Monday, 29 July 2013

Early 1940s fashions in A Time to be Born by Dawn Powell

"The ominous smell of gunpowder was matched by a rising cloud of Schiaparelli’s Shocking."

As soon as I read this line in Liebemarlene’s post about Dawn Powell’s 1943 book A Time to Be Born, I knew I’d have to order myself a copy. I’m so glad that I did. A satirical snapshot into life as a woman in New York in the early days of World War II, it’s the sharpest thing I’ve read for a long time, and a completely fascinating insight into fashion, and ideas about fashion, in the early 1940s.

Vicky Haven arrives in the city from her hometown of Lakeville, Ohio. “This was a time when writers dared not write of Vicky Haven or of simple young women like her”, says Powell at the very start of the book, but that’s exactly what she goes on to do. Published in 1942, Powell clearly wrote the city as she saw it then – there was no lag to give time for reflection or nostalgic reminiscences. And she viewed the city as a woman, which perhaps accounts for the part fashion plays in the book. The clothes are straight out of a 1941 edition of Vogue, and are as subject to her satire as much as the morals of the people wearing them. "This was a time when the true signs of war were the lavish plumage of the women", she writes. "Look at the jewels, the rare pelts, the gaudy birds on elaborate hair-dress and know that war was here; already the women had inherited the earth."

1941 fashions, via 

The characters in the book are dressed in variations of the fashions Woolman Chase describes in Always In Vogue, when she says, “the crisis of 1938 was faced with the upswept look, wedgies, and padded, manly shoulders.” This is almost exactly Miss Finkelstein, Vicky Haven’s secretary at Peabody magazine, who is an astonishingly modern creature: "Her black glossy hair was brushed up to an impeccable topknot of curls, her eyebrows were thin pencilled arcs of perpetual surprise, her mouth was wide and not too noticeably rebuilt., while her skin was a masterpiece of beige wax that looked more like a glossy magazine cover than human skin. She wore a severe, elegant green tweed dress with a row of wooden charms around the neck, and all that could be said of her legs, stretched out in sandalled ‘wedgies,’ was at least they were freely exposed."

Miss Finkelstein embodies the aspiring young New York woman, eager to be like the society girls who are used as the glamorous face of the magazine (think Daisy Fellowes at Harper’s Bazaar). Soon after arrival in the city, Vicky wants to shed her air of the provinces, to “plunge into glamour” and to fit in: "There was no use in seeking an original style for herself because what she wanted right now was to look exactly like everybody else, so that no one would look at her twice."

One of Vicky’s first moves in her glamorous make-over is to colour her hair, inspired by the "breath-taking things the 'front' girls did to their hair – bars of dyed gold in brown hair, blue-gray tuft over the left temple, scrolls of curls as carefully dyed as a permanent work of art … yes, she too would have her hair to made to look suitably artificial." In The World of Carmel Snow, Snow describes how in 1939 Elinor Neff, Bazaar’s beauty editor, asks if she could do a piece on hair-dye. Snow shocked response is that "no ladies dye their hair". But the article goes ahead, the first magazine to cover the trend. Vicky is undeniably of the moment, and possibly also bordering on the edge of propriety.

1940s New York fashions, via 

Many of the outfits and trends covered in the book seem to skirt the edges of respectability; indeed when Vicky says she spends “every cent” on her back, even the action of spending money on beautifying yourself at a time of crisis could be questionable. In complete contrast is another book I recently read – Summer at Tiffany, Marjorie Hart’s memoir of a summer spent working in New York in 1944. She’s also from a small town, and she too is working in a luxury world, employed at Tiffany & Co. However, while A Time To Be Born is brittle and spiky, Summer at Tiffany is soft and entirely sweet-centred. As Marjorie and her roommate are preparing to go out to a dance and despairing of their clothes, they are reminded of what good young women should be doing: "You girls look darling – and don’t you worry … you look better than those debutantes flouncing around in formals who’ve forgotten there’s a war going on." Marjorie concludes that "she was right. The patriotic thing to do was to make do with what we already had in our closets."

There’s a different sort of logic going on with the women in A Time To Be Born, and perhaps it’s more of an accurate depiction of the period. After all, a 1943 Life article describes how spending in New York, "is far beyond that of the lushest 1920s." Vicky recounts (with some self-awareness) the reasoning of the Peabody girls, how her shopping gives her "all the more to donate to Bundles for Britain … And then I charge everything because, with inflation, money won’t be worth anything anyway. So that leaves me cash for massages and rhumba lessons and perfume that drives men mad."

This strange mixture of glamour alongside charitable works runs through magazines of the period. In a October 1941 Vogue article on "famous hands that have moulded careers", Mrs Wales Latham, organiser of Bundles for Britain, is photographed by Horst, tying up one of the bundles. She’s adorned with a Tiffany & Co. bracelet, while her fingernails ("busy fingers must have short, round nails”) are painted with Revlon’s – how I’m sure Dawn Powell must have smirked at this name – “rosy future” shade (Again in contrast, good little Marjorie Hart in Summer at Tiffany is very suspicious of nail varnish, noting the “lurid red fingernails” of a “snooty saleslady”.)

In the same Vogue article we meet Clare Boothe, who “takes all her jewels from her hands before she write.” Clare is actually a very important person to be introduced to as, apparently, she serves as the model for perhaps the most interesting woman in A Time To Be Born, Amanda Keeler. Amanda is also from Lakeville and is the small town girl made good. She’s written a best seller and, now married to a powerful publishing magnate, pens important state of the nation articles that are actually written by her staff. She’s also known, for better or for worse, for using her beautiful looks to win her way into the hearts of the American people, and for getting exactly what she wants from men. In short, Amanda epitomises the triumph of style over substance.

Still from The Women, 1939. The film was based on a play by Clare Boothe Luce. Via. 

Yet Amanda, though arguably the least-truthful woman in the book, doesn’t carry her artificiality through to her manner of dress (though she’s not above a quick Elizabeth Arden facial before addressing some of her adoring fans). When Vicky bumps into her in a department store, Amanda is wearing a "simple sport suit" and "black felt tailored hat … pulled over her blonde hair in rather collegiate style" to striking effect: "The other ladies in the elevator, furred and feathered as they were, shrank back from this lesson in elegance." Clare Boothe (or Clare Boothe Luce, once she married her husband, the – what a coincidence – publishing magnate, Henry Luce) was considered equally chic, reaching the dizzy heights of Eleanor Lambert’s Best Dressed List in 1943.

Just as Amanda doesn’t play by the rules in life, she doesn’t confirm to the demands of fashion either. While Vicky dresses up to impress her friends by sporting javelin-style earrings, “cunningly devised to give an impression of stabbing through the upper to the lower lobes of the ear, a picture of self-torture that magnetized every eye and was very smart that month”; Powell’s depiction of Amanda is perhaps influenced by descriptions of Clare Boothe such as this one which appeared in Vogue in December 1940:

"For behind the palpable femininity of her clothes, her hairbows, her attractive furs, her light perfumes, she has either by calculation or instinct worked out a formula for getting the mental attention of the important men and women of her day."

Clare Boothe Luce speaking at a Republican Convention in 1944, via

Dawn Powell very subtly plays with society's fear in the 1940s that women might actually – the horror! – inherit the earth. But she cleverly makes clear it’s not the women dressed with “padded, manly shoulders” or the weapon-like jewellery who should be watched carefully.


I enjoyed A Time To be Born so much that I’ve already ordered another book by Dawn Powell, The Wicked Pavilion. I’d also love to learn more about this period in fashion too. If you have any reading recommendations, either fiction or non-fiction, please let me know!

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