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Thursday, July 16, 2009

16 July 1955 “A time travel experiment from 1905-1955”

Since beginning this project I have found myself slipping in and out of time. Though the original intention was and still is to focus on the day to day of 1955, I have of late begun to stop in the middle of a 1955 decision and think ten years back, twenty and so on. It has left me, though focusing on 1955, beginning to really feel the elasticity of time. The past can be a living thing in which we can, on some level, hone and make malleable. There is a lesson in it. The past is a sort of free university waiting for our attendance. We can go into it as deeply as we choose and there are a myriad of ‘subjects’ to study, but whatever that choice may be you come out the wiser, I think.
A big part of understanding the specific role of a middle class woman in the role of homemaker in 1955 America has led me down a path I could not have understood at the beginning of the journey. There are forks in the road and hidden foot paths to take or glens in which to peer and wonder or a soft sun-dappled glade to rest your weary modern eyes for a moment. I know I am not, in any way, close to what a true and honest 1955 homemaker truly was. I do not even claim to have their strength or complete understanding of the framework of their time, but I have tried to give my year 1955 a solid framework.
As I have mentioned before, I did not want to feel as if I was just dropped into 1955 straight out of 2008. I also did not want to wander in “Hollywood Movie” style, as if I travelled, Alice in Wonderland style, into a 1950’s sitcom. I did not want it to be a joke. I thought it to be fun and maybe a but silly of a project, but I never went in with any intention to make fun and I hope I have not done so.
The relevance of who I would be in 1955 at my current age could only truly be felt if I also took moments of my day or weeks to ‘look back’ to my fictional past of childhood and teens in the 1920’s and 30’s, my war-time bride era of the 1940’s to really understand what I am doing here, a stay at home homemaker in 1955. That relevance was to come about with trying (and still to try) may hand at skills and ideas that I would have had before the conveniences of 1955. Much of what I, a staunchly middle class woman in 1955 America, would have in the way of conveniences is not that dissimilar to today. I would not be sitting here on my computer, but I would most certainly be washing and drying my clothes in automatic machines, my dishes would be washed in their dishwasher, there would be endless prepared food items available for me to ‘save time’ and endless gadgets from toasters, blenders, waffle irons, steam irons. These things would be new to me. There would be days, no doubt, when I would look at my life and recall my early married days in the war time era or my own ‘help at home’ life in the Depression and wonder and be thankful. I would also worry about my family’s safety, with the cold war and threat of the ‘A-Bomb’, but this fear would not be new to me. I would have grown up on it. It would have been the very fabric of my rearing, the wonder of food and money in the Depression, the worry of safety of life and death, they would have been a constant companion, so I would have dealt with them with a quiet confidence and strong shoulders to carry it off. These realizations have come to make me appreciate this generation to such a great extent.
When I think of how I pictured the 1950’s, and how much of it is now portrayed, before I started this project I cringe. We would look with the lazy casual snobbery of the modern world at the sad little woman in the puffy dress holding the martini and slippers for her domineering husband. Certainly, this may have existed and may still today, but I think when we view the past with only the eyes of the present, we learn nothing and scoff at a great learning opportunity. When we realize that ‘woman at home’ most likely ran the world while the men were away protecting it seems in a different light. To know that that same woman probably worked along her ailing family through the Depression to eek out a life and still smiled and dressed up prettily when she could, laughed and danced and cried, it no longer becomes a funny iconic image to either put neatly up as high art on a wall or as silly magnets upon the fridge. The very strength of character of these people could serve us today if we only took the chance to learn and listen.
Sadly, many of this generation is gone. Those who remain are probably quietly set aside in nursing homes. They can use their strength there as well. They labored and struggled through a life and raised children so that their children could have the freedom to ‘rebel’ and ‘experiment’ with their lives. To selfishly use up the worlds resources for their fun and amusement and constant need to be entertained and feed and satiated to only set aside those who made it all possible in the cold sterile hand that is the nursing home world. This might sound harsh, but it really hits me some days that when I think of those who would have done what I am trying to recreate now are gone and may have been easily shuffled away, hidden, rather than treasured, it makes me sad. But, I digress.
The point of this post was the malleability of time and the past. Its power as a learning and entertaining tool.
I figured in this post I would, with some images and video, show a little cross section of ten year leaps starting in 1905 through to 1955. I hope you enjoy it:
Let’s start with fashion, as it is fun and great to see in a timeline.
1905: the Gibson Girl hair and the flowing skirt. The d├ęcolletage on the bolero tops. The “S” curve of the woman's overall shape. The very end of the ‘flamboyant times’ and certainly the Belle Epoch. Of course these are most likely upper class or upper middle class women.
1905 fashion3 1905 fashion1 1905 fashion2 There were also those who were at the bottom of the class ladder immigrants 1905such as these in Stieglitz photo “steerage”stieglitz_steerage and of course, the growing middle classes as these women out shopping1905 middle class
Now 1915: Here you can see a pattern for a ‘well-cut chemise’ that would have served the middle class woman. The next would also be more middle class fashion while the last drawing, which I live the life and style of, certainly shows a more modish turned out upper class woman. These are the First World War years and you can see the raised hemline and more functionality of the clothes, though still very similar in one defined line to which fashion would be interpreted through fabric and various accessories.
