The missing binary model in the last chapter was the big one. Gender was more than one of the many oppositional tropes that shaped Vanity Fair, it was the term by which the magazine positioned its readers in relation to one another.
Gender was from the start a concern of the magazine. When Conde Nast first bought Dress magazine in 1913 it had been a men's fashion magazine. When Dress and Vanity Fair appeared it did so with the intent of expanding its focus to the kaleidoscopic whirlwind it eventually became. "Dress" was soon dropped from the title - with a promise that this editorial choice did not evidence a diminished interest in fashion.
One of the things that happened when Dress and Vanity Fair became Vanity Fair was that Fashion itself - in a magazine that until recently had been about stylish men's attire - was re-sexed. While it is personified as "Dame Fashion," Fashion is also erotisized as a part of an underlying courtship narrative. Here Dame Fashion is also a Rival (the capitol R draws attention to the great rhetorical weight the magazine placed on its clever use of this word) suitor - competing with the magazine's many other interests for the object of desire that they all shared - the debutante-like attention of the reader - here gendered as female regardless of the biological sex of the person reading.
Rita Felski, in The Gender of Modernity, argues that the "language of publicity" (Berger's phrase 131) always has a governing logic of gender difference. Women were increasingly responsible for making choices about what products their families would buy, even if the money used in these exchanges was earned by their husband's labor and not by their own.
To be a consuming subject in the modern world was therefor to enact the position of the feminine in ways that to be a producing subject was not. In order for Vanity Fair to reinvent itself as a magazine fit for a modern consumer public, in needed to reinvent its readers. The well-dressed men who had read Dress had to become linguistic androgynes who could enact both masculine and feminine subjectivities when a given advertisement or article required it of them.
This mixing of supposed masculine (such as purchasing power) and supposed feminine (such as the irrationalism of insatiable desires) attributes made many people nervous. Because it offered women new kinds of pleasures and at least some illusion of personal autonomy, Felski argues that the arena of consumption was a site of many of the culture's anxieties about gender relations. Many worried that
To address the modern consumer was therefor to address an androgyne - not just because the reader may have been either male or female, but also because any modern consumer always combined elements of male and female subjectivity. While this androgyny has many oppressive elements to it (the fact that it all takes place as part of an exploitative economic order, for instance) it has liberatory potential as well. Vanity Fair exhibited a marked interest in the erotics and economics of androgyny, and even a limited willingness to explore those possibilities. The magazine allowed confusion and ambivalence to reign on many of its pages, meditating on the fragility of gender roles and on the disorienting sensuality of a world without them. However it was certainly not involved with some kind of utopian degendering of the world, and many pages of Vanity Fair (especially in the 1930s) seem eager to contain the gender-corrosive energies that others had let loose.
Through 1929 the table of contents page suggested the gender work of the magazine better than any other single regular feature. Below the title there was a single image divided in two showing a man and a woman engaged in some activity together (such as performing music). Between the two images was the list of the magazine's contents - mediating the distance between them. The layout of these pages imitated the cultural work of the magazine; it occupied a place between masculinity and femininity that was open to exploration. While this space was somehow imaginary (the picture would only make literal sense if the two sides were put end to end) the magazine seemed to open up the space of the impossible and put itself firmly in it.
Full-page advertisements for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company appeared in every issue in 1929. These always depicted a woman engaged in some domestic activity - such as playing with children in the nursery in September- and being able to stay more involved with her task because of what was often called "the new telephone convenience." Significantly, the women in the ads always had short cropped hair and shapelessly slender, boyish figures. This body was able to contain and convey the semiotic contradiction of a woman who could purchase a new telephone from AT&T and yet play the part of nurturing domestic - who could not be interrupted from the "games" with her children, but who also had "important calls" which could not be "delayed."
