AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - 'FANCY WORK': THE MASS AESTHETIC
work': the mass aesthetic
work of art is great because it is in some way an expression of the
good, the true and the beautiful. By association of ideas, its use in
advertisement is intended to convey similar conceptions of the commodity
Monthly, July 1929, page 11.
This essay is a shard
from a project to track the expansions of capital in Australia during
the era of monopolising since the 1870s. The paper traces some of the
terms, principally “glamour”, that marketers developed to promote
standardised products. Their choice of vocabulary, like all social
practices, was embedded in time, place and manner. Informing the
exploration is a materialist treatment of culture which restores
production to centre stage when discussing consumption, whether of
images, ideas or other commodities. That approach requires
distinguishing the opportunities offered by empirical study from the
limitations that Empiricism imposes on interpretation. No less important
is the avoidance of “double-entry history” in which some facility
with theory and a familiarity with the sources do not add up.
swarm around the impress of these practices upon taste and tradition.
Who has not rung the changes on Walter Benjamin’s thoughts about how
mechanical reproduction affected the work of art?
Lithography and photography soon exceeded that realm as marketers used
printing and film to supersaturate the visual environment with
inducements to buy.
resonates with the 1801 boast by Eli Whitney that the parts of his
rifles were “as much like each other as the successive impressions of
a copper-plate engraving”.
Appreciation of the importance of standardisation and simplification in
industry is a precondition for understanding the interchanges between
modernism and modernisation. To consider our age of oligopolies without
attending to the standardisation of producing and consuming is to miss
developments that went beyond work and warfare to penetrate family life,
science and the arts.
To treat standardisation as the matrix for modernisation risks fewer
errors than have resulted from neglecting the former’s pervasiveness.
In the interpreting of
commodities, their marketing and consumption should never be severed
from their production. Each act of production involves the consumption
of commodities – tools or machinery, semi-finished goods, raw
materials and labour power. Hence, an inquiry into consumption by
individuals has to begin from within the cycles of production as
accounts of consumption in Australia have made products appear to create
themselves out of nothing. This parthenogenesis afflicted Fibro frontier: a different history of Australian architecture
(1997), where Charles Pickett
gave chapters to every aspect of fibro, except how it was made. Hence,
his version was not as “different” from Robin Boyd’s as it might
have been. Margaret Maynard’s account of clothing and fashion in
twentieth-century Australia took no notice of the production of the raw
materials for nylons and polyester garments; her six mentions of tanning
referred to sunlight on the skin, not chemicals on hides. Ann Stephen
linked consumption to domestic reproduction in “Selling Soap: Domestic
Work and Consumerism”, but did not comment on the waged work required
for the soap’s manufacture, or on commercial laundries.
If these authors had been commenting on each other’s writings, they
might have identified “production” as the “significant absence”.
The components in the
cycles of production-consumption are repositioned to contribute to each
phase in the expansion of capital. A hundred years after Whitney, his
successors standardised components, designs and products in an effort to
lift the profitability of mass production.
In the process, machino-facture helped to rejig the relations between
the ethical and the beautiful. By the 1920s, innovations in welding, for
instance, had shifted metalwork from the serpentine towards angularity.
Modernist ideologues enunciated the precepts of streamlining,
truth-to-materials, and form-expressing-function.
Two hundred years
earlier, Alexander Baumgarten did not have to evaluate standardised
commodities, or explicate ideas designed to boost consumption. Yet he
identified “aesthetics” as a field of study just before Josiah
Wedgwood began to market Creamware in the 1760s. Within twenty years,
Kant was beating the retreat from industry by associating beauty with
the sublimity of nature rather than with art. Throughout the nineteenth
century, the majority of people depended on use-values produced in their
domestic economy. Not until the second half of the twentieth century did
the bulk of U. S. Americans encounter a plethora of commodities. Hence,
there had been little point in discussing the mass of exchange-values in
terms of quality or virtue. Duchamp’s ready-mades were among the first
judgements found to critique this situation.
The gulf between
aesthetics and mass production/consumption paralleled the stance of
philosophers who, for millennia, had presented their playing with
concepts as the sum of human endeavour.
The paradox today is that authors who pride themselves on eschewing
judgements of quality have carried on that Philosophical Idealism. Like
the Kantians, the post-moderns keep their distance from the production
Avoiding the unity of
consumption with production guarantees that cultural critics will go
astray when considering the production of the ideas to service the
expansion of capital. Focusing on consumption by individuals means that
these writers do not grasp that shopping nourishes labour power so that
it can be resold for wages to meet the socially necessary costs of its
reproduction. The determinant of spending power is earning capacity. The
effective demand of a consumer is set by the struggle over wages.
Without the dynamic
from this struggle between classes, the explicators of ideology deliver
mechanical and one-dimensional accounts. For instance, in a rush to
restore agency to the consumer, cultural critics fixed their gaze on the
most obvious aspect of marketing, namely, advertisements. Even worse,
semioticians did not lift their sights past the “look” of those
promotional items. This myopia could have been remedied by a glance at
the contents page of any marketing textbook where advertising is put in
its place on the margins of the sales effort. Kim Humphrey in Shelf
Life at least examined the power relations between supermarket and
He did not see that overshadowing those exchanges is a contest between
manufacturer and merchandiser, that is, between corporations.
Once mass production
marginalised custom-made goods, marketers had trouble convincing
shoppers that a line could be drawn between publicity and puffery. How
could profit-taking, let alone profiteering, be treated as “the
good”, propaganda and public relations be presented as “the true”,
and standardised commodities be sold as “the beautiful”?
