“Better legs…through chemistry”: An Advertisement Analysis

“Your legs are lovelier in nylons.” – DuPont advertisement in Harper’s Bazaar, April 1957, p. 10

Upon carefully flipping through magazines from the last century at the ROM library (which I had not known of until recently) I came across an interesting advertisement. Within the first few pages of a Harper’s Bazaar, April 1957 copy (v. 90, no. 2957), was a colour printed advertisement for DuPont nylon (Fig. 1). It was interesting to me because this advertisement features a familiar material common in today’s fashion. I was intrigued to learn more about it, so I did some research.

Figure 1. DuPont nylon advertisement, Harper’s Bazaar April 1957, p. 10. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives. Photo by: Emilie Chan

 

Harper’s Bazaar

Since its inception in 1867, Harper’s Bazaar soon became America’s leading fashion and mass circulated magazine in the 1950s (“Catalina Announces”). The publication was sold in America, Canada, and London (Fig. 2b). The first half of each magazine within the decade consisted of advertisements, followed by “fiction and features” (Fig. 2b). Selling at 60 cents per copy in the 1950s, this American publication targeted middle and upper class women (Covert 27). This particular copy (Fig. 2a) is part of the publication’s 90th anniversary (Fig. 2b).

Figure 2a. Front cover, Harper’s Bazaar April 1957. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives. Photo by: Emilie Chan

Figure 2b. Table of contents, Harper’s Bazaar April 1957. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives. Photo by: Emilie Chan

 

The United States in the 1950s

Figure 3. Children’s Book from 1955: the Happy Family. Source: http://envisioning113.rssing.com/chan-19524258/all_p1.html

At this time, many people were enjoying the post-war boom. The economy allowed for a dramatic expansion of the middle class, thus allowing more people the ability to consume at higher rates (“The 1950s”). Many young, heterosexual, American families moved to the suburbs (“The 1950s”). Women within the expanded middle class were urged to leave the workforce to embrace motherhood and the role of a wife (Marias 138), depicted in Figure 3. Although this concept of a women’s role was not new to history, some women at home were dissatisfied—they yearned for life outside of the home (Marias 139). Television dramatically rose in popularity and accessibility—production in 1948 at 250,000 units leapt to 40 million units by 1955 (Marias 181). Although fewer than 6 percent of units produced were not in use, one in five inhabitants had access to a television (Marias 181). The power of this technology spread images and reinforced ideologies of the “American way of life” to the masses (186).

While many women were enjoying freedom in fashion, the ideal beautiful woman was Caucasian, slender, and graceful (Marias 152). Although inequality in race was increasingly publicly scrutinized, the “ideal” remained predominately white (“The 1950s”). Women were often more interested in dressing to attract and appeal to men, than to impress other women (Marias 154). There were three common ways to shop for clothes—walking down store-lined streets, going to a shopping centre, or browsing a catalogue and purchasing through mail order (Marias 67). An advertisement like this (Fig. 1) aims to raise awareness and evoke a desire for DuPont branded nylon products.

 

DuPont and Nylon

Figure 4. Parachute inspection at DuPont facility, 1940. Source: https: //www.pinterest.co.uk/ pin /109071622200294343/

Developed by American company DuPont in the 1930s, nylon soon became commercially produced by 1939 (“Our Company”). During World War II, nylon was used in parachutes and chords (“Science of Plastics”) (Fig. 4). Post war, the material was applied to various consumer products, famously women’s stockings (“Science of Plastics”). Trickling into the 1940s, there was growing unease about synthetic fibres as DuPont advertised nylon as a magical material that would never run or break (Meikle 127). To combat this fear, advertising strategy drastically shifted focus onto the aesthetic aspects of nylon instead of its functional qualities (Meikle 128). Nylon became a “textile prodigy” that could produce “lovely legs” (Handley 40). By 1946, nylon was accepted by the mass market, accelerated through female consumers, and a new substitute for natural materials such as silk (Handley 49). However, by the 1950s, DuPont began facing slower growth in sales (“Our Company”). Competition within the generic textile fiber industry was extremely high, and the abundance of fabric choices were steadily increasing (Handley 75). Branding became key to product differentiation (Handley 75).

