Magazine article Reason

MAKING HISTORY MODERN: When Women Bought Retro Futurism at $4.50 a Yard

Magazine article Reason

MAKING HISTORY MODERN: When Women Bought Retro Futurism at $4.50 a Yard

Article excerpt

SHE IS AN icon of 1920s modernity: an independent woman with bobbed hair and a short skirt, walking with her streamlined Borzoi, the quintessential Art Deco dog. Behind her is a New York City street. But instead of skyscrapers and neon lights, it's lined with old-fashioned chimneyed houses.

This image, with its up-to-the-minute foreground character and historic background tableau, is from a series of 1929 ads promoting the new season's print fabrics from H.R. Mallinson & Co., a major silk-textile manufacturer. In a second ad, the modern woman, hand on hip, twirls her long pearl necklace in a stereotypical flapper gesture. In the background is a monument featuring the Mayflower and a hopeful-looking Pilgrim couple. A third ad shows the woman standing with her hand on a ledge, gazing thoughtfully in a pose that mirrors the bust of Abraham Lincoln looking down at her.

Mallinson sold its silks around the world, but it was a resolutely American company, boasting from the start that it produced "national silk of international fame." It carried its identity into its textile designs. Earlier themes had included state flowers, National Parks, American Indians, and "Wonder Caves of America."

The prints were promotional items, offering retailers something splashy for their windows and their newspaper ads--but the goal was to attract customers to the company's basics. "You went in and you bought a yard of an American Indian silk to make a blouse and five yards of navy blue to make a suit, and that's where they made their money," says textile historian Madelyn Shaw.

The prints ran $4.50 a yard, or $64.42 in today's dollars, a price point that explains why they tended to sell in smaller quantities. "This was not an inexpensive silk," Shaw says. "You thought about it as an investment."

Investing in fabric with pretty pictures of flowers, scenery, or Native American motifs is one thing. But why would someone want to wear "Life of Lincoln," "Mayflower Pilgrims," or "Old New York"? After all, modernity, not history, was exciting and glamorous in the late 1920s. Intoxicated by the promise of a world made new, artists and intellectuals were ready to scrap all that had come before.

But Mallinson wasn't selling to artists and intellectuals. It was selling to American women, and in that context, its historical motifs were right on trend.

Influenced by old movies, we imagine interiors from the 1920s and '30s with Art Deco furnishings. In real life, Americans who could afford nice things outfitted their homes with Georgian styles: four-poster beds, Wedgwood china, Windsor chairs, chintz fabrics, and pastel colors. …

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