Shaken Not Jiggled

"The Gentleman's Home Bar" from Playboy, February, 1960 (author's collection).

Home entertaining in postwar America flourished as people enjoyed greater leisure time and home ownership.  Anticipating the trend was James Beard with his Hors D’oeuvre and Canapés (1940), which instructed hosts what to serve at their cocktail parties: “plenty of food is as important at such a party as plenty of liquor, and both should be of the highest quality” (7).  By 1953, Esquire magazine had published its own Handbook for Hosts, which helped to solidify home cocktail mixing as “man’s work.” 


The unequaled postwar American male lifestyle authority, especially for the idealized urban bachelor, was Playboy, which first appeared on stands in 1953.  In January 1958, the magazine helpfully provided tips on the “basics of barmanship.”  By February 1960, the home bar for men had become even further refined as suggested by that month’s “The Gentleman’s Home Bar,” an article that ran in time to give men ideas for Valentine’s day.  Glassware, booze, drink recipes, accessories, and the right furniture gave a man the tools he needed to make a proper drink.  From a Danish modern Heywood-Wakefield bar with slim legs at $109 to a Travertine marble bar with interior lights for $1452.50, there was a bar for everyman.  For the fellow on a tighter budget, a good selection of liquor, an ice bucket, a cocktail shaker, and some glasses might be all he needed to take a break from being breadwinner to man of leisure.


Advertisers recognized that not every man was Hugh Hefner and that even the suburban husband playing host to his neighbors needed to be able to mix drinks and access his ice cubes with a minimum of fuss.  The April 16, 1949, edition of the family-oriented The Saturday Evening Post ran an ad for “Magic Touch” ice cube trays, which targeted the domesticated male home bartender.  In the illustrated ad a disembodied head leers at his already woozy, heavy lidded guests over a tray of icy drinks.  The ad copy helpfully suggests that when serving cold drinks to guests it is “no moment to waste time with ordinary ice trays, splashing at the sink . . . handling a block of ice . . . coming up with too few cubes, and half-melted at that!” 

Magic Cubes advertisement from The Saturday Evening Post, April 16, 1949

If it was the man’s responsibility to mix drinks, then it was the woman’s duty to serve up the edibles and to be smartly dressed.  While “daddy” was shaking the martinis, his “best girl” had already invested a great deal of time into having the right appearance.  She may have spent two hours at the salon the previous day having her hair shampooed and set and her nails manicured.  Earlier that day she may have ignored James Beard’s advice about the “highest quality” foods and opted instead for the more affordable and convenient Velveeta that could be smoothly spread over an assortment of crackers and celery sticks.  Planters “cocktail mix” could further round out the offerings.  Putting together such simple fare gave the hostess more time to attend to her appearance.  That Friday afternoon as she prepared for the event, which delineated the transition from workday to weekend, day to night, the lady of the house attended to her toilet by dressing for the occasion. 


The trappings of normative femininity began with the right foundation garments.  From the introduction of Dior’s New Look (see December 2013 blog post) well into the 1960s most women wore some sort of foundation garment that shaped the body.  From lifting and separating the breasts to cinching the waist and flattening the stomach, foundation garments reoriented errant flesh.  Brassieres, panty girdles, and Merry Widows may very well have been among the foundation garments in Mrs. Friday Cocktail Party’s wardrobe.  There was the ever-present danger that a woman’s body might – gasp! –jiggle. In retrospect it is easy to dismiss the restrictive foundation garments as tools for oppression in an era when women suffered from what Betty Friedan called in The Feminine Mystique (1963), “the problem that has no name.”  The foundation garment can easily be regarded as a symbol of the real social constraints women faced, restricted to normative heterosexuality and all that implied in terms of being the perpetual caretaker. 


Another function of the corset – for that is what the foundation garment of postwar America was – was, as it had long been, a source of so much sexualizing.  The cinching underpinning has found its way onto an erotic spectrum that has ranged from arousing trousseau piece to fetish object.  In some respects it is the ultimate in gendered attire.  We wear clothes to protect our bodies from the elements but often these clothes position us socially.  During the Second World War women had enjoyed independence and freedom of movement.  They earned money for their labor and their clothes reflected the practical need to be on the go.  Often the suits women wore with sensible lace-up shoes were “mannish,” inspired by gents’ attire.


Strictly coded postwar gender practices and dress symbols were means for fighting back such un-girdled threats to the sanctity of heterosexuality and the Man/Woman binary.  He was the active breadwinner and she was the ornamental caretaker and together they weathered the postwar era mixing drinks firmly ensconced in a Merry Widow—er, respectively, that is, though that didn’t stop filmmaker Ed Wood.  The entire suffocating social system was at stake if either side failed to deliver precisely according to the assigned role.


Even if he wasn’t sure how to make a Side Car, a man should be able to drop ice in a glass, pour in a little scotch, and add some soda.  And even if she couldn’t afford a Jacques Fath gown, a lady certainly never jiggled ‘neath her body skimming sheath gown.


Though the dividing lines for gender dress norms and practices were distinct in the postwar era, there were certainly ways and means for subverting or at least questioning those norms and practices.  Check back soon when I address the potential for subversion in home sewing, burlesque films, and pinup queen Betty Page’s bondage photos!


Works Cited

Beard, James.  Hors D’oeuvre and Canapés.  1940
Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts.  1953
Friedan, Betty.  The Feminine Mystique.  1963
Playboy magazine, January 1958 and February 1960
The Saturday Evening Post (1940s and 1950s)


Add new comment