As a traditionally feminine woman who strives daily to perfect that stereotypical image of the 1950’s housewife, I have to deal with a lot of different things. Unfortunately, one of those things includes a large number of people regularly degrading my favorite decade at every conceivable turn- especially when it comes to my interest in trying to emulate that.
It has become fashionable to portray outdated societal behaviors and attitudes — ones we now consider desperately wrongheaded — to be worse than they really were as a way of making a point about how much we’ve improved. When we despair over the human condition and feel the need for a little pat on the back, a few startling comparisons between us modern enlightened folks and those terrible neanderthals of yesteryear give us that. We go away from such readings a bit proud of how we’ve pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and with our halos a bit more brightly burnished.
The juxtaposition of wonderful modernity with a tawdry past also serves to reinforce the ‘rightness’ of current societal stances by making any other positions appear ludicrous. It reminds folks of the importance of holding on to these newer ways of thinking and to caution them against falling back into older patterns which may be more comfortable but less socially desirable. Such reinforcement works on the principle that if you won’t do a good thing just for its own sake, you’ll surely do it to avoid being laughed at and looked down upon by your peers. (Snopes)
When it comes to the 1950’s, almost anything is up for grabs. This is doubly true if the topic an any way concerns sexism, consent, fashion, racism, and so on. In fact, these might be some of the favorite topics when it comes to the 1950’s. And as someone who loves history, I have to recognize that there are certainly a number of problems that existed in the 1950’s; a lot of the criticism against the decade is incredibly valid for a number of reasons. And sure, our own decade isn’t perfect. But we’ve certainly made leaps and bounds when compared to prior eras.
My problem, however, is that often those who pick on and single the 1950’s out for their violations, often do so while failing to recognize several important things about the era; People like to talk about how obsessed the 1950′s were with rigid gender roles, but in doing so they tend to gloss over the factors that created that to begin with. This is especially true where it concerns fashion and women’s roles in society- and, more importantly, what we think the 1950’s Housewife even looked like in the first place.
In case you’re not familiar with the era, WWII began in September of 1939. A year later, in September of 1940, the United States instituted the Selective Training and Service Act– otherwise known as “The Draft”. This act required all men between the ages of 21 and 45 to register for military service. At first, those selected were required to serve at least 1 year of mandatory service in the armed forces. Later, though, these terms would be extended in perpetuity- or at least until the War was over in 1945 (The Draft and WWII).
As you can imagine, this left significant holes in the working population- especially in male dominated labor industries. As a result, a patriotic campaign was started to encourage Women to take up those positions to help with the war effort.
Joining the labor force as a Woman was seen by both the Right and the Left as an act of Patriotism and support for the cause. Through their encouragement, female employment rose from 27% to almost 40% in the span of just a few short years. In some areas, Women would go on to make up as much as 65% of the work force (such as in the case of the Aviation Industry). By 1943, 90% of single women between the ages of 18 and 40 were either working or engaged in newly created National Service occupations. And by the time WWII ended in 1945, it’s estimated that 1 out of every 4 married Women were employed- a number which, despite the fact that Women have always held positions in the work place throughout history, was previously unprecedented. (American Women in WWII; Striking Women: WWII)
But then WWII ended and those Military Men and Women who survived the horrors of the war came flooding back to their homelands. Yet Women still dominated the work force- and many of them were reluctant to leave, leaving hundreds of male service veterans unemployed. To complicate matters further, an estimated 60 to 80 million people (or: about 3% of the total world population) were claimed by WWII. Out of those casualties, it’s estimated that only 1/3 of them were military, but between Military and Civilian deaths, the death toll of WWII still left a rather significant mark in many communities.
As a result- particularly in America- a widespread campaign was started in an effort to stem the tide. The problem? Prior propaganda was working against them… And so society turned once again to Propaganda to solve the issue. This time: The Nuclear Family Model that we’re familiar with today; the Nuclear Family model (and everything that went with it) encouraged Women to retake their traditional roles in society as Mothers and Wives. This helped to displace them from their previously occupied male labor roles, opening them back up for the returning Men, but it also helped combat population losses sustained during the war efforts. It was a double edged sword, and it served its uses particularly well.
