Chapter 2a- Fashion Show Audience
Fashion Shows, Strip Shows and BeautyPageants: The Theatre of The Feminine Ideal
Chapter II: The Audience
Part a: Intro. and the Audience of the Fashionshow
When fashion shows, beauty pageants and strip shows crystallizedinto recognizable forms--separate from their origins in other forms, like trade shows,newspaper contests, and classical burlesque--they shared striking similarities. Indeed,certain aspects of one form would often (awkwardly) seem to have been borrowed from one ofthe others: for example, before the writing of the song, There She Is
Miss Americas were usually serenaded at their coronation to either Pomp and Circumstance or A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody, affording a choice between high school graduation and burlesque.
Costumed chorus production numbers in burlesque were performedlike fashion parades in order to display lavish costumes on the runway:
The chorus girls are dressed in a variety of arbitrary and meaningless costumes, some of them descended from old spectacular Broadway reviews. The dresses are seldom ugly, and quite a number have considerable invention and smartness. In these costumes the wretched girls go slowly and inaccurately through mechanical routines...save for the costumes they are indistinguishable one from another.
And as early as 1915, a fashion show displayed lingerie onmodels in a deliberately provocative tease:
In the center of the stage under a pink canopy was a little French bed and in it a pretty young woman all in fluffy things, for all Manhattan like a Belasco second act. The young woman arose from the bed, and while maids held a very filmy and diaphanous Liberty scarf before her, Mrs. Whitney proceeded to show the women and their husbands the generally unseen articles of women's apparel.
The formation of fashion show, beauty pageant and strip showperformers into three wholly separate, and often hostile, groups took some time. Thepolarization of these groups was brought about, not only by their various stated purposesof selling clothes, representing American womanhood, and "arousing the lust inmen"
4 but by the force of audience pressure to bedifferent.
The audiences for all three types of shows were ordinaryAmericans, both men and women for Miss America and other pageants, predominantly male forburlesque strip shows, and predominantly female for fashion shows. The behavior andreactions of these groups at performances caused many of the changes in the three kinds ofshows in this study. Therefore it is necessary to describe these audience groups, theiractions, their expectations, and the effect they had in helping to shape fashion shows,beauty pageants and strip shows into three radically different visions of theatricalperformance. Since the audience's expectations for the early performances of fashionshows, strip shows and beauty pageants was undoubtedly based on past experience with theirprecursors, it is necessary to describe briefly the origins of these three forms in orderto avoid confusion.
The Audience of Fashion Shows:
The modern fashion show, formally staged on a runway and open tothe public was an outgrowth or an amalgamation of two previously existing forms of fashionpresentation: the "informal" presentation of couture gowns on in-house models ata salon for select private customers, and the showings of mass-manufactured sample gownson dress dummies at wholesale trade shows. Neither of these kinds of presentations wasoriginally geared toward the general public. The couture "informal" shows wereopen only to wealthy private clients and showed only custom-order gowns that the majorityof the public couldn't afford; and trade shows, while showing the sort of ready-to-weargarments the general public usually bought, were originally geared to the needs ofwholesale buyers.
As early as 1903, however, circumstances began to change. In NewYork, the center of American ready-to-wear for women (menswear centered in Chicago), tradeconventions were opened to the general public and became popular attractions much as carand boat shows are today. In 1903, someone originated the idea of hiring models, just ascouture establishments did, to show the fashions at a trade show.
The fashion trade show audience was substantially different fromthe small elite invited audience of couture customers for which the informal fashion showof the early Twentieth Century was developed. The audience at an informal couture showbefore 1910 in Paris, London or New York consisted solely of women of extreme wealth orsocial standing (often both) who were favored customers of the house. It did not usuallyinclude wholesale buyers, and it definitely did not include ordinary middle class women.
The couture "show" was an outgrowth of the commonNineteenth Century practice of store clerks draping pieces of outerwear (mantles, shawls,etc.) on an attractive shop girl by way of demonstration. Ninteenth Century couturierCharles Frederick Worth, expanded upon this practice and included a small back room whereMannequins, as they came to be called, showed sample garments to favored individualcustomers.
