Margaret woke up, slipped out of the bedroom, put herself in order, gently cursing the French twist hairstyle and the pins she could never find in the morning. Then she stepped outside to pick up the morning paper from the porch and started making breakfast for her salesman hubby (Jim) and the kids (Betty and Bud), all the while peeking at the fresh newspaper whenever her kitchen routine would allow it.
The front page pronounced the ultimate end of two Soviet spies who were selling nuclear secrets to the Russians:
Last night she and Jim talked over dinner about nuclear shelters and what horrible things science had created in the last decade. She shuddered.
She then remembered her days at the factory during the war: she was engineering radios for the military. She didn’t have to work now, but she knew that science could make good stuff too. That factory was making televisions now! They bought one three years ago. Everyone was talking about the shows they watched yesterday: I love Lucy was all the rage among neighbourhood ladies. That show left her a bit puzzled: Lucy, a model housewife, was a ridiculous failure each time she tried to get a job, yet the actress who played Lucy was a self-made and very successful woman. She tried to remember what they used to chat about with their neighbours before they all had their TV antennas put on the roofs a few years back, and couldn’t.
Science could be funny too, she thought, as she read, and laughed at this silly prediction:
Phones that people would wear as watches – what balderdash! If she had a say in the matter, she would prefer a vacuum cleaner that could clean their new house (bought at $12,000) without her being the hoover’s slave (Delux model at $116.93). Well, had she stayed in her job she might have invented one, she mused, but Jim would never agree to this.
As she started putting out plates on the table, she thought ahead and remembered that Betty had told her she would be meeting her college friend tonight and they were going “to the passion pit”. She hated that slang name for drive-in theatres. She knew what “back-seat bingo” was and she couldn’t stand the thought of her daughter having one.
She ought to tell Jim about it. She must!
But the last time Jim shouted at Betty, she said she was going to NYC and almost went and shut the door! Girls were so independent now… It was all because of that music, Rock and Roll. You couldn’t get away from it. It was blaring from TVs, car radios, at supermarkets and malls! Not that she hated it, quite the opposite, but the new generation just didn’t want to listen to anything else!
This is what the ideal traditional white middle-class life looked and felt like in the early 1950s. I used the names of characters from Father Knows Best, the most popular show on television at the time.
The economy was booming, space conquests were just around the corner, animated films were all the rage, along with Rock and roll, and people had much more leisure time than before, as well as disposable income to spend on it.
Art was blossoming too.
In 1951, Abstract Expressionists had their break-through moment: The 9th Street Show. Very few people understood them, even though their art was seen as a reflection of the American spirit: free, bold and huge. Or, if Trump was tweeting then, “Huge! Really huge!”
Public bafflement at this new art was mixed with a certain degree of respect wrapped into a healthy dose of sarcasm by Norman Rockwell:
Out of the 64 artists exhibited at the show, 9 were women. While these emancipated female artists could hardly become role models for the average housewife, they still provoked a kind of envy.
Yes, it was an age of conformity with gender roles, and women were even encouraged to stay home to help national security. The average age of marriage was 23 years for men and 20 years for women, with the divorce rate hovering around 25%. Yet, there was discontent with the status quo bubbling just beneath the surface. Women wanted to have a bigger role in life but without the destruction of the traditional values.
The same year as the 9th Street Show, Paint by Numbers was launched for the conservatively minded in artistic matters. Its makers went on to sell 12 million kits on their promise “A beautiful oil painting the first time you try”. Any housewife could now become an artist in an instant, without the need to drop the act of a Stepford wife. However, women still wanted more: new opportunities, broader relationships, more exciting activities (they would have to wait 7 more years until the Hula Hoop becomes available).
In between Abstract Expressionism that would soon become America’s major art export and Paint-by-Numbers kind of art, a new art movement was gingerly emerging. Later, it would be pigeonholed as Neo-Dada, a precursor to Pop Art.
In 1952, Robert Rauschenberg plastered a newspaper against the black background of two square canvases (and they look like an asphalt road rather than a painting). Artists started using bits of newspapers in their paintings 40 years before Rauschenberg, putting bits and torn out pieces here and there in their still lifes and cityscapes. In Rauschenberg’s work, the difference was that he took an element of mass culture and made it the focal point of his work, in its entirety.
Three years later, Jasper Jones made his Flag.
Other artists, both in the US and the UK were beginning to use images from advertising, music, and cinema to create works that celebrated, criticised or just explored the culture of the explosively growing middle class.
In 1958, when American abstractionists went on their European tour as an already well-established and recognised art movement, a British art critic came up with the term “Pop Art” for the kind of art that went in the opposite direction.
And a few more years later Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein would create iconic pop-art images.
So, back in the early 50s, Pop Art, a child of consumerism that grew to both admire and mock its parent, was about to be released into the world.
This premonition of tectonic shifts in life, especially women’s lifestyles, had to find its resolution in a new, massively adopted scent.
1953, Estee Lauder, posing herself (falsely) to be an heiress to the cosmetologist to a non-existing Russian princess, introduced Youth Dew, a scented bath oil that would soon become a perfume.
It was affordable and accessible: women could buy it themselves, not waiting for their partner to present it to them as a gift. The format of bath oil created the routine of daily use (something all marketeers dream about). Ultimately, it allowed women to reveal and parade their feminity both inside and outside of their house.
Its recipe was not really novel. It was… American. Bold, strong, massive, like Abstract Expressionism.
Europeans might find it similar to Guerlain’s Mitsouko of 1919 (but less flowery and more woody) – I show Mitsouko main notes in red.
Youth Dew characteristics:
Scent: Spicy Woody Oriental
Top notes: Orange, bergamot, peach, spices.
Heart notes: clove, cinnamon, cassie, rose, ylang-ylang, orchid, jasmine.
Base notes: frankincense, amber, vanilla, oakmoss, clove, musk, patchouli, vetiver, spices.
It soon became fashionable to spritz the back of French twist hairstyle with Youth Dew to leave a sensual trail of perfume while moving through a room.
In a matter of months after its launch, Youth Dew had become a scent for women who – consciously or subconsciously – didn’t want to be stuck in the role of the Stepford wife and wanted out. And, most importantly, it was not a scent which their husbands made them wear, it was their own choice, their own purchase, and, ultimately, their manifest of freedom.
It became a precursor both to pop art and the rise of feminism, with no intention of being either.
Thirteen years later, Paris would reclaim the title of the fragrance capital (if you guessed Eau Sauvage, you guessed right), and this is where we go next!
For those readers who missed previous chapters:
Previously, on 20th Century Art in Scents…
Scent: L’Origan de Coty.
Art movement: Art Nouveau.
Artist: Alfons Mucha.
Scent: Chypre de Coty.
Art movement: Art Deco.
Artist: George Barbier, et al.
Scent: Chanel No.5.
Art movement: avant-garde movements of the 1920s, abstractionism.
Artist: Paul Klee.