Values on Display: How I Let My Clothes Speak For Me

by Sara Ziegler

Material culture is defined by historian Jules Prown as “the study through artifacts of the beliefs – values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions – of a particular community or society at a given time.” In studying artifacts, often the connection between the object and its significance is not clear. Ephemera is a “term used by archivists and librarians to describe occasional publications and paper documents, material objects, or items that fall into the miscellaneous category when catalogued” (Cvetkovich 111). Ann Cvetkovich describes how ephemeral, seemingly meaningless objects can become of significant value when one is trying to archive emotions and feelings, such as those feelings associated with lesbian history. In this case, meaning is derived through affects – “associated with nostalgia, personal memory, fantasy, and trauma” (112). It is in this way – through archiving seemingly mundane objects – that I will attempt to document some aspects of my own material culture.

This dress was purchased for me by my mother when I was in high school. It is white, lacy, not too short or low-cut, but still flattering. It is ultimately “feminine”. I bought it because I wanted to look like Taylor Swift, and because I was caught up in an obsession that has plagued American society for as long as we've been a country.

This dress was purchased for me by my mother when I was in high school. It is white, lacy, not too short or low-cut, but still flattering. It is ultimately “feminine”. I bought it because I wanted to look like Taylor Swift, and because I was caught up in an obsession that has plagued American society for as long as we’ve been a country.

 The first object that I have chosen to document is the above white dress. In “The Cult of True Womanhood”, Barbara Welter argues that 19th century women were expected to possess the values of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity (152). I believe these values are still present in current American society, and that they have very harmful effects on young girls. From believing that women should be not only more pious than their male counterparts, but also responsible for male morality (an idea that ties into rape culture and allows us to all too often blame the victim), to believing that females should be pure (which feeds the double standard present with regards to male/female sexuality), the ideas of “True Womanhood” are still, unfortunately present. It can be seen in The Queen of Versailles in the enthusiasm surrounding the Miss America Pageants, a tradition that has always placed value in purity, and virginity in young girls, while still of course expecting that they are physically appealing. It was also the sentiment behind my white dress, which is in a way, as the commodification of these values, a good that was purchased in their honor.

Since coming to college, I have long abandoned my desire to be perceived as “pure.” In fact, I would consider my own material culture now to be one of dissent. In my head, I have sort of developed the idea that whatever I should be consuming (what typical middle class white girls that go to Rutgers consume), I want nothing to do with. I buy only used clothing, and avoid at all costs: North Face fleeces, Ugg boots, anything with a spirit R, etc. I take great pride in incorporating into my outfits clothes typically worn by: boys, old ladies, racial minorities, etc.

I got Timberland boots because I typically saw them being worn by African American males, or men working in manual labor. I have worn them every day, without fail, since I got them over a year ago. They are filthy, smelly, tough and when I wear them I walk down the street with a great sense of pride. If there is one object I would like to speak for me, it is my shoes. Yet, this in itself seems hypocritical, because I am not a male construction worker, and never will be.

I got Timberland boots because I typically saw them being worn by African American males, or men working in manual labor. I have worn them every day, without fail, since I got them over a year ago. They are filthy, smelly, tough and when I wear them I walk down the street with a great sense of pride. If there is one object I would like to speak for me, it is my shoes. Yet, this in itself seems hypocritical, because I am not a male construction worker, and never will be.

 In a way I may be using this object because I am ashamed of my own privilege as white and middle-class. Either way, perhaps not much has changed since high school after all: I still use consumer goods to display my values and beliefs.

These are just some of the hats in my collection. I got them all from a thrift store in Highland Park for $1.00 each. On Christmas Eve, 2013, I was travelling home via train and wearing one with my outfit for mass. In Camden, NJ, I was harassed for being rich because of my "fancy clothes". I told the man I got my entire outfit for under five dollars, but he didn't care, and it didn't matter, because I was portraying myself as someone very wealthy.

These are just some of the hats in my collection. I got them all from a thrift store in Highland Park for $1.00 each. On Christmas Eve 2013, I was travelling home via train and wearing one with my outfit for mass. In Camden, NJ, I was harassed for being rich because of my “fancy clothes.” I told the man I got my entire outfit for under five dollars, but he didn’t care, and it didn’t matter, because I was portraying myself as someone very wealthy.

The last object I have chosen to document is my hat collection. In one scene of The Queen of Versailles, David Siegel says something I’m paraphrasing as, “Everybody wants to be rich, and if they aren’t rich, they want to feel rich.” Even though I like to believe I have rejected most tenants of consumer culture, I cannot say that I never want to feel rich. When I wear these hats, I feel fabulously wealthy. Even if it is in a more antiquated and dramatic way, I can understand the appeal of feeling very rich. Perhaps then, David Siegel has touched on something fundamental to American culture: With money, you can be whoever you want. Money can buy not just your clothes, but your values as well. Everybody wants to rich!