6 Customers sat in state as a girl, walking orstanding on the same level as the customer, paraded for them on demand. After the Turn ofthe Century, this practice was expanded by the couturiere Lucille to include a wholeparade of models, music, a small stage and invitations.
Privileged wholesale buyers received less formal displays inmanufacturers' showrooms, but still viewed live models, as O. Henry's story "TheBuyer From Cactus City" shows:
Miss Asher was the crack model of Zizzbaum and Son. She was of the blonde type known as `medium' and her measurements even went the required 38-25-42 standard a little better. She posed with absolute self-possession before the stricken buyer, who stood, tongue-tied and motionless, while Zizzbaum orated oilily of the styles.
However, the privileges of private informal showings were notavailable to the general middle-class, ready-to-wear consumer. This group in America wasvery large and, in the early part of the century, increasing in numbers to include nearlyeveryone except the very top and bottom of the social scale. According to Claudia Kidwellin Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America (1976),
"By 1910 every article of female clothing could be purchased ready-made. Within another few years shopping for clothing off the rack became customary for women of all incomes and classes."
Naturally this new ready-to-wear purchasing public had a stronginterest in fashion, but, except for the top few, was excluded from the audience ofmade-to-order couture showings. This left lower- and middle-class ready-to-wear customerstrying to seek fashion information wherever it could be found.
As the ready-to-wear industry began to thrive, clothingmanufacturers began to band together into associations which put on trade shows wherebuyers, manufacturers, inventors, and wholesalers could meet, discuss business, and showoff their newest products. Since it was in the best interests of those selling fashions atthese conventions to have as many potential customers appear as possible, entrance wasgenerally not restricted and the general public began to attend. The more creative showproducers and manufacturers hired live models to show their products in the informal styleof couture models and these "living models," as they were then called, generateda great deal of press copy and audience interest. For example, the American Ladies'Tailors' Association 1910 show at the Hotel Astor in New York merited 128 lines of copy inThe New York Times, 68 lines of which were devoted to the description of what themodels did, looked like, and the effects they produced.
Retailers, not to be upstaged by the wholesale conventions inthe larger cities, banded together and held "fashion shows" of their ownmerchandise on their own premises. Out-of-town visitors (the staple of the wholesale showaudience) were given reduced rates by the railroad companies as part of the promotion ofthe retail show. Typically, some of the larger retail clothing stores taking part in theshow would put on special presentations which included living models.
Starting in 1911, for example, the Downtown merchants in SanFrancisco put on their first biannual cooperative "Fashion Show," as they calledit:
The San Francisco Fashion Show is a style event which opens the fall season and which all the prominent stores dealing in women's ready-to-wear apparel and millinery combine their openings on simultaneous dates...all of these openings, while being held in the stores of the firms participating, take place on the same days and at the same time...the participating stores will display their newest and most attractive wares in the most artistic and elaborate settings, each one making a special effort to out-do all others...in gorgeousness of display.
Some of the displays at these shows included runway and informalmodeling, which apparently attracted huge crowds (and lots of press copy).
Prior to this time truly wealthy women of San Francisco had beenprivileged to see new styles displayed on living models, but the general middle classwomen of the city formerly had to wait to see such dresses modeled by the wealthythemselves on the street. Two short articles in The San Francisco Call on July 17,1908, illustrate the stratified methods of aquiring fashion information in the City priorto 1911. In the first story, a regular store customer views a sheath gown at an informalmodeling session:
The woman-who-shops went into Altman's Store on Van Ness Avenue yesterday afternoon. After she had fingered ties and collars for a few minutes and talked about the new belts, she leaned towards the saleswoman and said in a careless undertone, "Oh, by the way, I didn't think of it before, but while I am here I might as well just look at that-that new French costume, you know-the Directoire." Whereat the saleswoman, with a discreet little smile, pointed the way to the costume room. The pretty wearer was obliging. She strolled about untiringly, dragging the shimmering, close-cut skirt to and fro.
In contrast to the feigned indifference of the society"women-who-shop" at Altman's, a crowd of women on the street "nearly causeda stampede" trying to glimpse a sheath dress on a "heavily veiled woman"walking in public: "As she walked along Van Ness she was followed by a crowd,composed mostly of women." She escaped them in a cab "amid sighs ofdisappointment from the admiring followers."
