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Seminal Styles of the 20th Century, Part Four

20th Century Fox
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The Fifties! The Pelvis. Poodle skirts. Pat Boone. Nat King Cole. Hugh Hefner. James Dean. Ozzie and Harriet. Is it Safe to Come Out of the Bomb Shelter Yet?

  Meanwhile, Back at the Facade

The 1950s was a decade that was all about appearances. The pre-cable flickering images of black and white television served up The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best as fictionally idealized families—in which Dad, wearing full pajamas, and Mom, decked out in multiply layered peignoirs with perniciously opaque fronts, always slept in perfectly sterile, sex-free separate beds. Although groundbreaking for its depiction of a Caucasian /Latino mixed marriage, the meat of the most popular sitcom of the day, I Love Lucy, had a message that didn’t stray far from the omnipresent blue plate special: a woman’s place was in the home. (No, Lucy. You can’t be in the show!)

For the most part, the trickle-down effect of sober family values curtailed the raging hormones of teenage rebellion. Kids obeyed their parents. While boys boasted about getting to first or second base, most didn’t have expectations of a home run until after marriage. If a girl got knocked up, she was summarily shipped off to Aunt Mamie in Albuquerque, if she was lucky enough to have an Aunt Mamie, otherwise she was often incarcerated in a “school for wayward girls,” and forced to offer up the product of her illicit imbroglio to the local adoption agencies.

Clothing reflected a new amped-up Eisenhower-era conservatism. The Cold War usurped memories of the real wars as Communism became the new boogie man. In the pervasive better dead than red atmosphere, the average man (which is what most men aspired to be) daily donned his drab-colored suit, paired with a plain shirt and tasteful tie that came in a limited palette of accepted colors and patterns, and went off to earn the family income. Beneath their tidy, full skirted, wasp-waisted shirt dresses—accented by a single string of pearls—women reverted to wearing figure-constricting girdles and bras that might have been commissioned by the Army Corps of Engineers to serve as mini-Fort Knoxes designed to keep our national treasure chests firmly secured from untoward invasion. Respectable females wore a hat to church, and gloves, as well. Not since the days of whalebone corsets and petticoats had ladies willing donned so many layers. It was amazing that anyone got laid at all.

Bleak as all this sounds, there is evidence—in the form of the Baby Boom—that even though sex happened almost exclusively via the construct of the traditional one-man, one-woman, as sanctified by fill in the religious deity of your preference and sanctioned by the civil authority of your choice—sex was indeed happening. A lot. Rather than working in factories to evince their patriotism, women had become factories—baby factories, that is—and their offspring perched pertly on Mommy’s hip, became, along with frilly kitchen aprons and jaunty kerchiefs to ward off wind-swept coiffures, middle-class fashion accessories.

  All Hail the King

But as with previous eras marked by repression, you can only leave the stew on the stove so long before the pot boils over. Even with near constant vigilance and scrutiny, small chinks in the conservative armor emerged, and tiny trickles of unrestricted thought and expression began to seep through. One of the first idioms to breach the blockade was a crazy little thing called Rock ’n’ Roll.

Now, no one believes that Elvis Presley invented Rock ’n’ Roll. He did, however, appear on the scene at the penultimate moment to wrest the attention of what would eventually become a worldwide audience. A peculiar conflux of true talent, hillbilly humility, darkly seductive looks, and an uncanny eye for fashion (although he would eventually become a parody of himself, and WTF was up with that monkey, Priscilla?), with the gyrations of his legendarily gelatinous hips, Presley unleashed an ejaculate of pent-up sexuality that left a swooning legion of women damp in the panties from Memphis to Mongolia.

The King began cultivating his signature look in the early ’50s. With long sideburns and hair worn in an exaggerated ducktail (affected from his truck driving days), Presley dared to be different in a time when most just wanted to fit in. “In the sea of 1,600 pink-scalped kids at school,” says friend Red West, “Elvis stood out like a camel in the arctic.” In addition to his hair, Presley chose the road less traveled to get to his tailor. At the age of 17, Presley, who was working at a Lowe’s Theatre in Memphis, began his fascination for the clothing at Lansky Brothers on Beale Street. Lansky’s catered to Beale Street’s music crowd. Much of their inventory, modernized takes on the ethnic-inspired Zoot Suit, was comprised of oversized jackets, often in far-out colors, made to be worn with loose fitting pants.

The story goes that during an early live appearance in July of 1954, Presley was so nervous that his legs began to shake uncontrollably. When the wide-legged trousers he had on exaggerated his frenzied spasms, women in audience went totally out of control. Whether the result of nature or nerves, Presley was savvy enough to note the effect he was having, and a sex symbol was born.

