Designing Women: Cinema, Art Deco, and the Female Form

Designing Women: Cinema, Art Deco, and the Female Form

Designing Women: Cinema, Art Deco, and the Female Form

Designing Women: Cinema, Art Deco, and the Female Form


Grand, sensational, and exotic, Art Deco design was above all modern, exemplifying the majesty and boundless potential of a newly industrialized world. From department store window dressings to the illustrations in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs to the glamorous pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazar, Lucy Fischer documents the ubiquity of Art Deco in mainstream consumerism and its connection to the emergence of the "New Woman" in American society. Fischer argues that Art Deco functioned as a trademark for popular notions of femininity during a time when women were widely considered to be the primary consumers in the average household, and as the tactics of advertisers as well as the content of new magazines such as Good Housekeeping and the Woman's Home Companion increasingly catered to female buyers. While reflecting the growing prestige of the modern woman, Art Deco-inspired consumerism helped shape the image of femininity that would dominate the American imagination for decades to come.

In films of the middle and late 1920s, the Art Deco aesthetic was at its most radical. Female stars such as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Myrna Loy donned sumptuous Art Deco fashions, while the directors Cecil B. DeMille, Busby Berkeley, Jacques Feyder, and Fritz Lang created cinematic worlds that were veritable Deco extravaganzas. But the style soon fell into decline, and Fischer examines the attendant taming of the female role throughout the 1930s as a growing conservatism challenged the feminist advances of an earlier generation. Progressively muted in films, the Art Deco woman -- once an object of intense desire -- gradually regressed toward demeaning caricatures and pantomimes of unbridled sexuality. Exploring the vision of American womanhood as it was portrayed in a large body of films and a variety of genres, from the fashionable musicals of Josephine Baker, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to the fantastic settings of Metropolis, The Wizard of Oz, and Lost Horizon, Fischer reveals America's long standing fascination with Art Deco, the movement's iconic influence on cinematic expression, and how its familiar style left an indelible mark on American culture.


Beyond selling women on the joys of department store shopping, Art Deco packaging and advertising advanced a host of specific products for women which ranged from those associated with her person (cosmetics, jewelry, and clothing) to those tied to her home (housewares, appliances, and furniture.) Again, it was in the pages of women's magazines and catalogues of the period (both before and after the stock market crash) that this discourse of consumerism and material culture was articulated. While, clearly, the most avant-garde and expensive objects sold were aimed at the upper-and middle-class urban female shopper (and advertised in such high-toned publications as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar), wide circulation of the Sears catalogue made it possible for a broad range of American women to acquire a degree of modishness. As Kenneth Yellis notes:

Perusal of the Sears, Roebuck catalogues for the decade is very suggestive.
… These catalogues were, presumably, important to women in areas and
situations in which being strictly fashionable was not vital for their careers
or social acceptance, such as women on farms or in towns out of the reach
of the large urban department stores. But the styles in these catalogues …
were no more than three months behind what was readily available in New
York department stores. (1980:373)

Hence, a degree of egalitarianism reigned in the era's fashion system.

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