1915 fashion3 1915 fashion1 1915 fashion2 That seems to hold true until probably the late 1960’s early 1970s that fashion seemed to dictate a certain silhouette and then was interpreted in different fabrics and accessories, while today, really, anything goes. There is no ‘specific hemline’ nor ‘style’ that the clothes for that year fall into. I think once the complete care free attitude of jeans and t-shirts arrived, it seems to change our way of thinking in how we look. It certainly opened up the world to mass production. It is cheaper to print out dozens of t-shirts with a picture on it and sell it for a fast buck then to have a well made shirt waist.
Now onto 1925:1925 fashion2 1925 fashion1
There certainly for many 1925 was probably indistinguishable from 1905 in terms of women's freedom and even clothing freedom, particularly in rural America where even electricity and plumbing did not arrive until FDR’s New Deal plans, this cartoon certainly shows the great divide beginning to form between the generations.flapper Again, though, after WWI a sort of world party and celebration wanted to start but then after WWII a more staid almost Victorian rule of home and roles returned, as we were not sure of our futures anymore.
The 1925 older upper classes as seen here in Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, still had a bit of 19th century about them.1925 calvin coolidge While the youth were more ‘free’ in their attire, though still more dressier than we see today, for sure, they seem to have an almost childlike quality to them for the first time. 1925 cople
1935: The skirt is getting longer, but we really begin to see what was most like today’s model body type, not unlike the Twiggy body of the 1960s.
1935 fashioin1935 fashion21935 uppermiddle class This photo of this young couple looks SO modern as opposed to say a 1955 photo. It also has a very 1970s YSL look to it. This pair were certainly upper or upper middle class. Some young ladies out shopping, most likely middle class 1935 middle class women and of course we cannot address the image of 1935 without the famous Dorothea Lange’s photograph, “Migrant Mother” that spoke volumes about the Great Depression.stieglitz 'steerage' Certainly amongst the happy Hollywood days and the bright young things flying about in sports cars, the worse economic depression rocked our country. You certainly couldn’t, unless you were unfeeling, not feel it somehow. As I had said before, my Maternal Grandfather still bought a new car every year during the Depression, but my mother had told me how they used to buy fruit and things for local poor and let kids have ‘fun rides’ on the running boards of the cars. You could not, perhaps more so if you were staunchly middle class, not feel for the wretched poor. For certainly, you were but a few missed payments away from slipping down your class rung to the lowers starving masses.
1945:1945 simplicity pattern you can see the skirt is higher than it has been. It was to this height in 1925 and then quickly dropped as the 20’s lead into the 30’s. Much of this fashion was based on utility and amount of available fabric as well as fashion. There was a definite military feel as the shoulder pad appeared on women. Here some young ladies, could be either middle or upper classes in a city, appear to be ‘knitting for the cause’.1945 middle class
and finally 1955:
1955 fashin And of course the role of mother was even important in the fashion world. 1955 fashion mother daughter And in many ways the silhouette 1955 fashion of 1955 was not unlike that of 1855.1855 fashion As I said, after WWI there was a sort of free for all party atmosphere with the ‘war to end all wars’, while WWII left us reeling and returning to home to rebuild and re-grow. But, the genie had been let out of the bottle and the children of this generation would not have it.
There are so many other aspects of this fashion timeline that I will address it more in my next blogs, I think I might do bathing costumes next.
Now, onto film:
Yes, there was film in 1905. This little French piece I think really shows a sort of lighthearted theatre perfect for the time that was the Edwardian Period. The last big party before the world was to change for ever in the remainder of the 20th century.
1905 film
1915 film “The Tramp” was a piece of art. There was another film to come out this year about the Civil War that made quite a stir. Though many felt it was unpatriotic, dealt with the civil war in its very real sense of death and destruction. The use of cinema had a moment of seriousness as the world was torn apart in WWI
1925 film. Rudolph Valentino was the first great leading man in the modern sense, I believe. He was such a legend that woman actually killed themselves when he died in 1926. So begins the great ‘fictional mystery’ of film and its power over the masses. Little did they know to what extent ‘celebrities’ and ‘movie stars’ were to play in the future world.
Here is a bit about the introduction of sound to film:
The first commercial screening of movies with fully synchronized sound took place in New York City in April 1923. In the early years after the introduction of sound, films incorporating synchronized dialogue were known as "talking pictures," or "talkies." The first feature-length movie originally presented as a talkie was The Jazz Singer, released in October 1927.
By the early 1930s, the talkies were a global phenomenon. In the United States, they helped secure Hollywood's position as one of the world's most powerful cultural/commercial systems. In Europe (and, to a lesser degree, elsewhere) the new development was treated with suspicion by many filmmakers and critics, who worried that a focus on dialogue would subvert the unique aesthetic virtues of soundless cinema.
So, 1935: I think Shirley Temple really represents an escape needed during the days of the Depression. Often overcoming obstacles and hard times and ending up wealthy. Her plucky youth gave a promise to a very scary time. She also really is the first white female to have as close to an African-American co-star as was possible at the time.
1945: I think this clip from the film “Twice Blessed” really typifies what we think of as the 1940’s as well as showing a light hearted need during the tough war years.
1955: James Dean first film “East of Eden” based on Steinbeck's book comes out.
And of course you can’t mention the 1950s with out the musical. Here is Guys and Dolls.
So, by looking at things this way, from 1905-1955, has been very interesting. I will share more of these findings in the next blogs. It is really an interesting way to ‘time-travel’.
Let me know if you would be interested to see more posts like this showing such a cross section. I think showing the kitchen from 1905-1955 is rather interesting as well. Of course, I am still going to post my home-buying economic post, but I just needed a light break. I hope you enjoy.