It is therefore understandable that even so slow-moving aspectacle as the one-model runway show of March 1911 at the Emporium should create a bigstir. Great numbers came from out of town on the reduced rate railroad tickets. Stores atthe time recorded sales to be sent to towns all over the Bay Area, which at that time wererural outposts and not yet part of the City's continuous suburban sprawl.
15 The crowds which gathered outside the "show windows"of the stores were, by all reports, inclusive of all classes of women, as Grace ArmisteadDoyle wrote on the first day of the 1914 show;
Mother and the feminine portion of the family from Pacific Avenue [very rich] to the Potrero [working class] are "at home" on the sidewalk today. Eager women from all parts of the city will rub elbows in the valiant effort to discover just what Dame Fashion is planning for 1914.
She also noted in the days that followed that the Downtown shopgirls gave up eating and spent their lunch hour at the show as well.
17 From 1911 to 1914 much press comment is made on the crowds ofout-of-town visitors who made use of the reduced rail rates, and it is implied that alarge segment of the fashion show audience was from rural areas.
By 1913, most large retailers in America used fashion shows withlive models to introduce their season's new styles.
19 This wastrue even of department stores in smaller towns; for example, in May 1913, an account inThe American Cloak and Suit Review tells of a typical spring show:
Schenk's was among the up-to-date retailers who utilized the services of living models for the display of women's wearing apparel at their spring opening...A platform was built in the center of the garment department, and a player piano was used for the furnishing of music. Four models... showed the new spring apparel...which ranged in price from $10 all the way up to $150.
The wide range of economic classes which patronized earlyfashion shows made the wide range of selling prices a wise marketing choice, as wasbuilding a platform for the models to parade upon, since this would allow for the largestnumber of women to see what was being shown. And that was what the fashion show audiencewas composed of: the largest number of women possible, without regard to economic status,age or whether they were urban, suburban or rural. The fashion show was in essence anentertainment for all women, and the women who formed the audience for these shows slowlyimposed their values on the show content.
Lucille, the couturier who innovated the couture showing soradically, believed that a fashion show audience imagined themselves as modeling theclothes when they watched a model parade. She attributed a doubling of her sales figuresin six months to the sense of audience transference her showings engendered:
Women who would gaze unmoved at my loveliest model when it was offered for their inspection in the cold, grey light of a winter morning, would come back in the afternoon, when a parade was in progress, see it worn by Gamela or Hebe, and buy it immediately. All women make pictures for themselves, they go to the theater and see themselves as the heroine of the play, they watch Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo acting for them at the cinema, but it is themselves they are watching really, and when the lights are lowered to a rosy glow, and soft music is played and the mannequins parade, there is not a woman in the audience, though she may be fat and middle-aged, who is not seeing herself looking as those slim, beautiful girls look in the clothes they are offering her. And that is the inevitable prelude to buying the clothes.
As Helen Bullitt Lowry put it in "Rude Intrusion of FactsInto Fashions" in The New York Times of August 1, 1920:
"What you really see is yourself in that same gown--only with your defects mercifully and miraculously eliminated."
Audience identification with the performer is a key factor infashion shows, since the producers want the audience to react by buying and wearing theclothes shown. In essence, the audience is encouraged to "share the fantasy" bybuying the product. However, the fantasy generally does not include having models whoresemble the audience members in height, girth, or weight. The idea of the fantasy is thatthe audience's "defects [are] mercifully and miraculously eliminated" by hiringmodels who appear to be what the audience wishes they were. As a result, the most obviouseffect of the audience's influence on the performance has been the change in theperformer's physical appearance, since the most successful models are those who lack whatthe audience considers defective.
What do women, as an audience group, consider defective inthemselves? What is their own ideal image (as compared to men's ideals of women asdepicted in pin-ups and centerfolds), and how has it changed?
In studies of self image taken across age and class groupings in America, women, significantly more than men, expressed concern over their physical appearance and were more likely to have a negative self image in this area.
The body is the matrix for major life events in the woman. Her bodily attractiveness is a basis for life success on the marriage market. She is taught to be caretaker of her body, adjust to menstruation, pregnancy and menopause...she intuits choices based on bodily sensations. Men are inclined to associate their self as residing in their head, while for women it resides in the chest and torso. When asked what they would do with their bodies, men would make themselves larger, and women would reduce all but their breasts.