Presley was one of the first pop stars to have a broad appeal that crossed color lines, which may be due to the fact that when many people first heard him, they thought he was black. Raised on gospel music, he began his career singing R & B tunes made popular by African American vocalists. To identify him to the audience as white, radio hosts would sometimes ask Presley on air what high school he’d attended. (For those of you too young to remember, schools were segregated by race back then; like Pleasantville before the color, only a whole lot less pleasant.) But it didn’t matter what race Presley was. His voice had only one hue, and it was a shade of pure, unadulterated lust.

As rock music’s foothold grew, clothing styles that suited its raucous energy emerged. Swing skirts (now known as Rockabilly)—with or without the poodle—for girls, and denims and leather jackets for boys were de riguer. Along with Elvis, actors such as James Dean and Marlon Brando became role models for youth, disaffected and otherwise, and “misunderstood” became the new aphrodisiac.

  Hollywood Confidential

Meanwhile, in Tinsel Town, movie producers looking for a new formula to turn celluloid into gold took the Mae West equation, added more boobs, and subtracted the brain. Behold! A cultural archetype, the behemoth-chested nitwit, a.k.a., “the dumb blonde” was born. From low-budget bimbos such as Mamie Van Doren, to B-picture queens, like Jayne Mansfield, to the cream of the crop, Marilyn Monroe, etched forever in our collective psyche as she stood atop that subway grate; a passing train blowing her skirt toward heaven (The Seven Year Itch, 1955, d. Billy Wilder), these tit-for-brained beauties became the staple of movie fare for a generation of filmgoers.

A less familiar, but no less compelling tableau of the decade is that of Eartha Kitt’s risqué, near-naked 1953 rendition (clad in seeming nothing but a white fur stole and pumps) of “Santa Baby,” on national TV, no less. Like Elvis Presley, Kitt spoke the language of sex—with her lithe body and her purring voice. Black artists, thanks in part to the color-blind influence of Rock ’n’ Roll, were beginning to make their mark in what had once been a white’s only domain. No longer regarded as mere novelty acts, singers like Kitt and Nat King Cole pioneered crossover stardom. Even so, the repercussions of these performers’ early efforts was years from coming to full fruition—and besides, the forces behind conservative Hollywood had other fish to fry.

How to combat the glut cinematic sexpots who were busy reminding the public that not only did they have genitals, but that they might actually enjoy using them? Ladies and Gentlemen, we are proud to present: “The All American Cock Teasers!” Doris Day! Sandra Dee! Dames with drop-dead bods and oh-so-kissable lips—with the morals of a 19th Century school marm! But as much as these professional virgins generated box office boffo, they spoke to an idealized picture of a male/female dynamic that didn’t really cut the mustard. While their message was a comment on current sexual mores, their meaning did not inform the dialogue. (Besides, no one could have been that naïve or frigid in real life, or procreation as we know it would have ceased to exist.)

No, to counteract the amazons of excess, Hollywood—with the help of fashion designers—deemed it wise to introduce a new class of heroine oozing with haute class. In the ’50s, Coco Chanel—still a force to be reckoned with—once again had taken to task clothing that was too tight, too fussy and too constricting to the female body. While Dior evinced gowns that were a strange marriage of meringue and complex corsetry, Chanel, proving the adage that everything old is new again, found freedom in simple lines. And as before, women around the world embraced that liberation.

Hitchock favorites such as Eva Marie Saint and Grace Kelly, but most notably, Audrey Hepburn in her smart suits and stylish sheaths became the mirror by which many women measured themselves. These stars, whose screen identities were often based on the hardworking, wisecracking dames of earlier decades as brought to the life by actresses such as Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell, were identified as much for their couture as their characters. For these ice queens, sex wasn’t off-limits, but it was currency. They used sex to get what they wanted, but they enjoyed it, too. The fun was watching them melt.

  Naked Lunch

By the end of the ’50s, the façade, although still intact, was beginning to crumble. A major assault took the form of a brand-new men’s lifestyle magazine…Playboy. Believing that naked was the ultimate fashion statement, Hugh Hefner launched his brainchild in 1953. In a few scant years, dozens of imitators had sprung up. By 1956, Playboy centerfolds were disporting their goods with pubic hair. Could the pink be far behind?

Meanwhile, the Beat Generation, spearheaded by Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, embarked on a road trip that explored altered states, altered sexuality, and altered pretty much everything else. It was a journey that would soon enthrall a nation overfed on candy-coated clichés that no longer sustained the psyche, the intellect or the libido.

In his 1956 landmark poem, Howl, openly out Ginsberg wrote:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn…
looking for an angry fix, who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly
motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim,
the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose
gardens and the grass of public parks and
cemeteries scattering their semen freely to
whomever come who may…
who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate
the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar
the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb
and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but
sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden
threads of the craftsman’s loom.”

And yea, it was then that June Cleaver did turn into a pillar of salt.



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