The worthy displays of good design offered by the Council of Industrial Design and of fine art by the Arts Council of Great Britain could not compete for popular attention with the growing stream of American imported goods during the 1950s. The attractiveness of the goods was reinforced by the glamour of Hollywood film and American television during the period. The lifestyle depicted on the Hollywood screen and, from 1955, on the small screen in the form of television portrayed America as the land of opportunity and plenty, where everybody had a smart kitchen with a washing machine and open-plan living/dining rooms. Where everyone drove a smart car to their suburban home and ate from well-stocked fridges.
Few families could afford the full American lifestyle; they could only marvel at what was shown on screen. J. P. Mayer's survey of the British cinema audience carried out in the late 1940s elicited a range of illuminating responses to the question of Hollywood and consumer culture, as Paul Swann explains:
many of Mayer's correspondents, predominately women, noted how they lusted after the clothing and consumer durables they saw in American films. One wrote that she would love to wear clothes like Lana Turner's and have an American-style white kitchen, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer would only let her' (1987: 43).
Those who worked on the ocean liners were amongst the first to bring back from America the new consumer goods just after the war. As Margaret Florence Green, whose stepfather was Chief Quarter Master on the Queen Mary, remembered:
. . .we were very lucky, we were one of the first in our street to have a washing machine and a refrigerator and sweets and food and china. Everything, particularly in those days Woolworth's in America was a big store for the seamen so they used to get taxis from the dockside, because its wasn't safe to walk the New York docks, and they all used to go by taxi to the big stores in America and bring most things home (Massey 1997: 8).
Images of plenty were also exploited in advertising for British goods. The Liverpool firm of Vernons produced kitchen cabinets and boasted 'That Film Kitchen Can Be Yours' inscribed on to a piece of film.
The economic boom effected America sooner than Britain. The expansion in the economy was mainly stimulated by consumer demand. In America the population boomed from 131 million in 1940 to 226 million in 1980. Easy credit was made available during the 1950s, and much of the consumer purchasing during that decade was driven by purchases for the home. New electrical goods became the norm - the purchase of television sets, fridges, washing machines and dishwashers was stimulated and informed by increased advertising. In Britain, when the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared in his famous speech of 1957 'You've never had it so good' he reflected popular opinion. With the relaxation of exchange controls in 1958 American goods flowed once more into Britain, just at the time when recovery from wartime and rationing was complete. Increased affluence in Britain was associated with ability to consume an American lifestyle as seen on the cinema screen, on television and in magazines.
What made a dent in cinema attendance figures was the introduction of television, particularly commercial television, in 1955 and the availability of cheaper television sets. The relaxation on hire purchase restrictions in 1954 also triggered demand for TV sets: 3 million licences were issued in 1954, but 8 million in 1958. But Hollywood still reigned supreme in its leadership of glamour, in defining what was desirable in clothing, home decoration and consumer goods throughout the 1950s in Britain.
Anti-American feeling amongst the British elite was further heightened from 1958 onwards when import restrictions were dropped and there was a surge of imports and American investment in Britain. By 1966 there were some 1,600 American subsidiaries or Anglo-American firms in Britain, worth almost $6 billion in terms of investment, America's second largest overseas investment after Canada. The companies employed 6 per cent of the workforce and produced 10 per cent of goods made in British factories. As in the pre-war era, investment was in the manufacture of new consumer goods, such as cars, cosmetics, vacuum cleaners and processed food. Frozen food, TV dinners, supermarkets, barbecues, Tupperware and new, bigger cars were revolutionizing British life. Whilst this led to renewed panic amongst cultural commentators and politicians, for the consumer it meant novelty and fun after the dreary war years.