This post was completed as part of an assignment interpreting the “material culture” of home, and how objects, keepsakes, and ephemera from our domestic lives contribute to our social identities. For additional information on the assignment, please visit: https://americanstudiesmediacultureprogram.wordpress.com/the-concept-of-home-spring-2014-the-archeology-of-home/

Gendered Hands: How Advertisements Define Social Roles

By Sara Ziegler

“She is a heroine who does all her own housework; but she seems a genius whose hands never show it. The question women ask every day is, ‘Can I do dishes, wash clothes and clean house and still have hands that do not confess it?’”

The above quote is from a 1925 advertisement for Ivory Soap, a company which ran an ongoing ad campaign on the gentle nature of their soap and its ability to preserve the loveliness of women’s hands throughout many hours of housework. These advertisements, and those of many other companies in the early 20th century, played an active role in defining the gendered roles that would dictate the lives of men and women of the time, and have substantial lingering effects to this day.

Day-long protection for fair hands

“Day-long protection for fair hands”, 1929. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries. This 1929 advertisement seems to define very clearly what was expected of women of the time: busy hours, combined with “hands (that) look as smooth and cool as flower-petals”. The ad seems to imply that femininity can be bought, and as an added bonus, so can charm! The ad reads, “FREE! A little book on charm. What kind of care for different complexions? For hands? For hair? For figures? A little book, ‘On The Art of Being Charming’ answers many questions like these, and is free.” Clearly depicted for the viewer, what it means to have feminine charm includes physical beauty, elegant dresses and jewelry, and the ability to wash dishes. Also notable is the little quote that reads “Smooth white hands add so much to charm!”, subtly excluding other races from achieving this level of femininity.

 

During the depression and World War II, many women were forced to leave the home and head to the workplace. However, when the men returned home (to the United States), women were expected to return home as well (to the kitchen). In The Commodity Gap: Consumerism and the Modern Home, Elaine Tyler May describes how “public opinion polls taken after the war indicate that both men and women were generally opposed to employment for women and believed that a woman who ran a home had a ‘more interesting time’ than did a woman with a full-time job” (159). Despite women’s ventures into the workplace, mainstream opinions had not changed.

“Help! Mummy’s Hands Are Rough!”, 1940. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries. Women were still expected to be dainty and lovely home-makers, as well as being mothers, which is captured in this ad, also for Ivory Soap. Apparently, if a woman’s hands weren’t soft, she was not only not charming, but also a bad mother.

 

In fact, as Cold War politics came into play, the nuclear family and the white picket-fenced suburban home turned full force into tangible manifestations of the American dream (May, 153). In the 1950s, as panic struck over communism, the suburban home and the buying of domestic goods became ways to contain potential threats to the traditional capitalist system. Women and workers were kept at bay as their attention was focused on domestic life. Women and sexuality in general, were to be contained within the home (May, 156). In the five years following World War II, consumer spending on household furnishings and appliances increased 240 percent, as opposed to the 60 percent increase for consumer spending as a whole (May, 157). Women were encouraged to stay at home and tend to their new suburban households, and men were encouraged to go to work in the outside world, earning money to buy more household appliances. Any arrangement outside of this was seen as a threat to capitalism.

“In these hands… more profits in good will”, 1948. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries. Just as women were expected to stay at home, men were expected to work outside the home, perhaps in one of the 400 plants surveyed according to this ad. In stark contrast to the ads directed at women, this ad focuses on the hands in an entirely different way, with the emphasis being on “profits”, “workers”, and the “tough” nature of the paper towels.

 

Ruth Schwartz Cowan, who has explored the many alternative approaches to domestic life that could have occurred, argues that Americans have in a sense chosen to remain focused on family life and family autonomy over community interest and technical efficiency. She says that “the allocation of housework to women is…a convention so deeply embedded in our individual and collective consciousnesses that even the profound changes wrought by the twentieth century have not yet shaken it” (Cowan, 150). Whether or not women chose to remain in the home is a tricky question, but it cannot be denied that the advertisements like the ones explored here have had a profound effect on how we define gender roles in our collective consciousness, whether it be divisions in labor, or something as simple as our own hands.

 

This post was completed as part of assignment on how the idea of home and the concept of domesticity has been used in marketing during different historical moments and in the present. For additional information on the assignment, please visit: https://americanstudiesmediacultureprogram.wordpress.com/the-concept-of-home-spring-2014-selling-home/.

Women and Westward Expansion: The Pains and Perils of Pioneer Life

Women and Westward Expansion: The Pains and Perils of Pioneer Life

By Sara Ziegler

The pioneers of 19th century westward expansion in the United States are often looked back upon as possessing levels of courage and individualism that are the stuff of legend and lore. However, these men and women are perhaps overly-romanticized out of political sentiment. Highly regarded for settling the west on their own, pioneer frontier spirit has been used to critique government initiatives, when in reality the West was settled only with massive state intervention. In fact, the “hardy” pioneers were more often than not overcome with nostalgia. In Homesickness: An American History, Susan Matt suggests that “under a facade of optimism and adventurousness…often lurked regret and a deep longing for home and family” (Chapter 2). Because men often ventured into the West alone, for the time being leaving their wives and families behind in pursuit of wealth, there were relatively few women in the West. While men often missed the comforts of home, family, and domestic life, it was undoubtedly women who missed them even more (Matt, Chapter 2).