 

 

Advertisement Analysis

The Image

Figure 5. Main image on advertisement, Harper’s Bazaar April 1957, p. 10. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives. Photo by: Emilie Chan

It is clear that this advertisement aims to position DuPont branded nylon as a desirable material for women’s stockings (since DuPont only manufactured textile materials) (Fig. 7). Portrayed is a presumably middle-aged man dressed in a suit, and a women in a colour -coordinated outfit precariously walking down a flight of stairs. These two characters depict the social ideal of the 1950s— this advertisement suggests that they live in a house, are likely in a lasting heterosexual marriage, and fall within the middle class.

Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, suggests that there are three forms of capital that determines an individual’s position within the field of fashion—economic, social, and cultural (Bourdieu 243). The two characters seem to possess some economic capital, belonging to the middle class, based on the house they are placed in and the image they depict. The man casually talking on the phone shows social capital to a certain degree. To further the woman’s social capital, her legs are modestly caved inwards, suggesting subtlety and etiquette, yet still able to appeal to her male counterpart.  Evidently, this image depicts the ideal woman the Bazaar’s female readership desired.

Within cultural capital, there are three states—embodied, objectified, and institutionalized (Bourdieu 243). The objectified state is represented by material objects, cultural goods that can be acquired with economic capital to gain social power and distinction (Bourdieu 243). Here, the ideal woman is walking down the stairs in nylon stockings, successfully garnering the whimsical glance of her male counterpart. This demonstrates the cultural capital DuPont nylon stockings, a simple branded material, can offer women. Women are also offered an opportunity to gain cultural capital in an embodied state, successfully appealing to their male counterparts through self-improvement via branded clothing in a relatively modest, subtle way.

Figure 6. Playboy magazine cover, June 1956. Source: https://www.thepaperframer.com/Playboy56.php

In direct contrast, Playboy, an entertainment magazine for men first published in 1953, was increasing in popularity. It had expanded its popular Playmate double page spread to a triple page centrefold in 1956 (“Our History”). With the help of nylons, women were offered a product that could help them compete against Playboy magazines and models, with the help of fashion. Here, fashion and way of dressing is connected to moral values, a characteristic of the modern stage of sartorial representation suggested by Efrat Tseȅlon (219) inspired by (sociologist by training) Jean Baudrillard’s (Tseȅlon 215) signification analysis (Baudrillard 88).

Tseȅlon suggests that there are three stages of sartorial representation—pre-modern, modern, and post-modern (Tseȅlon 218). Within the modern stage, technological developments increase production efficiency, thereby lowering production costs and widening the availability of clothing previously exclusively accessible to the upper class (Tseȅlon 219). Dress no longer represents status because of the homogeneity of style, but rather, is reflected an individual’s gender and other temporal variables such as mood, time of day, season, or occasion (Tseȅlon 220). Revealed in the text within the 1957 advertisement, nylon stockings are framed as the ideal product for any of the aforementioned variables. It states that “there’s a just-perfect stocking for every occasion from a walk in the country to a night out of town” (Fig. 7). This reinforces this advertisement’s place within the modern stage. Nylon stockings were available to a wide customer base and could be used to reflect any occasion or personal characteristic. The advertisement also reflects Baudrillard’s idea of consumption as a characteristic of desire for the maintenance of an individual’s own image, that can only be fulfilled by objects, in this case, nylon as fashion (Tseȅlon 216).