This series of ads also played to class based anxieties in much the same way as the Mr. Tyler subscription ads. The ad from the August issue showed a servant woman using a phone that had been installed in the kitchen. The implication was that many telephone lines would help run a house with many servants - but once again what would seem to be a clear address to the wealth cannot remain stable through the whole ad. The address structure opens up at the last minute: "each residence has its special opportunities for telephone convenience. Your local Bell Company will be glad to plan with you the arrangements best suited to you own." In exactly the moment when the magazine seems its most elitist, it takes on the intensely democratic rhetoric of the new technology's universal applicability.
A brief overview of AT&T ads from other magazines shows us beyond any real doubt that - even if Vanity Fair editors thought little about the magazine's advertising content - advertisers thought a great deal about what to put in the pages of Vanity Fair. An ad from a Harper's Magazine from July 1927 shows a chart of telephones which depicts the inevitability of widespread telephone use with a kind of Darwinian evolutionary iconography. The ad plays not to dominant ideologies about gender but to those about technology. Women are totally absent, but men occupy a ghostly presence. The reference to the Darwinian charts depicting the rise of man, who grows from ape to homo-erectus in all his phallic glory, ally the telephone with a masculine model of power and progress.
An third type of AT&T ad appeared in American Home magazine in December of 1931. Once again, AT&T evidences sensitivity to the kind of publication in which its ads appeared. The emphasis here is not on the woman on the phone. Unlike in the Vanity Fair ads she is presented as doubly secondary: the photograph distracts the reader from her body with the splendor of the newly redecorated room while the caption under the photograph goes to great lengths to make it clear that the woman on the phone is not the consumer. "My dad had my room done over… and gave me a telephone for Christmas!" she exclaims. The readers of American Home were reminded that even in the domestic world it was men who directed the money and men who managed the resources.
Perhaps the best evidence that AT&T was very conscious of what kind of magazines it was advertising in comes from the regionally specific Sunset Magazine which was printed and circulated in Southern California. Rather than playing to readerly anxieties about gender, the ads routinely played to anxieties about natural disaster (April, 1929) and separation from friends and family in the east (January, 1929). Others issues referred to the importance of telephones to modern business expansion and economic well being.
The point of all this is not merely that AT&T thought about where its ads were appearing, but that corporations in general were concerned about issues of audience and that there ads may be read in these terms. The ads that appeared in Vanity Fair for AT&T were deeply concerned with the relationship between gender, modernity, and the new possibilities of the androgynous consuming subject. They are our most convincing proof that the magazine as a whole, and its readers shared those concerns.
AT&T did not advertise in Vanity Fair in 1933, though they continued to run full-page advertisements until December of 1932. These had lost some of the focus they had in 1929. Some were rather hollow feeling reworkings of ads that had run in 1929 - such as the one that appeared in November. Others seemed less willing to explore the complicated possibilities of changing gender roles then they had been on the eve of the depression. The December, 1933 ad not only signaled the end of AT&T's advertisements in Vanity Fair but closed the door on many of the disruptive energies that the companies older ads had let loose. It showed a woman asking a man - her husband, we assume - to buy her an extra telephone for their living room. Clearly whatever had made the playful exploration of aesthetic and economic androgyny possible was no longer at work in the culture of the early depression.
Another corporation with ads that seemed to reconfigure the possibilities of gender was Fisher Body. Like AT&T, the automobile manufacturer, which sold bodies to General Motors, ran full-page ads in most issues of Vanity Fair throughout 1929. Also like AT&T, they did not run ads in 1933. What was very different was the set of gender complications the ads invoked. With the accompanying slogan, "look to the body," Fisher's ads always featured a prominent and usually full color depiction of a woman's body, while the body of an automobile was always monochrome and sometimes not even part of the ad. By inviting the reader to "look to the body" on display - a body that frequently had exposed legs and shoulders - they made an awkward equation of the sexualized female body and the object for sale, valued for its strength and the modernity of its technology. Here Vanity Fair did the work of positioning its readers in relation to femininity and to modern technology and insisted that those relations were exchangeable for one another.