The one timeless and universal element in a critique of judgement
is its remaking, whether by Kant, or 1920s publicists. Marketers,
therefore, responded by picturing their products as carrying forward
variants of the good, the true and the beautiful. They installed a mass
aesthetic, fusing pleasure with gratification to suit the imperatives of
This essay will get
down and dirty with them in order to retrieve the aesthetic they
contrived for the mass of goods. The approach will be to examine the
lexicon that marketers inscribed for an aesthetic of commerce, as
adapted in Australia. The period covered loops back to the 1870s, though
most of the data are drawn from between 1910 and 1970. The investigation
focuses on the repositioning of the inherited triad of virtues:
Part of the
marketers’ success came from refashioning maxims from the past, a move
which concealed their links to modernisation. By relying on a borrowed
formula, the marketers appeared to rise above the immediate needs of
their clients. The inherited elements supplied an opaqueness with which
to disguise their selling the superficial. This analysis will conclude
with case studies of plastics and of Jewellers, a coupling which only
Beyond that commercial
necessity, gold became the measure for the character of nations. The
British authorities portrayed their Empire as the center of moral
gravity, protecting maidenhood and enforcing contracts. The gold
standard underwrote both.
After the U. S.
Establishment had fought and won the good fight against bi-metalism in
the 1890s, Secretary of the U. S. Treasury and Chicago banker Lyman Gage
oversaw the transformation of the Office of Weights and Measures into
the Bureau of Standards. In 1902, Gage extended his faith in the ethical
dimension of the Gold Standard to the moral benefits from accuracy in
science. Against the prevalence of “looseness” in methods, ideas and
spirit, Gage praised an “absolute standard, to which fidelity in all
relations of life affected by that standard is required”.
In 1925, the Chancellor
of the Exchequer, Reginald McKenna, argued that the “moral effect” of the Gold Standard
was the most potent of all its “great and striking advantages”
because “[a] nation will think better of itself, will almost regard
itself as more honest, if its currency is convertible into gold.”
Australian commentators once more contrasted the ethical imperative that
guaranteed that a Britisher would always pay his debts against the
shonky dealings of the United States.
The Empire’s marriage between goodness and truth was a troubled one.
Britain quit the Gold Standard to finance the Great War, returned in
1925, abandoning it again in 1932, never to return. Australia had
deserted a year earlier. Professorial propagandists debated these
financial questions in terms of “dishonour” and its “decadence”.
had justified sacrifice on the battlefields of 1914 to 1918 as a purging
fire brought down on civilization by its materialism in thought and
In the Presidential Address to the1917 Conference of the Australian
Natives Association, A. C. Ostram regretted that the attitude was
“business more than usual”. Greed left the country vulnerable to
“sinking back into a state of self-satisfaction and selfishness which
must create grave civil dangers”. With millions of soldiers
slaughtered in the trenches, and even more civilians dead from the
theologians had a hard time claiming that the Atonement had not
sacrificed enough. Yet, the world after 1918 seemed worse. Profiteering
polluted business and the Anarch ruled labour.
Moral purpose was at a premium for the ideology makers.
The instability of the
monetary standard shook consumer confidence in the quality and value of
the commodities. Gold no longer provided the surety of a universal
equivalent. Order had to be plucked from chaos. Reeling from the revolts
of 1919 and 1920, the Wall Street
Journal condemned materialism as a socialist doctrine enflaming envy
among wage-labourers. Far from capitalism’s being the fount of
avarice, the editor portrayed commerce as grounded in good faith:
gold in the Assay Office is a trifle beside the credit it represents,
not merely in currency but in acceptances and checks on your drawing
account. And that credit is faith, entirely proper for embodiment in the
loftiest creed … faith has built every beautiful and useful thing the
world enjoys. It created our railroads and the American Constitution,
and the materialism which has nearly wrecked the one could destroy the
The Journal forgot that the railroads had been financed by the Robber
Barons’ swindling of British investors. Its own staff perpetrated
every species of faithlessness to manipulate the stock market for
personal gain, until exposed in 1933.
The faithful heard that
“Gold is dead” at the same time as the sales effort exploded. Once
gold ceased to provide a universal equivalent for the exchange of
commodities, the commodities themselves became the new measure of moral
worth. The transfer of trust
from gold to commodities reproduced the transformation of values into
prices that is essential to the realisation of profit from surplus
value. Just as gold had been paraded as the outward sign of an inner
grace, so it came to pass that marketers pictured commodities as
embodying the virtues of faith, hope and love.
In the United States,
marketers had drawn on the grief of war to turn the recently invented
Mothers Day into an opportunity to show affection by spending on gifts.
That initiative encouraged business to stud the calendar with prompts to
buy on Fathers Day, and at Easter.
The alchemising of possessions into spiritual values led the academic
arm of marketing to portray the coveting of ever more possessions as an
extension of Transcendentalism.
In this spirit,
Australian jewellers asserted that their wares should not “be taxed as
a quite unnecessary possession of the wealthy” but welcomed as
necessary and beautiful act of personal adornment … The spiritual and
mental momentum of the modern age demands that such kind and precious
feelings should be given tangible form – and jewellery is the modern
currency of fine and happy people … the all-important quality of
spiritual uplift that a piece of jewellery captures ideally.
a diamond broach retained the appearance of conspicuous display, it
embodied a nobility of purpose, having undergone a marketer’s miracle
of transubstantiation into a talisman for “the good”. Just as gold
had once conveyed the prowess of majesty, publicists now conjured with
the witchery of gemstones. Raymond Williams concluded in 1960 that
“our society is quite evidently not materialist enough” because
people are prepared to pay for the magical properties promised by
stratagems and incantations had become necessary because “the good”
no longer assured that goods were of quality materials and
craftsmanship. The buying public condemned the worst of mass production
as “shoddy”. As a catch-cry for consumer resistance, “shoddy”
presented the aestheticians of commerce with both their problem and a
ready-made antithesis against which to refine their self-valuations.
