American Enterprise in the American History Museum is of course a journey through the way that capitalism has taken over American lives and sunk its teeth into all creativity, creating a market that rewards selfishness. As much as I’d love to continue to denounce capitalism through the analysis of one of the artifacts in this section, I’ve decided to turn my attention to the differences between men’s and women’s post-World War II fashion, specifically this period’s workwear. The museum displays two pieces of work attire: a men’s suit and a women’s suit, under the label “dress for success,” but in order to discuss post-war women’s workwear, we must turn back to the way women dressed for work during the war.
This was of course the time of Rosie the Riveter and all that she represented and still represents for us, bringing along canvas jumpsuits, overalls and pants, accompanied by button down shirts and simple sweaters. Of course, these photos of women in factories can convey a sense of pride in the accomplishments of wartime women working in factories, but even in this time of change there was room for the male gaze. Although we are taught to look at it in the most positive way, to accept this period of time where women were allowed to do hard labor, only because men were away fighting in the war, it’s easy to see the post-war blowback of the returning soldiers. It wasn’t empowerment; it was stepping into the boots that would soon be back from the war and kick us back down. Men stepped back into those roles as they returned and women were left to find employment somewhere else.
The women’s suit displayed in the museum was accompanied by a blurb about the “Secretary’s desk” and how personal those spaces were to the women who occupied them. Below the men’s suit, on the other hand, was a small catalyst to a discussion of conformity and materialism, and the loss of individuality through this streamlined workwear. Of course, the two suits both portray the rigidity of office work and capitalist thinking, but only one of their descriptions actually engaged in a meaningful critique of the way we dress our office workers, while the other told the story of the trinkets and decor that secretaries, which is apparently synonymous with women in the office, chose for their desks.
Going back to the suits themselves, both blazers were double breasted and that’s about all the similarities that the untrained eye can point out.The men’s suit was a relaxed yet structured wool blazer with a collared shirt and tie underneath, paired with pants in the same fabric. As stated on the vintage clothing analysis website Vintage Dancer in their description of 1940’s menswear, these suits were meant to make the man feel “larger than life,” with their dominating features, their broad shoulders and chests and their slightly baggy pants. I wouldn’t say the same about women’s workwear. The women’s suit consisted of a pencil skirt and a fitted blazer that accentuated the waistand featured an open collar at the top, which was just high up enough not to show any cleavage.There was nothing hinting at a shirt or blouse underneath and none of it looked like it was meant to make one feel “larger” than anything. It was still focused on the woman’s petite figure, the curve of the body, still completely appealing to the male gaze. To state the obvious, this was a step back from women’s wartime workwear. At least in the factories, men weren’t controlling how a woman’s body looked in a canvas jumpsuit or baggy pants. The American narrative of women entering the workforce, with all its implications of empowerment and liberation, is nothing more than a cover up of how women were actually treated during their first attempts to stay relevant after their small spark of success during the war. The post-war woman in the office was nothing more than a secretary, and the clothing reflects this step back in women’s liberation.
As much as the wartime call of Rosie the Riveter and the power of women entering the workforce were important milestones, they both fall under part of the definition that Ira Chernus provides in his article on American mythology.
“A living myth gives the people who accept it a way to cope with the difficulties of life. when a myth is working, it creates an idealized picture of whatever aspects of life it talks about. It gives an impression of human life and the world as relatively coherent, harmonious, sensible, and therefore meaningful, so that life seems worth living.”
This part of the definition that Chernus uses is a great way to understand why we have these martyrs like Rosie and why we prop up certain time periods as times of social change and liberation. Even if we know that the 1950’s were an extremely ‘traditional’ and socially rigid time in terms of women’s rights, propping up the image of the nuclear family and women as homemakers, it’s nice to have these earlier images of women’s empowerment in order to be less cynical than myself as a society.