Vintage Sexism: Seeking the Right Kind of Inspiration

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Vintage Sexism: Hoover holiday ad
Image via Einestages.

Last week, we received a Facebook comment from a fellow vintage lover about the potential irony in celebrating ’50s and ’60s fashions in our holiday stylebook. Customer Sarah B. stated that it’s a good idea to consider that the mid-century was a period of time when women were merely expected to be homemakers and not much else. Sarah is right! Channeling a time period that left us with flattering, feminine garb worn with grace and glamour could also mean bringing up that same period’s social shortcomings and values that we don’t support today. How do we deal with that?

Well, we start by making sure we’re all well aware of what we don’t want to communicate. In this edition of Vintage Sexism, we’ll look at a handful of mid-century Christmas gifting ads, and talk about the inspiration we take from them – and what we leave behind.

Vintage Sexism holiday ads
Images via The Bettie Vintage Page (left) and the Scotties Toy Box (right).

There are a lot of themes in vintage ads we avoid. While the Hoover and Eureka vacuum ads above shine with jolly, mid-century style, the messaging is questionable.

Meanwhile, Dormeyer’s “WIVES” ad asks the customer to circle from the narrow selection what she she wants for Christmas and also gives joking advice on how to ensure she’ll receive these items. Prescribing the expectation that all wives will absolutely love these impersonal and gender-labeling gifts is something we trade for more aspirational and positive messages.

Vintage Sexism holiday ads
Images via The Bettie Vintage Page (left) and Watchuseek (right).

In the tanning light and watch ads above, the product is equated with the strength of romantic relationships. Ladies: If you’re not tan, then your fella may not be into you. Gents: If you give your lady a watch, she’ll love you. The way we see it at ModCloth, clothing is not a tool for social acceptance, but an accessory to your self confidence and natural beauty.

Vintage Sexism: Mojud stockings ad
Image via A Christmas Yuleblog.

Presenting models and apparel tastefully is important to us, as well. This cheeky Mojud stockings ad is eye-catching, but also gratuitous and a little weird. It’s very much about the gaze upon the model, rather than displaying the quality and function of the product in a flattering, tasteful way.

Vintage Sexism: holiday ads
Image via Carla-at-home.

The models’ poses and placements in this vintage catalog page best spoke to the look for which we were going. However, the message isn’t. “Tell him how very lovely you are,” is nice, but what’s he doing there? It’s not about him – rather, it’s about how you feel in what you chose to wear. Whether you choose to look pretty and poised or free and fun or any which way you desire, you’ll look lovely!

So, when it comes to drawing inspiration from decades like the ’50s and ’60s, which are known for both fabulous fashions and a lack of popular feminist values, we carefully pick and choose what still works well today, and what doesn’t.  A lot of the aspects of these ads don’t work with our sensibility, and we want you to feel empowered and inspired to look and feel your best. Constantly thinking about how we are interpreting vintage is the essence of Vintage Sexism.

As always, we love, love, love it when you tell us what you think. What do you think about this topic?

About Angela

Someday, Angela will be tending to her sheep, llamas and alpacas on the “Yarn Farm” and raising award winning honey bees. Until then, the native Pittsburgher is enjoying all things related to knitting, her cats, Mr. Spock, red lipstick, and creativity. Writing is her first true love.

25 Responses to Vintage Sexism: Seeking the Right Kind of Inspiration

  1. Lauren 11/29/2012 at 1:23 pm #

    “It’s about how you feel in what you chose to wear”. and I gotta say, this is how I feel in alot of retro ModCloth dresses. I always feel like a million bucks. Thanks for posting this, this was a nice read! :)

  2. Rupamita Roy 11/29/2012 at 1:53 pm #

    I absolutely agree with your viewpoint! While I love vintage clothing, I don’t really wish that I lived in that era, when women were posed as homemakers or as sex objects. I very much enjoy my independence, my creative web development career. Though I do enjoy cooking, crafting, gardening and other domesticated hobbies as well. But now I have the independence to choose what I want to do. One thing I know for sure, that I (rather we!) will not enjoy having a hoover or any kitchen appliance as a gift in Christmas! We will rather enjoy having a Modcloth gift card :D What do you say girls?

    And lastly thank you Modcloth for democratizing fashion and making it easy for us to express ourselves the way we want and be confident about ourselves. You are definitely making a difference.

  3. Cari Homemaker 11/29/2012 at 3:38 pm #

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and somewhat disagree. Not that i disagree that women in decades past were discriminated against and that the social structure of the times left them with fewer choices in occupation or lifestyle. I would argue, though, that not all women at the time would have been insulted by getting a vacuum cleaner or an automatic dishwasher as a gift. It may not have held the romance of a diamond (or a fur coat since we are talking vintage), but for a woman whose occupation was keeping the home clean and the meals prepared (without the human domestic helpers that her mother or grandmother would have relied on just a few decades before) innovative electric appliances that made her life a little easier might have been just as thoughtful a gift then as a new iPod, phone, or tablet device might be for a husband to his wife today. I guess it would depend on the particular people involved, modern or vintage.