“Shoddy” had begun as technical term in the wool trade, spreading to
other fabrics and garments, and eventually to attitudes and behavior.
was how storekeepers and their customers disparaged merchandise that did
not deliver value-for-money, sound construction from dependable
materials, or an agreeable appearance.
In 1928, the Decorator and Painter
railed against “Retailing Shoddy Goods”, pointing to a spread of
Brummagem, the “inferior article made in imitation of better ones”,
whether jewellery or ironmongery. Next year, the
Melbourne trade weekly Building
and Construction tempered its enthusiasm for Le Corbusier by
acknowledging that financial considerations could tempt Modernist
architects to use “shoddy materials”.
the origins of shoddy in marking down products as inferior, the term
came to be applied to society. Writing on “The Commercialisation of
Cultural Life” early in 1942, the Roman Catholic economist Colin Clark
condemned capitalists for their
masses of shoddy and deceitful goods …By all manner of indirect means
they secure control over intellectual circles, universities and even
governments, so as to make sure that there shall be no independent
cultural criticism of the business man marketing shoddy goods for his
Shortly after the war, the Australasian Leather Trades Review republished a British commentary which carried Clark’s connection from the social across to allege that “the individual whose life is spent amid shoddy and meretricious surroundings will … become merely another unit of dull, unimaginative, indiscriminate, mass-minded, humanity, without purpose in life.” When the Bulletin editorialised against “The Age of Shoddy” early in 1951, it deplored not just “an age of smart-appearing but structurally shoddy homes and motor-cars, but of shoddy political and moral standards and public service.” The editor blamed shoddiness on high taxes and communists, never hinting at Clark’s imputation that many capitalists needed shoddiness to remain profitable.
The Chairman of Grace
Bros department stores alleged in 1928 that a “smoke screen of
advertising” allowed business to detach price from quality.
As a result, the fixed prices for branded lines were too high and their
quality too low. To ward off such criticism, advertising men promoted
their trade behind the slogan “Truth in advertising”. They faced
some difficulty in convincing the Editor of the Age
of their probity. He resented their “heavy pressure” to invade pages
reserved for “a high literary policy and spiritual standard”.
To circumvent such
criticism, the publicists posed within a gilded frame of fine art. From
the Eighteenth century, advocates of the Picturesque had encouraged
travelers to appreciate nature through the depictions of artists,
notably Claude and Ruisdael. To touch up the truth about advertising,
the Catts-Patterson Agency in 1929 illustrated its self-promotion with
Van Dyck’s “Portrait of Duke of Richmond”:
by chance, nor alone by mere steadfast endeavour, is such a masterpiece
ever achieved. This great picture enjoys enduring fame because, in
addition to brilliant workmanship, artistic sincerity and kindred
virtues, it has that vital quality of originality which always
differentiates mediocrity and supremacy.
in every age, in every phase of life, outstanding performance signifies
an unusual combination of qualities – painstaking effort, unwavering
adherence to a set aim, worthiness of aspiration and sincerity of
purpose, vitalised by alert originality and a capacity for achievement.
as this is true of an Old Master, it is true of a modern business
enterprise such as Catts-Patterson Company Ltd.
In 1931, advertisers
integrated the fine arts into their commercial drive by selecting the
Blaxland Gallery in Farmer’s department store as the venue for their
Convention. The vicar of Redfern assured delegates that Christ had been
one of their company, while the State’s Governor, Sir Phillip Game,
confirmed that they were not practising a “black art”.
A speaker told the
Advertisers’ 1918 Convention in Brisbane that their purpose in life
was “the fostering of that wholesome uplifting sentiment without which
no man, no business, no nation, can attain real greatness.”
A playwright member of the New South Wales Institute of Advertising Men,
Jas. A. Ross, wound up his 1923 disquisition on “Art and
Advertising” with a segment on “Psychology of Colour and the
commerce holds the golden key to his earthly paradise, the Advertising
Man is in possession of the big white swastika that unlocks the door of
light to the Palace of Life. He is ever in the confidence of “the
Unknown”, and a greater revealer of Truth than he is conscious of.
Were the publicists
trying to convince themselves so they could convince others, on the
principle of the power of positive thinking?
False values could
afflict the truth of products as well as words. Veneers had given
furniture an expensive-looking “disguise”, or “costly covering”,
as EPNS did to cutlery. Bakelite mimicked timber on wireless sets.
In 1925, an architect complained that “[l]inoleum for kitchen halls is
often designed to simulate tiling, but like all imitations, it is
handicapped by the very fact that it is not the real thing”.
Synthetics such as
rayon had to overcome the suspicion that they were a threat to the
economy’s ability to ride on the sheep’s back. Throughout the 1950s,
the Wool Bureau accused the makers of synthetics of trying to hitch a
lift on the “supreme fibre”, which drew its virtuousness from the soil. Blends would have
allowed the synthetic-fibre interests to reap an “advantage by
association with wool”.