The lavishness of Christian Dior's New Look in fashion, launched in Paris in 1947, reflected the mood of post-war Britain and the US. Although castigated by the then President of the Board of Trade, Harold Wilson, the look was popular on both sides of the Atlantic and amongst all classes of women. With its padded shoulders, tight waist, full skirts which reached to mid-calf and stiletto heels it was feminine and extravagant. It acted as a counterpoint on behalf of the fashion industry to the rational, functional Utility style with its tailored suits and shirtwaist dresses (Ash and Wilson 1992). The creation of the look in
Paris by a haute couture designer and its widespread adoption by the mass market was partly due to cinema. Much like the process whereby art deco was adopted from Paris by Hollywood and consumed in a different form by a mass audience, so the New Look was appropriated by costume designers for the screen. In America the New Look was known as the 'Sweetheart Line', and was first seen on film with Edith Head's creation for Bette Davis in June Bride (1948). The full-skirted, feminine dress was used throughout the 1950s to denote femininity, in particular for wedding dresses, as seen in Father of the Bride (1950) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). The starched, formal construction of Dior's New Look, complete with low neckline and corsetry to achieve the nipped-in waistline for the upper-class market, was revised by Hollywood and the mass market, adopting it for more everyday wear in easy-to-care-for fabrics. Seen in action in the 1950s Hollywood musicals such as Calamity Jane and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), the skirts whirl around, creating a dizzy display of froth and fabric. As Joanne Lacey's research into the consumption of popular film in Liverpool revealed when recalling Hollywood musicals of the 1950s: 'My interviewees did understand the importance of glamour. Glamour is positioned overwhelmingly as the antithesis of ordinariness, and ordinary was what these women were trying not to be. What space was there in postwar political and social discourses, or indeed in images of working-class women in British films, and in fashion advice pages for working-class women to be extraordinary?' (1999: 64).
My mother recalled feeling extraordinary in Hollywood-inspired dresses. Going to dances at the Co-operative Society at Consett after the war, when she would enjoy wearing and dancing in the full skirts of the New Look. 'I remember buying a black skirt which had three layers - the bottom one being stiff net so that it swished round when you were dancing. I wore ballerina-type pump shoes and a taffeta blouse with puffed sleeves. I remember enjoying dancing around in that -swishing the skirt round. That idea must have come from the cinema' (In interview with author 1998). She would make many clothes at home using paper patterns, and ensure enough volume in the skirts by using layers of starched net. She danced to a mixture of traditional ballroom music, country dance tunes or jazz played by a small local band. The dance hall was a popular attraction during post-war Britain for young, working-class men and women, as exemplified in the British film Dance Hall (1950). It also presented a threat to middle-class cultural values (Kirkham: 1995).
The New Look also reinforced the feminine curves, first controversially exploited in, according to the poster, 'Howard Hughes' Daring Production- Action! Thrills!! Sensations!!! Primitive Love!!!!' The Outlaw (1941). The look continued to be popular during the 1950s, as exemplified by popular Hollywood stars, particularly Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953^ The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Bus Stop (1956). It was lamely imitated by Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). Women in Britain could copy the obvious curves of Hollywood by various means. One was the 'Whirlpool Bra', a solid item of undergarment where the cup was constructed out of a spiral of supportive wire or stitching to give a pronounced profile. In Vogue, November 1952, the Berlei Whirlpool Hollywood-Maxwell brassière was advertised as: 'The most glamorous brassiere ever designed. Here's the star of the American fashion scene . . . favourite bra of fashion models, film stars, debutantes - sure to be your favourite too . . . each bust cup a whirlpool of continuous stitching to give firm, flattering uplift, deeply defined separation . . .'. Women could also buy 'Cuties', or latex pads that could be worn inside the bra to give the effect of extra volume and uplifted profile (Figure 43). An advert for the product in True Stories of the late 1940s recommended 'Cuties ... as worn by Stage and Screen Stars. Originated in Hollywood - now available to you. Scientifically designed latex sponge pads, which are porous and can be worn next to the skin in perfect comfort. Cuties fit in your Brassiere and create a natural, modern and youthful UPLIFT outline. For wear under swim suits, sweaters, evening gowns and dresses.'
Hollywood star endorsement of beauty products continued unabated during the 1950s. Most prevalent was Max Factor, the Hollywood cosmetics manufacturer, who by 1950 was selling make-up on a global scale to women in countries as diverse as Australia, South Africa, Ireland, Brazil, Italy, Japan and India, plus nearly 100 more. Advertisements were placed in the burgeoning number of women's and film fan magazines and in the Ideal Home Yearbook. Just after the war came the 'Colour Harmony Make-Up of the Stars' range, with adverts featuring Esther Wild, Deborah Kerr, Betty Hutton and Rhonda Fleming. Face powder, lipstick, eye shadow and 'pancake' foundation were sold as: 'These famous glamorizing requisites of Hollywood's most alluring screen stars will give you amazing new beauty RIGHT NOW! Try them today . . . this very night' (Woman's Own, 15 December 1949: 17) (Figure 44). The emphasis on colour in the range and the use of luridly coloured press advertising reflected Hollywood's new Technicolor orientation.
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