Perhaps the most profound change in women's ideal self imageoccurred at the very same time as the fashion show was first being formed in the yearsbetween 1900 and 1920. The voluptuous ideal of the late Nineteenth Century, best typifiedby Lillian Russell, the American musical comedy actress, was being displaced, first by theslenderer, more athletic (but still large) Gibson Girl image, and later by the muchslenderer, boyish Cole Phillips' "All-American Girl," the precursor of theFlapper.
24 This change in image was directly influenced by thestruggle for women's rights, since Turn-of-the-Century feminists promoted the ideal of theyoung, active, intelligent, sophisticated woman over the passive, naive, virtuous,motherly woman of earlier years. As with any feminist movement in a male-based society,however, these feminists confused male behavior and appearance, with "normal"human behavior and appearance. In the matter of appearance and physical strength there wassome popular thought that with the new emphasis on "physical culture" for women,girls would soon be outstripping men in physical competitions and overall strength, healthand height. The magazine Harper's Bazaar in 1911 printed "The Weaker Sex NoLonger" on its editorial page:
When a girl like Rose Pitonof swims fifteen miles around Boston Light and is not even exhausted, and when a woman in a New York flat punishes a burglar with her bare hands until he screams for the police, what is even the strongest believer in man's superior strength going to say about it? The American girl is growing taller, stronger, and heavier every day. She owns and runs her automobile and asks no man to crank it. She is beginning to fly aeroplanes. She may at any moment take to football, and there is no doubt she has taken to politics.
Harper's, which promoted suffrage and other women'srights issues (in opposition to The Ladies' Home Journal which insisted womenshould stick to babies and housework), helped to propagate this feminist ideal of the"New Woman" with "masculine" assertiveness and physical strength asthe ideal image of Twentieth Century womanhood.
It is not very surprising therefore that Lucille hired six foottall Amazon-style girls for her couture shows,
26 and that,soon after, models were preferred for even slimmer, more boyish figures, in a continuousreducing of body fat, leading to the present unhealthy "health" image.
This psychological need for modern women to be thin in order toconform to a masculine image is the natural result of women attempting to achieve equalityin a masculine dominated society, as reported in Shame and Body Image (1990):
Our culture is based on patriarchal principles which foster separation between God and man and man within himself. Patriarchy is a hierarchal system espousing the superiority and dominance of white males as a ruling group. The female perspective has been devalued. A deep sense of shame has been created, not only for women who believe they are innately inferior but for all individuals who demonstrate more feminine qualities and values.
Not surprisingly, in this culture women attempt to emulate thedominant (male) body type on at least a subconscious level.
The female body, because of its reproductive function, typically has a twenty-five per cent fat content, while fifteen per cent is normal for males. However, fleshiness is viewed with disgust and equated with nurturing, femininity, passivity--qualities that our American culture does not value. On the other hand, thin, muscularly-toned bodies are perceived as symbols of strength, independence, control, power and success--values our culture deifies.
Katherine Perutz in Beyond the Looking Glass: America'sBeauty Culture (1970) however, notes that men, when given a choice as to how womenshould look, prefer the more ample feminine look to "model" thinness:
Many men are still not attracted by models, who are too thin. A train conductor from the Bronx confided to me, "If I'd wake up in the morning with one of those models next to me, I'd scream." And men of many professions protest that "the bones would get in the way", "I want something I can hold onto," or "I want a girl with meat on her bones." In America, where large breasts are still desired or even essential for sexiness, many men don't understand how their wives or daughters could have elevated models to desirable beauty.
Linda Sanford and Mary Donovan in Women and Self Esteem (1984)claim that in time periods when men control what is considered the desirable image offemale beauty, and women are clearly supposed to be both different and subordinate to men,a plumper more curvaceous figure is extolled as the ideal
Regardless of what men may or may not desire in women's figures, women overwhelmingly approve the thin, boyish look, even though the vast majority of them never even distantly approach it.