In countering the appeal of synthetics and blends, the Wool Board used
Mannequin Parades to make the natural fibre appear “glamourous”
rather than dowdy.
became the settled affix for the “aestheticisation of commodities”,
the vocabulary for that process was itself blown by fashion. Publicists
toyed with “chic”, “dream” and “magic” to give rival brands
with identical use-values the selling appeal of a difference. In 1929,
“chic” was in vogue for being as “elusive” and as
“inimitable” as fashion itself. The association of chic with the
“ready-to-wear” and the “streamlined”
contributed to its displacement on the grounds of being too standardised
to withstand suspicion of proving shoddy. As the Second World War ended,
marketers appealed to servicemen by attaching “dream” to girl, home
In 1960, copy-writers promoted Hoovermatics with another near-homonym,
“It’s Hoover Magic!” Hence, the
adoption of “glamour” as the generic for the desirable in
commodities and bodies was not preordained. It also had to weather the
transition from silent film to talkies, at the same time as households
tuned into the wireless with its broadcasting of popular music.
From out of that
novelty, “jazz” became for the pricey and flash what “shoddy”
was for the cheap and nasty. In musical circles, “Jazz” could mean
almost any popular music after the waltz. Beyond that domain, “jazz”
seemed synonymous with modern(e) or contemporary. Jazz was a two-step
from shoddy, yet remained suspect. One interior decorator accused
“jazz” patterned wall-papers, with their “vivid reds, yellow and
blues”, of causing headaches from a
which they throw upon the eyes … Trellis-work designs in glaring and
inharmonious colorings and Futurist patterns of various varieties are in
evidence, but these are favoured by only the few. The craze for such
bizarre effects is, no doubt, a passing phase of the post-war fever.
A 1929 writer in the Decorator
and Painter castigated the “Jazz Element in Lettering” on
posters as “freakish”.
Not every designer was
so dismissive. Because strong colours and black were difficult for
decorators to bring off, any room using them needed the consistency
provided by “relative tones”.
Hence, Jazz decoration was permissible as an accent, but “should be
eschewed in the baby’s room.”
The author of an article titled “The Law of Fitness” could accept
“Jazz-coloured papers” as one panel in an Oriental room.
Similarly, the “angular shapes” in the Futurist Lounge of Sydney’s
State Theatre “demonstrate more order and consistency” on closer
inspection because its “freakish” look had been tempered by a
“soft and decorative” colour scheme.
The author of a reprint
of a 1927 British article advocating more colour in architecture, split
“modern” from “jazz” because “[T]his distressing word has
already led to much confusion, and should be quietly buried.”
That call had come too late to prevent the acceptance of Art Deco after
the 1925 Exposition Decoratif
in Paris. Next year, the Decorator
and Painter recognised the good and the bad in jazz patterning:
is in direct conflict with formerly accepted ideas of art, which usually
aimed at subtlety and respect for precedent and established rules in
regard to design and colour. Jazz ornament is crude and striking,
suggesting the primitive. Though its origins have been semi-savage, jazz
ornament has become so universal that it has to be accepted and taken
seriously as a definite style of art … It has had a profound effect
upon modern fine and applied art …
jazz is not without compensating features. Its simplicity and striking
colouring offer freedom and scope for originality. It is the only
genuinely characteristic and widely adopted type of modern ornament that
has been evolved of recent years and the modern decorators and artists
are compelled to take it into account.
As a cross-over from
the shoddy towards the streamlined, the use of “jazz” as a
descriptor was a stage in the quest by marketers for terms with which to
anchor their promotions. “Jazz” appealed to the segment of the
market that was most susceptible to the new products. That cohort was
still too small for “Jazz” to replace “beauty” as a standard.
exposing any sales pitch for what it was. Which terms were suitable
could be decided only after experimenting. Chic and Jazz failed. Glamour
triumphed. Once the latter had been accepted at the top end of the
market, its potential to attract buyers could be extended to every
attitudes could not be jettisoned in a trice, marketers accepted that
“appeals to the woman of 1936 must include both glamour and security
as essential ingredients”.
Radio serials promoted toiletries to help women think of themselves as
glamourous, thereby bringing the exotic into the domestic. Lux Radio
Theatre deployed Hollywood scripts and de Millean production values to
back up the claim that Lux was “used by nine out of ten film stars.”
The commodity (soap) sponsoring the serial (“soaps”) was itself
glamourised by association with tales of romance. Soap commercials
nourished fantasies more than faces.
application of “glamour” added an extra use-value to each exchange.
On the first page of Capital,
Marx had observed that whether the human want that a commodity satisfied
“sprang from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference”. Thus,
rouge could provide just as much use-value as an ointment. In turn, the
packaging of a brand of lipstick could give its wearer as much
satisfaction as the cosmetic.
In the 1930s, marketers
moved women’s bathing costumes to the fashionable end of the great
chain of buying. A marketing reporter observed that these “Glamour”
swim suits presupposed “the Streamlined Girl”, linking two tropes of
modernisation. He also pointed to the reified strand in a transaction
which encouraged women to “buy a few ounces of glamour”.
Few could fit into fashionable beachwear, nor did they want to. They had
to be taught to desire both that body and the item of clothing.
War-time rationing and
drab brought a hiatus in marketing. With peace, pent-up savings led to
an explosion of effective demand. Too much money was chasing too few
goods. In that sellers market, even shoddy items could seem glamourous
when coloured. After 1945, “How many colours does it come in?”
became more pressing for a purchasing manager at a retail outlet than
securing the precision that had been demanded by a military procurement
During the late 1940s, customers would buy any household item made from
plastics materials, though “bright colours are ready sellers.”
The conflict between
price competition and marketing erupted during the period of the
sellers’ market.  Standardisation promised lower costs. In
1949, motoring columnists complained that “‘styling’, glamour,
glisten and gadgetry” were preventing car-makers from achieving cost
savings from mass production.
