Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The American Dream

by Nina Fernstrom

American Vogue, 1950

Angela Partington: “Popular Fashion and Working class affluence” (1992): This article addresses fashion from the perspective of consumerism and class dominations, in the period after WWII, and its links to the working class and specifically working class women. It looks at the US and the UK but the analysis of post-war prosperity is the essence of the American Dream.

Post-war femininity was a source of contradiction and conflict because working class women in the 1950’s actively became consumers in their own right and this started eroding class differences. Working class were women not passive followers of the higher classes anymore. 1950’s saw the introduction of Dior’s New Look - represented conflicted meanings of traditional femininity and domesticity vs the sex symbol.

Affluent post-war women were domestic and followed Dior's aesthetic while many working women, and those who wished to challenge the mass, created an oppositional sexier look with a closer, tighter fit.

Post WWII consumerism emphasized the creation of needs and was as much an effect of the instability of capitalism as well as its expansion. The commodification of the working class triggered contradictory industrial attempts to regulate and discourage desires for certain kinds of commodities and promote other more predictable choices This instead allowed and encouraged consumers to produce unexpected meanings around fashion goods – for instance Dior’s New Look - that were grounded in class specific tastes, skills and preferences. A language to express differences through clothes emerged.

Class distinction and Fashion
Fashion’s role as expression of class difference in capitalist society normally works in favour of priviledged groups. Middle class conspicuous consumption is seen as means of exclusion from other groups whereas working class affluence is seen as identification with other groups.

Mamie Eisenhower, daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, wife of the president, 1953, set the standard of American fashion


These fashion adoption assumptions are drawn from a number of influential theories:
Veblen’s “Conspicuous Consumption theory” (late 19th century): Fashion as evidence for new status
Simmel’s “Trickle Down theory” (1904): Changes in taste are innovations made by the dominant class to preserve the unity and segregation of the class (happens periodically and therefore the cyclical process is created)
Affluence as ideology (Post WWII): The increased consumption of non-essential goods creates a classless society by disguising class differences. Differences are instead mobilized in the market to produce consumer identifications which leads to the creation of consumer groups. Differences are no longer between classes but between taste (socio-economic differences are disguised or denied)
Women’s identification with commodities is equated with the fetishism which creates the illusion of changed conditions of existence – the social betterment

In time the mass availability of synthetic fabrics made them decrease in value.

Mass market fashion
It was necessary to make commodities available for the working class in order for capitalism to expand. “Trickle across” / Mass market fashion were the new theory that evolved. The fashion industry reinvented the fashion season, which guarantees adoption across socio economic groups at the same time. There is always enough choice of equally fashionable styles to meet different demands and tastes. All socio economic groups have innovators/tastemakers within them. Mass media targeted at market segments, influence flows within groups rather than across.

Adoption of new styles depends on this flow of info between rather than across class groups – differences exist in the way in which fashion is adopted, as oppose to any time lag. Exclusivity is not confined to privileged group, all segments can shop in shops meant for them. Women of all classes are responsible for diffusion of fashion. Class differences didn’t disappear but became more complex because of development of increasingly complex manufacturing etc. Artificial fibers came into use and quickly associated with working class (1950s) while cotton and natural fibers were reserved for the privileged classes. Christian Dior was called the “Moderniser of the Haute Couture” because of his paper patterns that gave manufacturers and retailers a new way of selling “Original Dior copies.” Design replaced the personal sales assistant, retailers had to develop a “house” style, Brands started appearing in garments to guarantee quality. The relationship overall depended on a much greater level of consumer skills which became an essential part of identity formation. Diversity of make, retail brand, fabric, style, quality - all meant options of choice. The consumer had the control of the adoption and customization of the look and many variations emerged.

Advertisement, 1950 promotes the alternative style to Dior's New Look

Training working class affluence
“Untrained” affluence was seen as a threat to the standard and stability in taste (modernist design, commitment to rationalization and goods as solutions to simple needs, vs post modern design with goods as bearers of meanings and unpredictable emotional values)

The UK was promoting inconspicuous consumption by attempting to educate the consumer in rules of proper consumption and eliminating seasonal fluctuations in fashion (by setting up a central info and design centre from where manufacturers could be instructed) Wanted to change attitudes of consumer and manufacturer - discouraged identification with and emotional investments in objects. Working class women in the UK were fast acquiring consumer behaviour skills that enabled them to relate to goods in complex ways not understood by manufacturers (therefore improper).

New Look (soft rounded shoulders, nipped in waist, full long skirts) only tolerated within design establishment. Decorative but not aligned with the housewife ideal (square shoulders, short straight skirts). Women were supposed to a chameleon, both a housewife and a “tempting siren”. Fashion encouraged women to be both with just a change of clothes

Popular fashion
Utility and New Look were mixed and new meanings and definitions of use-value were created. The new look was accused of being antithesis to modernism and shameful indulgence in the face of economic restraint. Poplar notions of the New look were different from both couture versions and the “accurate” (department store) mass produced versions. Popularity was a form of rebellion or subversive use of fashion (like subcultures), class specific consumer skills enabled the combining of practical and luxurious styles all at once. Pop fashion mixed the glam and the practical, fused function and meaning (objectification and identification) and challenged the separation of housewife and sex object and redefined the values of clothes.

Laurie Oulette, “Inventing the Cosmo Girl: Class, Identity and Girl Style American Dreams”

Nars, SS 2010

Oulette wrote that Helen Gurley Brown transformed the American woman’s dream in the 1960's. Brown wrote Sex and the Single Girl and re-launched Cosmopolitan. Brown suggested that women use their sexuality to marry-up, creating many unrealistic expectations and a conflicted hegemony in magazine media.

Helen Gurley Brown, secretary turned editor advised women to carry a copy of Marx's Das Kapital to attract politically minded men

Jean Baudrillard: “America: Utopia Achieved” (1986)
Baudrillard describes America as the material utopia achieved, as an empty, non-culture of modernity. It has no origin or authenticity, lives in a perpetual present of signs and they exploit this situation to the full. Baudrillard claims the European countries suffer from a crisis of historical ideals facing up to the impossibility of realization. America, he claims, is faced with the crisis of an achieved utopia – which in itself is a paradox.


The Pacific Coast view from the castle of American entrepreneur William Randolf Hearst

Baudrillard goes on by saying America lives under the idyllic conviction that it is the centre of the world and possesses the supreme power. The utopia model is founded on justice, wealth and freedom, values that America has turned into reality. This ideal world is created out of nothing, and cinema helped producing this picture. Us Europeans are nostalgic dreamers and Americans are pragmatic doers. Again and again, Baudrillard talks about America as the ultimate and original version of modernity, something Europe, he says, will never be able to domesticate.

Mario Testino, American Vogue, January 2010

“Today all the myths of modernity are American…..
They have everything. They don’t need anything,” Baudrillard



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