    • Joni 11/30/2012 at 2:59 pm #

      Exactly. A washing machine is only a symbol of feminine oppression to anyone who’s never had to do her family’s washing with a mangle.

    • carlahoag 01/30/2014 at 7:06 am #

      (Disclaimer: The 60s party dress photo is from my blog.)

      May I gently disagree with the sexism point in the post and agree with Cari’s point? Growing up in that era in a close knit working class community, I was in and out of my friends’ homes all the time. None of the mothers who were homemakers ever acted as if they were sex objects or drudges. The vast majority were clean, happy homes with contented families. Yes, it was Leave it to Beaver, but without the large brick house, cleaning lady and the new Chrysler. (Just for the record, LITB had episodes about alcoholism, teen marriage, school drop-outs, runaways and divorce. None of those subjects were treated lightly.)

      Many

  4. Deenie 11/29/2012 at 5:28 pm #

    Rumpamita, you said everything I wanted to say for me! And yes, a Modcloth gift card would be prefect!

  5. Halley 11/29/2012 at 11:07 pm #

    Hi five, Modcloth!

  6. Candy 11/30/2012 at 9:48 am #

    So happy ModCloth took the time, energy, and enthusiasm to talk about this! I know a lot of companies would immediately get defensive or dismissive about the roller-coaster that is the love of vintage/retro!

    I think there are always many layers to the past, or even the present, and advertising! Like you’ve said, the ads above are beautiful and even funny, but the messages are pretty restrictive! I’m really glad there’s a place to talk about both sides, and I know from experience ModCloth really champions equality and confidence for women! Yay!

  7. Plus size girl 11/30/2012 at 10:34 am #

    You know, I would shop at this site if you carried plus size clothing. That should be your next step, probably get a lot more purchases. Not many vintage sites offer plus size and I think it is an untapped market. Just a small tip

    • Katie 11/30/2012 at 2:29 pm #

      ModCloth does carry plus sizes! You can either search “plus size” or go under “Clothing” and select “Curvy Sizes” to see the options. Hope this helps! :)

  8. Nicole M. (ModCloth) 11/30/2012 at 10:41 am #

    I’m thankful to work for a company that would post this :)

  9. Chloe 11/30/2012 at 10:56 am #

    I have to agree with Cari Homemaker and say that while vintage ads are often blatantly sexist against women, it still doesn’t exactly mean that women shouldn’t want new home appliances or cooking supplies. And I would never assume that a woman-dominated company such as Modcloth intended to celebrate past prejudices against women just because they mean to focus on the darling fashions of the mid-20th century. While the ads in this article are funny to look at, I don’t think Modcloth should have felt it so necessary to post something like this. You can’t please everyone!

    • kristy @ Gastronomical Sovereignty 12/03/2012 at 6:14 am #

      i disagree. i think doing a post like this illuminates a certain level of social consciousness. of course you can’t please everyone but acknowledging the systems your live and participate in and OWNING that is important. i hate to drag out the second wave feminism here – because lord knows it was problematic in its own right – but “the personal is political”. There’s nothing wrong with clothing, cooking supplies, etc… LOVE IT. but at the same time too we have to be aware that ideas about culture, gender, etc… are (re)produced in our every day activities. what you wear, what you say, etc… has implications and underlying assumptions.

      i think in doing this post, modcloth has not only helped to reveal some of those assumptions but have also done a very post-modern feminist thing: took what they wanted from the ads, did the right thing by actually discussing the violence of an often idealized era, and made it their own. reclaiming domesticity is radical – naming it and telling the truth is too. well done, modcloth.

      p.s. regarding the last image – i think HE is there to remind us we are to look a certain way via the male gaze. he is in control while we vie for his attention. he is in the center and we, women, on the periphery. and let’s not forget the WHITENESS of these ads. not only are they vintage sexist, they are also vintage racist and vintage heterosexist. the assumptions there would be an interesting way to deepen your discussion.

      okay, i’m done. ;) still love the article.

  10. Capt. Basil 12/01/2012 at 9:27 am #

    While the focus here is, of course, on the sexism towards women, I’ve always noticed that these types of ads aren’t very flattering for men, either. There’s not the same kind of demeaning tone, and they’re more highly prejudiced against women, I understand that. But I feel like a lot of these ads sort of give off a “men have such one-track minds that all they care about is if you look pretty. Dress nice and cook well and you’ll keep that simple minded husband of yours wrapped around your little finger forever” message. Just some interesting social observances.

    • kristy @ Gastronomical Sovereignty 12/03/2012 at 6:15 am #

      absolutely. these ads (and the ones today) not only prescribe a certain kind of femininity, but also a very particular masculinity as well.