In addition, a decline of quality was being concealed by promotions, or
by extras that distracted attention from structural flaws. Two-tone paints
provided the cheaper path to automobile glamour than chrome.
In another unity of
opposites, a dazzle of colours offered an antidote to the drab of
standardisation. Because colours operated at the surface,
traditionalists feared them as markers of the shoddy. Marketers embraced
them as bearers of glamour. A priority for deepening our interpretation
of the aesthetics of commerce will be to anchor those ideas to accounts
of the technologies - social and physical - needed to produce and to
apply colour to film, printing and paints.
sophistication on suburban plastics, Laminex put “Glamour in the
shower recess”, along with a woman clothed only in a towel, as if on
the cover of Man Junior.
Feminists object to advertisers’ inclusion of a female form in
situations where it has no connection with the product.
International Harvester’s campaign of “Glamourising Trucks” with
chorus girls and mini-skirted models sexualized its sales pitch.
the marketers were extending glamour to the ornamenting of necessities
to make the everyday look desirable, no matter how mundane its use. Suet
was the exemplar. Cerebos sought to have its brand replace the butchers' version,
which younger housewives “associated with drab and dreary
cooking”’. Broadcasting and
Television headlined its report of that campaign: “How to ‘dress
up’ an unglamourous product for TV”. The commercial opened with
“gay glamour and hearty feasting” set in the Tom Jones period. The
sequence was shot in the great hall of Monsalvat, at the Eltham artists'
community. The storyboard called for “wenches who display their charms
to gallants”, in imitation of the 1963 feature film based on
In similar vein,
Marrickville Holdings moved to “Glamourise Magarine”
in order to overturn legislation limiting the quantity of the table
variety that could be sold under its own name.
Norco butter replied with its “glamour” campaign by setting a cow on
stage while an orchestra played Beethoven's Pastoral symphony.
Other marketers sought to “boost the glamour of sugar”.
Meanwhile, “Rice needed glamour” to overcome the resistance of South
Australians to eating “a gluey compact ball” which “was a poor
colour due to the grubby Adelaide water”.
Glamour reached its
sexual apogee in November 1961 when Hickory launched its “Dare”
range of foundation garments, with a full-color eight-page gatefold in
the Australian Women’s Weekly.
The promise was “For Instant Glamour”. The account executive for
Hickory explained that the marketing strategy had been to challenge
women to make themselves look provocative. The way we look at it, when
you’re selling glamour and fashion-excitement you’ve got to
advertise with glamour and excitement. And if you can wrap up that
glamour and excitement in an advertising shock-treatment that’s
completely different from and bigger than anything your customers have
ever seen before, your message is going to strike home with maximum
The agency had hired a
psychologist, whose report stressed that the advertisement dared the
make herself provocative. It reminds her forcibly of her sex and its
implications, and dares her to admit them to herself … The
sophisticated-cum-mischievous attitude assures self-identification with
the model. The female viewer will be thrown into a delightful state of
conflict – a desire to identify with the basic appeal conflicting with
reluctance to admit the desire. This raises positive feelings concerning
the purchasing situation. 
“Wear DARE if you
dare” was shocking in 1961 for the readership of the Weekly,
which was edited to attract women of all ages. The “Dare” promotion
is another reminder that marketers the foundation laid for the sexual
revolution in the Sixties.
As glamour slipped from
quality goods to the glossing of necessities, its application spread
from particular products to cover shopping as a pastime. Bankstown
Square promoted itself with the promise that “Glamour is easy if you
have both time and the money.”
Merchandisers needed women to squander their hours and dollars. Those
sales managers had the opposite approach in mind for their resources. For them, glamour was a device to accelerate turnover and
accumulate money capital.
The spread of glamour
from a handful of silent movie queens to the most mundane of household
products did not strip the word of its association with value or
expense. In 1965, the Advertising Manager for the somewhat down-market Woman’s
Day explained his magazine’s policy towards features:
type of fashion we run is basically Australian, and the sort of fashion
women can wear, make, and buy. We do show the occasional glamour dress,
and glamour kitchen. But this is aimed at ‘improving the current way
Glamour remained the
preserve of its rival, the Weekly,
until market segmentation by age and purchasing power the late 1960
brought a range of publications to package readers.
Marketers did more than
insert the word “glamour” into their copy. They integrated its
sensuousness into the look of
publicity materials, and applied its touch to the packaging of the
object and to its display in the store. The cheapest way to gloss an
item was by wrapping it in cellophane or polythene.
ICI’s packaging film, branded VisQueen, added “Glamour to Garments,
making them look glossier and more luxurious.”
Perspex turned plastics into “the Glamour Material of Display”.
Hardware Journal announced that “’Fibrolite’ Homes Move into
the Glamour Class” with a coat of PVA paint. That glamourising agent
was itself glamourised when Berger Breeze in 1965 gave the “miracle”
additive in its latest paint the “glamour name LOXON 303”.
If shoppers had
expected the quality of goods to return to pre-1940 standards once
productivity gains had re-established a “buyers’ market”, they
were at first disappointed and afterwards distracted by new selling
methods for novelties made from synthetics. To absorb the redefinition
of genuine, of value-for-money and of pleasing, Australians had to be
taught to abandon their identification of artificial with second-rate.
The failure of plastics to live up to the promises of their marketers
impeded that change in evaluation. Production capacities and economic
conditions governed the pace of the shift in sensibilities about
plastics as much as did promotional budgets.