 

The Text

Figure 7. Main text within advertisement, Harper’s Bazaar April 1957, p. 10. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives. Photo by: Emilie Chan

Although this advertisement is largely made up of a single image, the text plays an equally important role. According to Roland Barthes, well known for his semiotic and linguistics studies (“Roland Barthes”), suggests that “written clothing” in the form of captions can further inform the audience (The Fashion System 13). Upon examining the image, it is clear that the woman is receiving admiration from her male counterpart. This is supplemented by the text: “You’re the object of admiration in today’s glamourous nylon. How beautifully they reveal your natural perfection. How happily they conceal any little imperfection” (Fig. 7). Women viewing this advertisement now discover that the ideal woman in the image has simply concealed her “flaws” to create the ideal, perfect, and beautiful image. Barthes argues that advertising sells a myth, a fake idea, of the fairy tale consumers can potentially experience (The Elements of Semiology 178) through the purchase of nylon products . In this case, DuPont is selling the “myth” that women can enhance their natural qualities, while covering their imperfections by wearing specifically DuPont nylons to successfully appeal to their male counterparts. The large caption stating: “Your legs look lovelier in nylons” further communicates the ability nylons possess to enhance a woman’s image and attractiveness, supplementing the picture above it.

Figure 8. DuPont logo and slogan, Harper’s Bazaar April 1957, p. 10. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives. Photo by: Emilie Chan

DuPont’s slogan, “Better things for better living…through chemistry” (Fig. 8) adds to the cultural capital a woman can gain from buying DuPont nylons. They claim that purchasing DuPont nylon stockings will give women admiration. From understanding the context of the advertisement and thereby already displaying a degree of cultural capital, women are offered insight to gain additional cultural capital through purchasing DuPont nylons, an exciting high-tech material from the company that arguably stated the nylon revolution. This exemplifies Entwistle and Rocamora’s notion that cultural capital can be displayed through appropriate, “in-the-know” outfits (Tseȅlon 240).

When I first saw this advertisement, I did not think much of it. As usual, when examining artifacts from the past, I did not realize how much more I could understand through learning the economic, technological, and social context behind the advertisement.

 

Today, there is evidently greater focus on visual images in paper advertising compared to the advertisements of the 1950s. Knowing that text can effectively enhance and supplement understanding and meanings behind an image, do you think this shift in paper advertising is positive?

 

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References

Barthes, Roland, The Elements of Semiology. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, Hill and Wang, 1973.

—- The Fashion System. Translated by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard, University of California Press, 1990.

Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Sage Publications, 1993.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by John G. Richardson, Greenwood Publishing Group Inc., 1986, pp. 241-258.

“Catalina Announces Biggest Advertising Campaign in its Entire Thirty-Six-Year History!” Women’s Wear Daily, vol. 68, no. 5, Jan 07, 1944, pp. 31, ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1653877427?pq-origsite=summon.

Covert, Tawnya J. Adkins. Manipulating Images: World War II Mobilization of Women through Magazine Advertising. Lexington Books, 2011.

Handley, Susannah. Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution:  A Celebration of Design from Art Silk to Nylon and Thinking Fibres. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Marias, Julián. America in the Fifties and Sixties: Julián Marias on the United States. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1972.

Meikle, Jeffrey L. American Plastic: A Cultural History. Rutgers University of Press, 1995.

“Our Company: History.” DuPont. http://www.dupont.com/corporate-functions/our-company/dupont-history.html. Accessed  March 28 2018.

“Our History.” Playboy Enterprises. http://www.playboyenterprises.com/about/history/. Accessed  March 28 2018.

“Roland Barthes.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roland-Gerard-Barthes. Accessed  March 28 2018.

“Science of Plastics.” Chemical Heritage Foundation. https://www.sciencehistory.org/science-of-plastics. Accessed  March 28 2018.

“The 1950s.” History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/1950s. Accessed  March 28 2018.

Tseȅlon, Efrat. “Jean Baudrillard: Post-modern Fashion as the End of Meaning.” Thinking through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, edited by Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik, 2016, pp. 215-232.

 

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