Given the choice of which ideal to live up to--bosomy, curvaceous type A or boyish, skinny type B--the most popular one today is the latter. Many of the same women who would scoff at the idea of taking a Mark Eden Bust Development Course think nothing of going on self-abusing diets...Just how oppressive the injunction to be thin is becomes painfully evident when we consider that nearly fifty per cent of all women are clinically overweight, and that Americans spend ten billion dollars each year on diet aids and strategies, ninety-five percent of which have been proven to be ineffective over a five year period.
This dieting mania started in the early years of the TwentiethCentury when the first dieting books were written to help women reduce.
32 The first best-selling diet book, Diet and Health With aKey to the Calories by Dr. LuLu Hunt Peters, written in 1918, fostered the notion thatbody weight was:
As much related to the mind as it was to the body. She popularized calorie counting and thus was born the notion that natural body processes, appetite and body weight were under conscious control and that being overweight meant simply being out of control."
This desire for control for its own sake, was an integral partof women's desired self image, since it emulated both a masculine body type as well as thetraditionally masculine virtues of strength and striving for success.
Slimness was important...as a symbol of the New Woman. The plump Victorian matron and the ideals of self-sacrifice, nurturing and devotion to others were replaced with the ideal of the thin, contoured body--a symbol of freedom, power and control.
This new ideal of womanhood, carried around in the minds of 20thCentury women, has come down to us from the earliest years of the fashion show, and hasbeen forced upon the body of the fashion show model by the consumer power of the audience.This image, growing slenderer each year, has become so distorted that the present idealmodel figure is so thin that her primary sex characteristics of breasts and wide hips arealmost completely obliterated, and she can model any dress, no matter how"revealing," without offending a woman's notion of sartorial decency. Thismethod of choosing the body to fit the desired image will be discussed further in ChapterIII.
This point serves to illustrate that a strong constant socialvalue of the audience has imposed itself on the nature of the performance and theperformer. That this is not a general society value placed on any performer by both menand women equally can be seen simply by looking at men's preferences and how they viewfashion models' figures.
Not only do the remarks about "the bones would get in theway,"
36 appear, but the ideal figure shown in men'smagazines is obviously quite different from that shown in women's magazines: JeanShrimpton, the top international model of the sixties, remarked on the differing attitudesher looks received from American men and women:
"I'm not sure that I appeal to men that much...the American man is still very sort of tits and ass oriented. I'm much too skinny, I don't really think I'm their type...They like busts and that...and they like bottoms, asses."
It is women, frequently the most "liberated" women,who promote the lean boyish figure as normal, healthy, and desirable for women, even whenthere is evidence to suggest that there are equally healthy alternatives. For example, AmyGreene of McCall's Magazine, objected to Miss America 1969, Judy Ford, an exuberanttrampolinist who at five feet seven inches and one hundred twenty-five pounds, hadproportionate 36-24&1/2-36 measurements, on the grounds that "she is twentypounds overweight" and was an ideal of beauty (Amy Greene felt) "for all thefellows that stand in bars, that don't even have a living room to sit and watchtelevision," thus damning her beauty as both male-defined and lower class
Women play the leading role in defining thinness with beauty,and beauty (in terms of leanness) with progressive ideas:
How great a role women can and often do play in upholding the idea that beautiful people are better people is unfortunately well illustrated by many of today's female proponents of physical fitness. In her best-selling exercise book, for example, Jane Fonda complains at great length about "male-defined" standards of beauty, but she is as firm as any male fashion designer in her insistence that a lean, well-muscled body is something every woman should strive for--even if it means spending several hours a day working at it. What is worse, Fonda equates physical fitness with moral soundness and political purity, suggesting that a person who is in good shape will be more receptive to progressive and humane social ideas than someone who is not in shape.
Twentieth Century female fashion show audiences and consumershave essentially promoted an ideal self image which has been freed from the"male-defined" feminine ideal of curves and fleshiness, and instead is definedas male: tall, without hips or breasts, a fifteen percent or less fat ratio, andsurmounted with shoulder pads (for the last ten years) to render the masculine illusioncomplete. This is the perfectly natural result of an audience composed largely of women ina masculine-run society attempting to imitate the socially superior group, in order tosucceed in being accepted as part of the group. Their consumer power has had a profoundeffect on the body shape of fashion models as women's chosen role models, a point whichwill be discussed in the next chapter on the image of the performer.
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