There was another aspect at play, however, that heavily influenced the post war era- and it’s one that often gets overlooked: Wartime Rationing and Technological Advancements.
Rationing, unlike the war, didn’t even begin to lift in many areas until 1950 (or as late as 1956 in some areas) and kept a lot of things (up to and including food and soap, fabric, and more) out of the hands of the common people. When that ended, suddenly the market was flooded not only with excess items that people hadn’t been able to obtain in over a decade, but also wartime technologies that now needed to find a new place in civilian society. The majority of these advancements wound up being applied to Women’s industries, as more companies turned to Women as viable consumers with money.
In other words, when WWII ended new civilian uses for wartime technologies were introduced to the market, and previously rationed items were made available again. Social rules, beauty standards, and propaganda campaigns were created to encourage these things (technological advancements and previously rationed items) to be taken up and used… And when combined with the rationing, these became more over the top; more feminine, bigger, more patterned than they had been in prior years.
And that’s important, because it was one of the major driving forces behind an incredible economic boom… You see, people don’t realize that Fashion and Beauty isn’t an island; it’s not something that’s cut off from the impact of the socio-political climates it develops in. In fact, instead of being isolated from them it’s often a direct reflection of those climates. This is true even for the 1950’s.
Absolutely nothing that came out of the era existed in a vacuum. It was all impacted by the socio-political post war climate- including the severe population decline, and the end of wartime rationing and limitation, which both arguably had the greatest impact on post war society and (yes) fashion. This is most evident nowhere else than in the first fashion collection released after WWII.
Released in 1947 and nicknamed “The New Look” for its stark deviation from pre and post war Fashion up to that point, Dior’s new collection was different- and it was different, according to Jonathan Walford, in “Its abundance – the excessive use of luxurious fabrics and time intensive labor [… and …] the overly female form that he presented” (Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look)… All things which were in direct, stark contrast to the simplicity and bleakness of wartime fashion that predated it.
Though Christian Dior was not American and the collection debuted in France, it was America who received news of it first and became enamored with it. By 1950, the image of the All American Housewife established by the Nuclear Family Model was heavily influenced by Dior’s collection; the birth of what we now consider the stereotypical image of the 1950’s Housewife: A hyperfeminine, middle class Woman who stays at home with the children and the housework all day.. And it was that image that stuck and became the primary face of a social and economical propaganda campaign launched in part to solve economic, labor, and population issues created by WWII.
And that’s a stark reality for some to face; as Sheila Hardy notes in her wonderfully detailed historical account of 1950’s England, Women certainly did quite a lot and the role of the Homemaker wasn’t an easy one in that era (when has it really ever been, though). Yet the Women we see in add campaigns, television, and commercials of the 1950’s, who we think quintessentially defines the 1950’s housewife was never anything other than Propaganda; she simply never existed. And I think that’s what gets me when people rally against the 1950’s, the occupation of Homemaker and Mother, traditional femininity, and the likes- and do so using this particular image of the Housewife (or worse: Ridiculous, ahistorical falsities like The Good Wife’s Guide): They don’t seem to understand that it wasn’t reality.
That certainly doesn’t mean that the 1950’s didn’t have it’s problems with racism, sexism, and the likes. Nor does it mean that stereotypes don’t have an incredible ability to negatively influence things on some pretty crappy levels. It certainly did, and it does, and we’d all be idiots to ignore it; decades later we’re still fighting some of the negative effects this propaganda had on our culture. But none of that changes the fact that it was still propaganda and there are far more valid angles to attack this issue from.
For those of use who still love and wish to emulate the image of the 1950’s Housewife, however, we acknowledge the fact that it was nothing more than propaganda. You’d have to be a particularly… Interesting… Person not to. But honestly, we’re ok with the fact that it was; those of us who are rational don’t strive for this because we think that it was better back in the day– and you could not, in fact, pay me enough to go back in time and actually live there. But like most Women we do enjoy a good fairy tale… This one just happens to be more our cup of tea- and a dash more obtainable than a Prince.