  11. Alycia Diehl 12/01/2012 at 9:45 pm #

    I LOVE seeing those old ads! It makes me grateful for living in the time I do now! At-least the part of being treated with respect my “most” men :)

  12. Ruzanna 12/02/2012 at 4:20 pm #

    Cari Homemaker brings up a valid point too. There’s nothing wrong for women to find joy in getting a handy appliance to help with the housework! But these vintage ads in particular are tricky. When men were out fighting in the second World War, they had a shortage of workforce in factories, which was where the women came in! (Think Rosie the Riveter.) The women worked tirelessly in order to ensure the quality of munitions and war supplies, but once the war was over and the men came back, many of the women did not want to leave their jobs. These ads were a propaganda to try and get ladies back into the house, perhaps back where they “belonged” (in the eyes of society at the time). In my opinion, no one “belongs” anywhere; the women who wanted to stay and work in the factories shouldn’t be judged, and the women who chose to go back to homemaking shouldn’t be judged either. I guess these ads are “wrong” because they target women specifically and play into gender roles. They’re saying women specifically would love these home appliances instead of saying a homemaker would love them.

  13. Cynthia 12/03/2012 at 10:52 am #

    We can enjoy the fashion of that time and celebrate that “We’ve come a long way, Baby!”

    • kristy @ Gastronomical Sovereignty 01/01/2013 at 2:16 pm #

      cynthia -have you taken a look at the innate sexism that comes with the ads that you’re quoting from? its so painfully insulting that i have to argue a point here – unless we’re using “you’ve come a long way baby” ironically, we shouldn’t be using it. just a thought.

  14. Amy 12/08/2012 at 10:51 am #

    Good thing those sexist ads are gone!

    Now excuse me while I go clean my house before my husband gets home and messes it up again.

  15. S.C. 12/13/2012 at 9:26 pm #

    Stats: 30, self-employed, happily married
    First off, I LOVE the dresses (and pretty much everything else) at Modcloth. Vintage-style dresses really flatter the fuller, more voluptuous female form. The whole idea that vintage ads were sexist is hilarious: Have you seen the pages of Vogue or Vanity Fair lately? Sex is everywhere,and women in ads are hawking it like never before! Actually, I think it’s charming to see an ad with a woman fawning over a vacuum cleaner…it’s refreshing. These days, women in ads are sexfully fawning over purses, glasses, automobiles, etc. Nothing much has changed as far as advertising goes. And vintage clothing, in my opinion, is a lot more classy and respectable than some of the tawdry stuff that’s known as “modern”. Thank you a million times over, Modcloth, for the fine/beautiful/classy clothes you sell.
    PS: My husband approves of this comment. ;)

    • Casey 01/24/2013 at 12:24 am #

      I agree with you S.C. I think the world of advertising is, as ever, a sickening display of what companies think you want (except you, Modcloth, you’re nice). I think, in a lot of ways, advertising can be detrimental to society since the masses are constantly bombarded by ads every day. I personally make an effort to stay away from as many ads as possible (but it’s easy for me ’cause I don’t watch tv, just netflix as a movie-lover). I find that every time I end up seeing a commercial or a magazine ad or whatever I end up feeling depressed or stunned by what ads deem as the norm for women and their sexuality/style/body type/etc. And worse in my opinion, it’s changing the way men and women view female sexuality where expectations don’t meet reality. It’s much more empowering to look at Modcloth and see the creativity and class in the mix. For a long time, I felt that I couldn’t be ‘girly’ (feminine) without feeling connected to the slew of ads strung from lies about feminity…Modcloth has seriously been one of the few places I feel comfortable branching out to a style that is more feminine than what I’m used to because of articles like this. Thank you Modcloth :) whew, what a ranter!

  16. PrincessMononoke 03/06/2013 at 2:42 pm #

    I doubt if anyone will read or reply to my comment because I’m so late but, I just realized how many stereotypes Modern Family perpetuates. For instance, Claire is a stay at home mom who is always right because she’s married to Phil who is the idiot husband. Hayley is a young woman and a bad driver.

    I mean, even now? Modern Family, which even has a gay couple? Things need to change.

  17. Maize 03/08/2013 at 9:09 pm #

    I think there’s a lot of women who yearn to be a domestic goddess and I think that’s great. Women love to create pretty spaces. Why not their home and have the best tools to do what they love? As a participant of the 2nd wave of feminism, I believed we worked toward the right for a woman to have a choice, not to decide between either/or. I love the old ads. They have a certain traditional elegance about them.

  18. carlahoag 01/30/2014 at 7:13 am #

    “It’s not about him”, with that I agree.

    ” — rather, it’s about how you feel in what you chose to wear. Whether you choose to look pretty and poised or free and fun or any which way you desire, you’ll look lovely!” Again, I gently disagree. Women who are confident, free and fun do not necessarily look lovely. If you don’t think so, I invite you to people watch for an hour or so. Not in an office building, but maybe in front of a retail store.

    I’m not advocating the once-a-week-beauty-shop-appointment or spending a fortune on clothes, but I’ve seen a sea-change over the course of my life, and women (and men) definitely do not look more lovely than in earlier years. More comfortable – yes. Better? Definitely not.

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