This equation of the semi-pornographic with the technologically new gains a new kind of urgency when examined in light of the discourse of streamlining which was then gathering speed and, by 1933 would be firmly in place as the dominant technological aesthetic in America. Richard Guy Wilson makes the argument that streamlining appealed to Americans because it responded to a basic contradiction in widely held assumptions about aesthetics and technology. On the one hand, Americans wanted to see technology at work in the things around them. On the other hand, the radically new forms of the machine age posed a threat to aesthetic values that had been basically stable for generations - aesthetics which valued handcrafted elegance and simplicity of form. Streamlining reacted to this contradiction in much the same way that Vanity Fair reacted to the desire to fit the values of the modern world inside the values of the old. The tear drop shape which was streamlining's signature required a degree of modern technology to produce, and the then-new use of wind tunnels for aerodynamic testing gave it an air of machine-like efficiency. Yet unlike the machine aesthetic of the early 1920s, the reality of streamlining was that it covered the working technology of the machine with a technologically produced shell that was not itself a machine.
In Mythologies, Roland Barthes argues that striptease (of all things) works by invoking a similar kind of contradiction.
The techno-skin of the streamlined object, like the erotic element of the striptease, works like a kind of homeopathy which cures with a measured dose of the offending illness. Barthes goes on:
In Vanity Fair, streamlining appeared most forcefully in a group of ads for General Electric Refrigerators. While the refrigerators hardly resembled a teardrop, they are an early example of modern technology's attempts to manifest itself under erasure. Each of the ads shows a person remarking on the hidden-ness of the refrigerator's machine-ness. In the February 1929 issue, the top of the page declared, "All the machinery is on top - you never see it, never oil it, barely hear it!" The latest technological innovation was technology's invisibility.
These GE ads, like the Fisher ads, were regular features in 1929; often they appeared only pages away from one another. Taken together, as magazine-logic demanded that they should be, they pronounced a strange alliance between the striptease which compared the machine to a woman's body (Fisher's) and that which took up the logic of striptease to describe a purely technological phenomenon (GE). The subject position that the reader was asked to take up was one that could relate to new technologies as if they were an object of sexual desire, but could also relate to objects of sexual desire as if they were new technologies. The use of sexual desire to sell was not unique to Vanity Fair, what was unique was the characteristically kaleidoscopic range of forms that desire could take. That multiplicity of forms was further complicated by the sheer range of things to which the reader of Vanity Fair had to respond. The magazine possitioned its readers in relation to cars, Picassos, refrigerators, physicists, socks, and foreign countries, and each page of Vanity Fair helped to make, remake, and destabilize the terms by which all the others could signify.
The GE ads were not the only ones to work with a crisis of interiors and exteriors. Earl-Glo, a company that made rayon overcoat linings, had a full-page, black and white ad in the September 1929 issue. "It would take a good line to explain a bad lining" the ad warns. The illustration shows a man taking off his overcoat and, with the help of a "coat room girl," exposing the tattered lining he would have wanted to keep secret. An androgyne with a fur and a slick, dark evening gown (perhaps his date) looks on in horror. Among New York sophisticates, for whom Freud was still very current, this warning would have signified off of the fear that unconscious desires and drives which might be "as ragged as the ruffles of a Russian refugee" could appear in the form of slips of the tongue and other outward manifestations of the interior world. It responded to an anxiety that was only possible in the culture of the managed self - that the elements of human existence that defied management could expose the fraudulence of any closely-managed external image. Modern technology - here represented by rayon, "the modern lining material" as the advertisement called it - could help even with this seemingly impossible task. The advertisement worked by playing off of a real fear, but in doing so it helped to teach people what kinds of thing they should be afraid of and under what circumstances they should fear them.
In many ways, the Earl-Glo ad more closely resembled the ads of 1933 than any of the other 1929 ads. Along with the more overtly political focus that the magazine took with the worsening of economic conditions came a more conservative position, especially with regards to gender. Similarly, the much shorter issues (often only half as many pages as those of 1929) offered fewer different viewpoints and possible subject positions. The magazine, ads and all, began to rely more on conventionally determined gender signification and began to do more work to maintain, rather than to complicate the coherence of gender roles and relations.