“I trembled at the possibility of being the only woman within eighteen miles”, 1921. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
This pen and ink drawing by John Wolcott Adams was published in The Delineator, a women’s magazine, in 1921. The image and its title suggest sentiments of fear and loneliness felt by women of the frontier, who were few and far between.

Many men flocked to the farthest reaches of the frontier when gold was found in California in 1848. In these early days, there were very few women, and society in general was far less refined in California. The few women in California, still meant to inhabit the domestic space of the home, would have had far fewer opportunities to socialize in this environment. An Englishmen who lived in California for four years in the 1870s, Walter M. Fisher, wrote an account of what he thought of the women of California in his 1876 work, “The Californians”.

 Selections from Chapter VI of "The Californians" by Walter M. Fisher. Fisher connects women, home, and domesticity to all that is good and righteous. He laments the fact that there are so few women in California, citing the damage it has on the character of both men and women, and society in California as a whole.


Selections from Chapter VI of “The Californians” by Walter M. Fisher. Fisher connects women, home, and domesticity to all that is good and righteous. He laments the fact that there are so few women in California, citing the damage it has on the character of both men and women, and society in California as a whole.

 

In his reasoning, Fisher makes three connections that are important to note. First, he links women, and family, to “the golden domestic doors” of home. Secondly, he portrays the domestic, feminine woman as a heroine, linked to “delicacy, elegance, nobility”. Lastly, he links the woman that is in a fallen state of femininity (one who has acquired “habits of self-assertion,…tyranny…a giant’s strength”) to the foreign (“Amazonian dash…Spanish traditions”). These connections fall in line with what Amy Kaplan describes in Manifest Domesticity, which is an understanding of domesticity not only in terms of the contrast of “the domestic sphere with the market or political realm,” but also of “the domestic to the foreign” (582). Contrasting the domestic and the foreign allows domesticity to bring men and women together against the alien (Kaplan, 582), but when the women of California fall outside the traditional realm of femininity, Fisher puts the blame on the alien, and associates these women with the foreign.

Writing around the same time as Fisher, Eliza W. Farnham captures her own account of life in California in her 1856 work, California, in-doors and out; or, How we farm, mine, and live generally in the Golden State. As a pioneer woman herself, she has a slightly different perspective on the women of California.

In Chapter XXXI of "California, in-doors and out; or, How we farm, mine, and live generally in the Golden State", Eliza W. Farnham provides an account of the women in California. Blaming the culture of individualistic capitalism, and a general mistrust of women that she claims is present in the community, she laments the effects of the harsh environment on the values and good quality of the women there. She provides an account of a "beautiful exception", a woman that engages in masculine work yet retains her femininity, and praises this as the most desirable state of pioneer womanhood.

In Chapter XXXI of “California, in-doors and out; or, How we farm, mine, and live generally in the Golden State”, Eliza W. Farnham provides an account of the women in California. Blaming the culture of individualistic capitalism, and a general mistrust of women that she claims is present in the community, she laments the effects of the harsh environment on the values and good quality of the women there. She provides an account of a “beautiful exception”, a woman that engages in masculine work yet retains her femininity, and praises this as the most desirable state of pioneer womanhood.

Although Farnham places much of the blame on a single-minded obsession with attaining material wealth (“It is rare to meet with a man or woman, who seems at all stirred by any but the money phase of the country,” Chapter XXXI), and men’s general mistrust of females in the community, she still frowns upon the loss of “gentleness,” praises the state of being “feminine and sweet,” and seems to hold many of the same opinions as Fisher. Her final words to what she calls the “martyr women of California” are those that encourage great sacrifice: “Forget not this in your afflictions. If it cost you the peace, happiness and outward dignity of your life, forget not that it is carrying to others, elsewhere, the same blessings it has robbed you of…for it rarely happens that the good which our human desire craves, flows to the first laborers in any new field” (Chapter XXXI).

Although there were undoubtedly women that “welcomed the adventure and the liberation from the more rigid and confining gender roles of the East” (Matt, Chapter 2), most were still constrained by the limiting values of domesticity. The women of westward expansion were, therefore, inflicted not only with the same perils of their male counterparts, but also with a repressive system of values. It is no wonder then, that they felt homesick and lonely. It was not easy to leave home, and their bravery should be commended.

This drawing by George E. Niles, entitled “Lost to Sight” was published in 1887. It depicts a Pioneer woman standing in profile on the prairie. Her vision trails off to something she can no longer see. This image portrays the vastness of the West, and one woman’s lone stance within it.

Note: Because I only have a Kindle edition of Homesickness: An American History, I was not able to include exact page numbers.

This post was completed as an assignment for the American Studies course, “The Concept of Home.”  A list of the readings that informed this assignment can be found here.