I have fond memories of the cool cars that my father owned which always seemed to be getting wash in the front drive way while I was growing up. My father’s love of cars went back to his youth; I have several photos of him looking very young and driving various stylish convertibles. Some photos may be from before WWII but, without dates on the back, I am not sure. I know some of the story: My parents met in college in Emporia, Kansas when my father returned from Europe. There was a 5 year difference in their age but they were in the same class because of the time my father had lost serving his country. In 1950, after college, they borrowed their friends’ car for their honeymoon. My mother told me the color of the car was “Hawaiian Bronze.” Does anyone today know the name of the color of their car?
When I volunteered at the Ohio State University in the Historic Costume Exhibit, oneof my responsibilities was selecting Haute Couture Fashions to be catalogued and hung in the special climate controlled storage rooms. Because of my experience working in the Haute Couture in France, I was given freedom in selecting the garments. Almost everything that I selected had been donated by Mrs. Harvey Firestone Jr. from her personal wardrobe of amazing French and American couture dresses. Graduate Thesis’s have been written about her clothing.1 My work at OSU was in 2009, the year that the American Automobile Manufactures had to be bailed out. My work with the wardrobe of Mrs. Firestone inspired me to remember the stylish car ads of the 1950’s that often included a model in a fabulous dress. Cars and fashion had a special relationship then. Family photos of the time commonly featured the stylish family car. American cars today all look alike and, in my mind, have no style. When did American cars lose their style? For that fact, when did Americans lose their style? Does it have anything to do with trend of casual dressing every day, the large- sizing of America, corporations having the rights of citizens or boredom from being the world’s super power; or at least thinking we still are?
Looking through magazines from the 1950’s and early 60’s at the very stylish ads and editorial, it is obvious that design and beauty was more important than today. It could be argued that the objectified subject position of woman at that time forced too much value on appearance. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” about “the problem that had no name” described the unhappiness and frustration of American woman staying at home to fulfill the socially prescribed role of wife and mother. Woman have many more choices today than in the 50’s and early 60’s but there still seems to be a yearning and nostalgia for the style of the past. Don Draper, a former used car salesman, describes happiness in the 1st episode of Mad Men and in his description captures the essence of the post war 1950’s.
“Happiness is the smell of a new car…
It’s freedom from fear.
It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance
that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.”
This may just be a “meta-moment”2 but the confidence of 1950’s America, having won the war and established their position as the dominant super power, was very reassuring.
Even though the cold war continued and fear of the atomic bomb was pandemic, owning your own car and dressing up for an evening of dancing were signs of reassurance that world order had been reestablished.
Now in the post 9/11 days, we have very little to tell us that we are okay; actually there is more in the news to indicate that we are not okay. That may be why the most popular show on TV (Mad Men) is nostalgia based and focused on the 1960s and has inspired a trend ultra feminine retro 60’s fashion. Hopefully, it will also influence automobile design. We could use more style in our lives today. Anyone for a “Honeysuckle Pink” new car?3
1. Orr, Lois C., Elizabeth Parke Firestone: Her Couture Collection and Her Role as a Woman of Influence, Master of Arts, University of Akron, Family & Consumer Sciences-Clothing, Textiles and Interiors, 2006.