Age of Plastics
Methods of production
can impede consumer acceptance. For instance, the lack of control in
manufacturing delayed the adoption of kitchenware made from plastics
materials. Their colours were fast only if the appropriate ingredients
had been formed in the correct way. Elsewhere, dyes from bottle tops
bled into consumable liquids, while the packaging of food in coloured
plastics gave rise to a rash of concerns. Hence, to map the
coming to Australia of the Age of Plastics requires paying attention to
the chemistry of colour, to marketing and to popular responses.
Solid colour did not
become possible in plastics until chemists could attach a colour
molecule to each plastics molecule so that the colour would not scratch
off, peel or bleed. The addition of pigments or dyes to resins was
complicated by how each colouring agent reacted with base components.
The plastics manufacturers had inherited colouring agents that had been
designed for textiles, printing and paints. In need of paints specific
to automobiles, Du Pont developed Duco throughout the 1920s, eventually
replacing its nitro-cellulose resin with synthetics to ensure consistent
By 1949, some fabric
firms had produced dyes specifically for rayons. Even with those aids,
the technicians in charge of colouring plastics had to cope with
day-to-day conditions, such as the weather, or the availability of raw
materials. Post-war shortages encouraged manufacturers to substitute
powders suitable for one method to another. As a result, throughout the
1950s, the search for consistency was “still largely in the pioneering
manufacture of plastics, along with their social-cultural consequences,
is invaluable for any account of the modernisation of everyday life in
Australia. Plastics materials carried the explosion of colours after
1945. Before then, most of the plastics materials in use had been out of
sight, or not recognised for what they were made from.
Many were brown or black. Once plastics replaced linseed oil as the
carrying agent in house paints in the early 1950s, the hardware industry
chorused “Don’t sell paint, sell colour.” Shortly afterwards, its
slogan became “Plastics are Paints and Paint is Plastics”.
Yet, the glossy surfaces and sharp colours associated with plastics made
it harder for buyers to shed their suspicions that the new products were
surrogates, if not shoddy.
Faced with new
materials, customers discriminated between products that appealed
because they were the latest emblem of progress and those that betrayed
the tawdriness of a synthetic. A store buyer reported in 1947 on the
unpopularity of “the ‘calf’ finish on plastics for handbags.
Women, they say, think it looks too much like ‘imitation leather’
and the well-dressed woman feels it is perhaps too ordinary.”
At the same time, the fashion-conscious shopper welcomed clothing that
was unashamedly from plastics, for instance, cheap translucent vinyl
raincoats, buying more than one pastel shade to match different outfits.
sold plastics with the promise that the colour would not scratch off,
fading and mismatches recurred.
Polystyrene turned yellow in sunlight. Many of the clear tints needed
for Perspex could not survive the production processes. The popularity
of polythene was in inverse proportions to the range of colours that it
could carry. As late as 1964, some colouring agents migrated to the
surface and rubbed off.
Because of inconsistent
colours and uncertain properties, plastics became the epitome of the
shoddy. Australian Plastics in
1947 reprinted a U.K. article on synthetic fabrics as “Rubbish”.
In 1951, a speaker on the BBC denounced them as “beastly …
Looking back that year on the post-war era of shortages, Australian Plastics admitted that the public had
riveted plastic baby harnesses which ripped apart, plastic patent
handbags which lifted varnish from the counter, belts which stretched to
ridiculous lengths, circular trays that warped and therefore wobbled,
fountain pen casing that cracked at the slightest pressure – and
suddenly people stopped buying … people were inclined to judge all
plastics by the poor quality of these products.
The reputation of
plastics for inferiority and unreliability persisted. A 1953 editorial
confessed that “the Plastics Industry has created and is developing an
anti-plastics consumer reaction … most marked by the opposition of
many housewives to the use of plastic household utensils”. Many items
were said to “lack finish”. More remarkably, “too many
manufacturers fabricate plastic articles from the wrong base
Not until 1963 did the industry feel confident that the public looked on
its products as other than poor substitutes.
As early as 1949, Australian
Plastics regretted that plastics materials had been over-rated by
“years of ‘glamour’ misreporting.”
Yet few industries remained more involved in self-glamourisation than
plastics. Beutron introduced pearl-like buttons as “Glamour Types”.
Marketers announced polystyrene as the “‘general maid’ of the
plastics domestic staff. You will find it in your ‘glamour’
Copy writers supplied
traders with the phrases to make the substitutes sound more genuine than
the real things. Du Pont, for example, introduced Nylon as “Art
Silk”. That term deflected attention from the newcomer’s being a
substitute for silk towards the thought that an artificial was more
aesthetic than the natural alternative.
promised to add “glamour” to spectacle frames where metal or
bakelite had blighted feminine charm. Before the war, importers had
stocked perhaps six styles of frame, while an optician held only three.
In the late 1940s, society women were buying more than one pair, donning
black or white for “evening ensembles”. By 1953, a few Melbourne
women were wearing spectacle frames
and in some few cases studded with semi-precious stones. This may mean
that a new European vogue is arriving. For some time, France and Italy
have been putting glamour into spectacles to good appearance (and
As purveyors of quality
merchandise, jewellers held a lien over the Good, the True and the
Beautiful, despising the shoddy, resisting Jazz and chic as the
standardised mass, and even holding aloof from glamour. Nonetheless,
needs must. High-mindedness could not outlast the drop of sales during
the 1930s depression. Instead of disparaging imitations as “shoddy”,
jewellers dignified “artificial” items with the appellation
a near-homonym for “custom”, which had required the creative setting
of precious stones. The copy-writers were turning diamantes into
diamonds, paste into pearls. This dodge could sustain turnover but did
not bring in the same rate of profit as had selling the real thing.