An extended investigation of these ads is not so important as was the investigation of the ads of 1929, simply because the 1933 advertisements do not represent so richly varied a kaleidoscope of different positions.
One company that provided an array of striking full-page advertisements during the Depression was Listerine. These do not merit extended investigation, but were part of a larger trend toward reinforcing conventional gender roles by insisting on the need to be attractive to members of the opposite sex. What is significant is that it shows how the magazine's readers were looking for an inexpensive panacea for all of the problems of unattractiveness, from bad breath to dandruff. Far more rare in the 1930s were the ads, like the Earl-Glo page I discussed above, that asked for readers to consider, invest in, and manage each part of themselves separately and with separate, potentially incompatible logics.
More interesting, if more conservative, are the advertisements for Ethyl Gasoline. The February 1933 issue is representative of many of the others. An older man's masculinity comes into question when his son remarks that all the cars of the roadway went faster than his. this ad responded to the anxiety that economic hardship was turning men into inadequate role models for the younger generation. In order to raise his son correctly, the man in the car had to buy the premium grade gas, and thereby preserve the speed of his car and all that it stood for - particularly his potency as embodied in his ability to reproduce his own masculinity in his son. Unable to do that, he was hardly a man at all.
Another example comes from the April 1933 issue. A doctor on his way to deliver a baby is in a race with a stork - a symbol of the antiquated mythology about the appearance of babies - everything that modern medicine was supposed to have out-run. Here it is not the doctor's masculinity that is under attack, but the superiority of modern medical technologies over the superstitious narratives of pre-industrial pseudo-science. Together these ads illustrate a more widespread trend in Vanity Fair and in the culture at large. Forces like technology and modernity which in 1929 had enjoyed a complex position of androgyny were now reassigned their masculine identities.
The Depression was the end of Vanity Fair until the magazine reopened in the early 1980s as a kind of shrine to the modern celebrity. In the 1930s advertising revenue became more rare for the magazine, but those revenues had never covered the cost of publication even at the best of times. The real reasons Conde Nast closed its doors in the beginning of 1936 seem to have been that - while in the 1920s he could tolerate a magazine that consistently lost money, in the 1930s he could not. However commercial the reasons for closing the magazine were, the world that Vanity Fair had stood for was already crumbling. Terry Cooney explains in Balancing Acts that even those who had been the most avid supporters of autonomous, a-political modernism in the 1920s became politically charged in the 1930s (129-131). Vanity Fair, while certainly more political during the Depression than it ever had been before, was never able to make any meaningful link between its politics and its aesthetics. Hellen Lawrenson described the "light" and "heavy" sides of the magazine as like a light child and heavy child trying to play together on a seesaw (Hoffman 73).
In spite of this, Vanity Fair continued to be very popular in the 1930s, and it continued to find new readers even as those readers grew poorer. 1931 was its best selling year ever; 1935, the year it collapsed, was its second best selling year ever (Hoffman 380). Perhaps Vanity Fair was doing too good a job giving its readers what they wanted - those who had little money perhaps chose to buy Vanity Fair rather than the products it advertised. Whatever the reason, Vanity Fair's readership, as big as it was, no longer had the market value it once had.
In 1934, long after Vanity Fair had stopped laying out its table of contents page in the manner it had in 1929, it published a rather remarkable article that reenacted some of the iconography of those pages. The article superimposed photographs of nine film actresses onto one another, and did the same for nine actors. The result was supposed to be a composite that would indicate the ideal of beauty for both men and women in 1934. The title of the of the article - like a punch line for the running joke that had been the whole history of the magazine - was "Male and Female: We Create Them."
Ever the proponant of satiric wit, Vanity Fair here satirized itself and its own cultural work, even as the world that had made that work possible was giving way beneath its feet. Indeed Vanity Fair had produced many different kinds of male and female possibilities, and perhaps, beginning to see that its work was becoming increasingly impossible, it left this article as its epigram. Or perhaps like most of what went between its pages, it was simply another destabilizing gesture aimed at gender, identity, and beauty.