickish, and it came off easily, but washed out only with difficulty.  At school, though, the other girls made fun of you if you didn't wear it.  Janice, who walked to Jr. High School with me, was the child of a fundamentalist minister, and we stopped at a gas station restroom so she could put it on.  I never dreamt of being free of lipstick or of shaven legs.
The point is that, at the lower-middle class popular level, in the six years between those two photos, the icons changed quite radically.  And this change concerned not Vogue so much as subscribers to Good Housekeeping, for example.  Not how young women thought or what they read so much as their collective image.
Shortly after nylon was relegated, along with leather bullet cases, to army surplus shops, the New Look appeared, first in haute couture by Yves St. Laurent but promptly in the new Seventeen magazine.  It also was tight waisted, and the skirts were mostly full as well as long.  The magazines emphasized that we could have camel's hair and silk (also woven gingham, real gingham).  You didn't go to the army canteen or build figher planes in such a style.  I hear that our county public library has just subscribed to a complete digitized run of Vogue to which you are referred.  But this was not easily aped by J. C. Penny or by Sears or,  in England, by Marks & Spencer.  Their revolution, and that of college shops, was consonant (and typified in my memory by cashmere or lamb's-wool sweater sets), with calf-length skirt hems.  And the plentiful nylons (though still with garters) were seamless!
To a certain extent, again, a new young woman was launched.
The real liberation, apart from pills (which many of us didn't need, yet), in the 1960s was from the ladylike (and lipsticked, hatted, etc.) post-war New Look.  One thing after another.  Not setting one's hair.  Wearing pants, even bluejeans, instead of skirts.  Wearing sandals, not pinchy 'ballerina' shoes, and not without stockings (in California through most of the winter, too), no lipstick at all, and no bra!
That was the new icon.  Of course, if we went to the opera, we dressed properly; if poor, the little black dress and a nice string of beads would do.
Meanwhile, the little girl on Sunbeam bread and the little girl happily spilling Morton's salt ("When it rains, it pours") were updated.  The tiger on the corn flakes box and the cats in Disney's Aristocats were brought into line with prize-winning LP album covers: commercial modernity, some of it very attractive.
With the millennium (and somewhat before it), the mascara, the eyeshadow, the liquid make-up, the lipstick and indescribable varieties of outer wear, and the poses in the advertising photographs, and, especially, the kind of slenderness of, e.g., Special K advertisements has exploded again.  Like (something I just learned) fireweed, the pioneer weed that comes back like a vengeance.
Nota bene: I am not so silly as to suggest that pretty women should not be 'objects' (nor, of course, pretty men).  It's just that the iconology of sex in commercial imagery keeps recycling and I keep feeling that the changes are full of signifiers, signifiers whose meaning often puzzles me.  I mean, you can use almost any types to make human faces and bodies look sexy.   I admit that the models in the recent Korean Airlines TV ads are especially puzzling.  And why do we have to revert to something very like Gloria Swanson?  What is being concealed?
Both of my parents are dead, and I apologize for having to resort to using their pictures.