The August 1946 issue
of the Commonwealth Jeweller and
Watchmaker had welcomed plastics as a medium for artists but
denounced jewellery fashioned from plastics as “Barbaric Baubees”.
A columnist praised busts made out of plastics and “in colours ranging
through ruby, emerald green, pale lemon and amber”. These prototypes
from a manufacturing jeweller were “an achievement that may be of the
front rank importance in the history both of art and jewellery
manufacture”. Expensive “figurines of Egyptian influence”
represented “fascinating possibilities in modernistic decoration and,
to the artist, a new range in dynamics.”
Such artworks promised an expansion of skill and sales. Jewellery out of
plastics threatened both.
The gentility of the
jewellers’ trade was to suffer worse indignities. After the Chifley
Labor government appointed one its own, Bill McKell, as the King’s
man, the Commonwealth Jeweller and
Watchmaker had all its prejudices confirmed by the Governor-General
designate who, instead of using the traditional quill, pulled a fountain
pen from his suit pocket to sign the Oath of Office.
At least he did not use a ballpoint.
Before long, Biros were
displacing fountain pens, to be sold at newsagencies by the fistful.
The well-off began to discard cheaper watches and fountain pens instead
bringing them back for servicing, which could cost more than a
replacement. Advertisements for Gaytime’s Diamante tiaras and
“Mother” broaches, Australiana spoons, Mexicana ceramics and
poker-worked mulga were taking up more shelf space and paying for most
of the pages in the Commonwealth Jeweller and Watchmaker. Bone china and crystal faced
competition from plastics and then Noritake.
Colour deepened the
challenge from alternatives to traditional stocks.
Imitation pearls in green, blue, coffee and gunmetal tones became
popular during1949. That year, the Commonwealth
Jeweller and Watchmaker condemned a “craze” for “jazz
crockery”, with its “streaks of forked lightning … emblazoned in
The Director of the National Jewellers’ Association reported on
British trends for 1950:
Colour is the key to
many of the most exciting and widespread trends in jewel fashions in
Britain to-day…. This all for colour, with its consequent demand for
semi-precious stones, is not confined to any particular piece of
jewellery or style.
The appeal of colour
boosted a demand for reproductions of Eighteenth-century parures “in
silver and coloured and white ‘diamond-set’ paste”.
This combination of costume jewellery with replicas made from synthetic
materials precipitated a reappraisal of the value of the modern among
the trade, and a reaction against its acceptance.
One Melbourne jeweller
drew comfort from the demand for “the cheaper costume jewellery” by
arguing that its buyers “have uncovered a new market”:
certainly have not reduced demand for the quality products upon which
Australian manufacturers have specialised … These cheaper, imported
lines look what they are: bright and showy, cute and attractive – but
cheap. Those who wear them do not pretend they are real! This jewellery
is not even imitation jewellery. It is a thing on its own. Imitation
jewellery suggests that there may be some doubt as to whether it is real
or only looks like being real.
again, quite a lot of people who own valuable jewellery are buying and
wearing these cheap, shiny, pretty pieces for “Knock about” use,
when they would never in any circumstances be wearing their valuable
jewellery. This cheaper costume jewellery has caught the feminine fancy
because it is “amusing”.
broaches are truly the toys of the jewellery world – certainly not a
serious substitute for the real thing.
The grain of truth in
that conclusion could not reverse the redirection of merchandising
towards glamourising the synthetic. Plastic were media for the
reeducation of taste
As more people acquired
greater discretionary income, they did not adopt the spending patterns
of the pre-1940 well-to-do. Customers had new demands on their funds
from purchasing white goods and motor cars. They were also more
reluctant to wait. Jewellery had been a cash business, with even lay-bys
frowned on. In 1953, a spokesman for the jewellers observed that they
and their traditional clients agreed that Time Payment was
Another columnist argued that hire purchase “would definitely lower
the prestige and status of the watchmaker and jeweller in the eyes of
the public.” He advocated the “more British and conservative methods
of pay as you buy”.
The fear was that hire purchase would associate jewellers with
Still, coded anti-Semitism
sold no diamonds. The trade had to accept that credit encouraged
higher-priced purchases, for example, sterling silver rather than EPNS.
Some jewellers went on
hoping for the return of a clientele who could afford the full price in
advance, and in cash, preferably guineas.
They held that credit doubly devalued money, first, by stimulating
inflation and, secondly, by detaching its purchasing power from the
morality of thrift and hard work. This band of craftsmen saw themselves
as a redoubt for the good, the true and the beautiful, in revolt against
To overcome consumer
resistance to the shoddy, marketers inscribed a vocabulary of taste for
their age of standardised production and mass consumption. While the
Soviets were politicising aesthetics and the Nazis aestheticising
politics, the marketers went one better by aestheticising commerce and
One consequence of this double blinding has been to allow intellectuals
to intensify the distaste that so many of them harbour towards the
domain of production, even as a field of inquiry. To be reminded of its
significance is to be confronted by the fact that they live, like
rentiers, off its surplus.
“the Good” and “the True” by attaching them to gold and to
advertising. A similar treatment could not allow “The Beautiful” to
fulfill its role. “The beautiful” was more important than the other
pair because the appeal of the mass market was to the look of
commodities, not to their intrinsic properties. Hence, “the
Beautiful” was displaced by “glamour”.
Shifts in the meaning
of certain words calibrate the pace and direction of broader change.
Qualitative developments are registered in those accretions.
The etymology of no single word will unlock the transformation of a
social order. Rather, neologisms cluster around clichés to carry that
obsolescence of commodities that is required to spur the expansion of
capital has been matched by the speed at which the terms deployed to
promote consumption have been discarded. “Glamour” proved
exceptional in being recycled. Most sales talk gets trashed.