17 comments:

  1. My mom got married right after the war, in 1946, and was irked when "The New Look" with longer length dresses and skirts came in right afterwards. Her wardrobe sewn to start married life (while also working in a dentists office) was suddenly totally out of date.

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  2. Wow. I mean, just............wow. That was a very thought provoking post. (Goes off to think about the post)

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  3. I would definitely love to see more posts like this! I love seeing the change over time. People are so wrapped up in today, they forget that soon today will be history.

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  4. It is funny you mentioned the hating of the New Look, as my mother, as well, did not like it. Her upset was more to do with she not thinking it flattering on her frame. I know there were actual picket lines against the "new look". Can you imagine today being so dictated by the design world that you HAD to wear it? In some ways, I sort of miss that structure. It could almost allow MORE creativity as you had to make your own style within the framework set for you, while now it is free for all, but mostly lazy jeans and t's.

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  5. fun post. i enjoyed the pictures of the dresses, and the commentary. i also liked all the background info and how you tied it together. thanks.
    ps. not to be nit-picky, but the one depression era photo is dorothea lange's "migrant mother". it got mislabeled as alfred stieglitz. :)

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  6. You're right, sorry about that.

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  7. I meant to post the Steiglitz picture from 1907 (close enough to 05) entitled steerage earlier in the post, thanks for correcting me.

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  8. Wow! You did a fabulous job on the post. Thank you!

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  9. Thanks amanda, I did feel bad about mislabeling the photo, I just fixed it, though and put the Stieglitz photo in and relabeled the Lange photo. I should have edited more, bad me.

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  10. i figured as much...there are so many great images in there, i thought it probably just got in there wrong. i don't know how to do all that blog stuff AT ALL, so you won't see me pointing fingers!!! i am still amazed at all you have included!! :)i have some movies on my list to see now, thanks for that as well.

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  11. Oh don't worry, I was really greatful that you saw it, remember we are a community, I just felt bad for having mislabeled. I appreciate any comments on my blog.

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  12. I really loved this post going from 1905-1955. I really enjoy modern American history and it was great to see the course of fashion and film. I'm looking forward to more posts.

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  13. Great post! I liked a lot all what you did here, showing us fashion and films trough those years.
    You say you are not close of what a true homemaker in the 50's was, BUT I think you are doing a great job!!, I mean, me, even if I like a lot 50's style, it would be very difficult to me to do what you are doing, I haven't thought about what you say here, about how would be your life before your 55 year, those were very hard times.
    I have to tell you that I REALLY like your blog and you were one of my inspiration to creat my own....of course mine is so humble, nothing compared to yours.
    I never thought to find someone who is doing this "experiment", I'm sure it will leave you a great experience.

    Ah! thanks for your commen in my blog =)

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  14. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy your blog and what a profound influence it has had on my work as a housewife and mother. I have a book that was my mother's called "Teenage Glamour" and has many wonderful suggestions about wardrobe, hair styling and care, and etiquette. I would be willing share parts of it if there is any interest.

    All the best, Mrs. J~

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  15. 50's Gal,

    I love looking at different aspects of life(clothing, kitchens, etc) over time. Thank you for this post.

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  16. I think the jeans and t-shirt look was a menace to fashion, and sometimes people use jeans as an artificial girdle for their bodies, (people used foundation garments at the time) to keep the silloette, and the tummy tucked in,,,,,,,,,JOYEUX NOEL

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