Saturday, 23 January 2016

Dude ranches and the women in denim

Women pose at a Wyoming ranch, c. 1930. From Fine Art of the West, via

In January, when we're seemingly encouraged to beat ourselves up for various life failings, I try to promote a bit of being nice to yourself. With that in mind, for the 'Looking Back' slot in that month's issue of The Simple Things, I suggested a feature on the history of denim - after all, what's easier than pulling on a pair of jeans?

Bar Nick Kamen in a laundrette and the occasional story of people hunting for priceless denim in abandoned mines, I knew very little about the topic and I headed straight for the copy of Denim: A Visual History in the British Library (always slightly too expensive on eBay). Among the familiar brand names of Levi's, Lee and Wrangler and their links to denim as workwear, I found a reference to the first Lady Levi's in the 1930s with a tantalising mention of them being born out of the freedom of the dude ranches, and their associations with the quickie divorce. And, naturally, that became one of my key preoccupations.

The fantastic thing about writing for a magazine is that you can call on people far more knowledgeable than yourself to fill in some of the gaps. I spoke to Professor Alison Goodrun, who had recently returned from the Autry Center for Western Heritage (you can read her excellent blog here), researching female dude ranchers and resort wear. Dude ranch holidays peaked in the 1920s and 30s and offered a 'back to nature' retreat for wealthy East coasters. In reality, these were elaborate commercial enterprises, offering all kind of creature comforts and pushing vacationers into their outfitters to get fully kitted out in your western gear. It was a form of holiday wear. Just as wearing beach pyjamas was allowable by the seaside, jeans became acceptable wear on the dude ranch. Although they were sold in a select few East coast stores, a pair of jeans brought back from the West was the sought after souvenir.


‘Dude Ranch Vacations’ print advert for Northern Pacific/Yellowstone Park Rail Line, in The Sportsman magazine, March 1933. (BNSF Railway Company). Via Style Stakes project


The idea of freedom is captured wonderfully in this advert, featured on Professor Goodrun's blog. Like the best adverts, it's completely aspirational, promising an escape from everyday life and from social norms. But, as she points out, it's a complete break from traditional 'Old World' riding gear - it's a challenge to the upright regulations of English riding turn-out.

The Women, via

As I mentioned the subject to others, the reference came back time and time again: The Women. In this 1939 film, they decamp on a ranch to Reno waiting for their divorcees to come through. Each woman wears their own take on the Western look, from Mary's suitably wholesome checked shirt to the Countess De Lave's glitzy and ridiculous get-up.


I love this image of a 1942 shop display at Chicago's Marshall Field & Company, showing suitable dude ranch attire for such wealthy women. And Lisette Model's photographs of soon-to-be divorcees at Nevada dude ranches, taken in 1949 for Harper's Bazaar, are also amazing.

Diana Cooper and Iris Tree, from Diana Cooper's Autobiography

All of these wealthy women in western wear took me back to an amazing image I'd seen much earlier, this grainy image of British aristocrat Diana Cooper, photographed with fellow actress Iris Tree, included in Cooper's autobiography. Had they too succumbed to ranch fever? Although not providing fulsome details, Cooper indeed writes of "an orgy of 'dude' buying" on their arrival into Kansas City. Ever the trend setter, Cooper's entry dates to 1926.

About the same time I filed my article, Denim: Fashion's Frontier opened at New York's FIT, exploring denim's history and including a shout-out to the dude ranch. Although I can't get to New York, I was pleased to discover FIT's assistant curator is giving a free lecture in London in March, which I can attend (side note: how great does this display about the Snow/Vreeland heyday of Harper's Bazaar sound?). How delightful also that the sequel to the popular street style book, Denim Dudes, will focus on Denim 'Dudettes' - promising more stylish women in denim.

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Sunday, 3 January 2016

51 books in 2015 – how did I do?



At the start of 2014, I resolved to read 50 books over the course of the year. It was such a successful resolution (more so than never biting my nails again, perhaps unsurprisingly) that I decided to do it all again the following year, with the added challenge of trying to read one more book.

So, how did I do? You can see a list of the books I read during 2015 here. I’m pleased that I beat my target by two whole books. And, although I’m proud of my overall total – 53! – and the mixture of fiction and non-fiction, looking through the list, it’s quickly obvious that it’s quite limited in scope, with the vast majority written by white women. Only seven of the books were penned by men, just two were originally written in a language other than English and none date to pre-twentieth century.


Although I’ve enjoyed this year’s reading, it’s hard to pick out books I’ve really loved. There have been several big disappointments – Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests started out brilliantly, but descended into soapy disappointment; Carol was one of those rare examples of where I thought the film far surpassed the book (and I read the book first). I’ve yet to watch Brooklyn, but perhaps that will also fall into this category, as I loved Nora Webster far more than I did Colm Toibin’s earlier, much-praised book.



The book that took over my life and I was longing to discuss with other people was – as I think it was for many other people this year – A Little Life. I also consumed by Linda Grant’s stylish and intelligent take on aspirations in the second-half of the twentieth century in Upstairs at The Party.



I bemoaned my lack of books from earlier centuries, but the twentieth century got a very strong showing. I discovered some fantastic fiction from around the First World War, thanks to researching for a feature on the homefront for Article magazine, saw the 1920s and 30s through the eyes of Noel Streatfeild, enjoyed jitterbugging, rationing and fashioning in the 1940s, (im)perfect wives, debutantes and lesbians – and concrete buildings from the mid-century. And not forgetting the joy of 1980s movies, thanks to Hadley Freeman. That brings me onto the last book I read this year, which tells the story of women throughout the twentieth century through personal experience (albeit without so many references to Dirty Dancing a la Hadley). It’s A Notable Woman, the previously unpublished journals of Jean Lucey Pratt. She faithfully kept a diary from 1925, aged 15, up to her death in the 1980s. It’s wonderful discovery, and I hope to write something more substantial about it another time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m aiming to read 54 books during 2016. You can follow my progress here. I’d like at least one to be pre-twentieth century, and definitely more by BAME authors. I might try and read a few more things men have written too.  

Any recommendations let me know. I’d also love to hear about your favourite – or most disappointing – books you’ve read this year.

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