The article draws on the trade and professional press for more than
its lodes of information. Those publications gave a voice to small
business people and to the self-employed. The journals thus
contributed a strand to the “public sphere”, one which David
Carter has not noticed in his prospectus for a study of magazines,
David Carter, “Notes towards a History of Australian Periodical
Publication 1920-1970”, A. Bartlett, R. Dixon and C. Lee (eds), Australian
Literature and the Public Sphere, Association for the Study of
Australian Literature, Toowoomba, (1999), pp. 69-79; “Magazine
History”, Media International Australia, 99, (2001), pp. 9-14. Attention to
the trade press also shows that the “middle class” was not as
“forgotten” as R. G. Menzies claimed in 1942. In adopting the
Menzies framework, Judith Brett missed the social practices that
located her subjects in a situation which she could do no better
than to call “middle class”. Had
she examined the trade papers she would have encountered the
price-fixing and swindling that underpinned the individualism and
morality of her gentlefolk. Contrary to her conclusions, her
subjects envied the solidarity of trade unionists, and hoped to
mimic their power in trade associations, as Adam Smith had
predicted. Judith Brett, Australian
liberals and the moral middle class, Cambridge University Press,
 James R. Beniger, The Control Revolution, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1986; Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out, Classification and Its Consequences, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1999; Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1981; “Standards in Industry”, Special Issue, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 137, May 1928; Commercial Standards (Washington), from 1918. For Australian efforts see Commercial Standards ( Sydney), 1931, unpaginated; W. I. Stewart, National standards and their impact on Australia, 1922-1980, Standards Association of Australia, Sydney, 1980; Jan Todd, For good measure: the making of Australia’s measurement system, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2004; Winton Higgins, Engine of Change: Standards Australia since 1922, Brandl & Schlesinger, Blackheath, 2005, pp. 1-61.
Any account of the implementation of standardisation must proceed in tandem with an interrogation of the resistance that it provoked. Redressing the want of attention that has been paid to standardisation in surveys of Modernism in the arts has to include those countervailing mentalities. Joan Campbell, The German Werkbund, The Politics of Reform in the Applied Arts, Princeton University Press, NJ, 1978, pp. 57-69, 83, 161 & 177; see also her Joy in Work, German Work, The National Debate, 1800-1945, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1989; Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary modernism: technology, culture, and politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, Cambridge University, Cambridge, 1984.
 Terry Smith, Making
the modern: industry, art and design in America, University of
Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993,
mentions standardisation only in relation to the automobile on
 “The Importance
of Appearance in Machine Design”, Mechanical and Welding Engineer, September 1930, p. 315.
A confidant of finance-capitalists, R. G. Menzies, M.L.A., won
“loud applause” when he assured the audience at a Pleasant
Sunday Afternoon in May 1931 that “[i]f Australia were to get
through her troubles by abating or abandoning traditional British
standards of honesty, or justice, of fair play, of resolute
endeavour, it would be far better that every citizen within her
boundaries should die of starvation within the next six months”, Argus,
4 May 1931, p. 6e.
 Michael McKiernan,
Australian Churches at War,
1914-18, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1980; for a secular
statement about the war as a moral purifier, see Professor S. H. E.
Engineer, 25 October 1915, pp. 3-9.
 Kathleen W. Jones,
“Mother’s Day: The Creation, Promotion and Meaning of a New
Holiday in the Progressive Era”, Texas
Studies in Language and Literature, 22 (2), Summer 1980, pp.
In Australian slang, “shoddy droppers” were Afghan traders
hawking low-priced clothes. That connection crossed over to Japanese
piece goods and toys. To promote local manufactures, Australian
unionists used “shoddy” as an accusation against “importations
from Europe”, Australian
National Dictionary, OUP, Melbourne, 1988, p. 586;
Australian Trades and Labour Journal, 17 August 1889, p. 2.
Leather Trades Review, 18 June 1947, p. 203.
October 1928, p. 7.
 For documentation
of the advertisers’ efforts see Robert Crawford, “‘Truth in
Advertising’: the impossible dream”, MIA,
119, May 2006, pp. 124-37.
Review, 1958-59, p. 9.
Gazette (Perth), December 1928, p. 11; February 1929, p. 5;
October 1929, p. 18.
October 1928, p. 2.
October 1926, p. 2.
November 1939, p. 7.
Monthly Motor Magazine, May 1952, p. 160; November 1953, p. 519;
Wheels, September 1958, p.
8 September 1966, p. 20.
17 September 1964, p. 16; “it was quite common to serve it with an
ice cream scoop”.
 For the importance
of turnover times in the expansion of capitals see my “Making
Capitals Tick”, Overland,
170, March 2003, pp. 92-101.
April 1961, pp. 20-21.
AP, June 1949, p. 59; F.
Bryant, Proceedings, Plastics Convention, 1964, no pagination.
Hardware Journal, August
1957, p. 26, September 1964, p. 36.
AP, February 1947, p. 19.
AP, February 1949, p. 15.
CJW, November 1955, p. 90
and January 1956, p. 9. This change put indenters at risk of being
stuck with expensive items.
AWW, 5 June 1954, p. 17.
CJW, October 1953, p. 98;
he further feared that the “floating population of New
Australians” would create bad debts: “Imagine the difficulty of
trying to keep trace of that particular type of client, the spelling
of the names of these people alone constitutes a nightmare”.
See my “Professions of Power”, Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths (eds),
Prehistory to Politics, John Mulvaney, the Humanities and the Public
Intellectual, MUP, Carlton, 1996, pp. 216-39