America rode colorful wave through '50s

January 01, 1995|By Michael Anft

It was the heyday of shocking pink and the Mamie Look. Of paint-by-numbers sets and Disneyland. Of the birth of the Edsel. Of the death of the Edsel.

America's new passion for the way things looked was a defining feature of the '50s, as rabid as the consumerism wrought by postwar prosperity and as pervasive as the Cold War. The decade was, as author Karal Ann Marling notes in "As Seen On TV," a time when "the whole postwar world had had enough of penury, khaki, and navy blue."

At long last, the marketplace clamored for anything that wasn't drab, commodities such as pink, green and yellow appliances, "Coloramic" light bulbs from GE, and boxes of Trix, "the nation's first multicolored breakfast cereal."

The nation's rush to visual excitement wasn't the result of a highbrow aesthetic. Rank-and-file Americans (and their mythically perfect families) weren't concerned with the depths of modernism, but superficial modernity. Their burgeoning sense of "taste" wasn't informed by Jackson Pollock, but by the Jack Paars who inhabited that much-maligned centerpiece of the '50s family living room: television.

Ms. Marling, a professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota, deftly draws upon her knowledge in both areas to deconstruct the era's visual flash points. Using design critic Thomas Hine's definition of "populuxe" ("glitz and glitter for the masses") as a guide, the author examines seven sell-seen icons of the time and measures them against each other to buttress her decidedly nonpointed thesis: '50s folks derived "an absorbing sense of pleasure in the act of perusal."

In a style that is much more scholarly than attitudinal, Ms. Marling bloodlessly and nonjudgmentally posits that the years between Korea and Vietnam were marked by an almost fetishistic interest in the appearance of things.

"This book," she notes in the prologue, "is about dressing up (How do I look?), taking up a hobby (How does this look?), [and] taking a vacation (Look at that!)."

With prosperity's concomitant rise in leisure came time for new hobbies, new kitchens and a revolutionary new "appliance": television. (To her credit, Ms. Marling doesn't resurrect the vast-wasteland-or-not argument; it's a tiresome one, no matter which side of the antenna you stand on.)

TV's "newness" was a part of the '50s American's utter faith in technology and progress. With disposable dollars in hand, buyers lined up for cars souped up with oversized tail fins and chrome "gorp," ovens with windows (TV as applied to kitchen appliances), and rides at the new Disneyland. Youth and novelty became intertwined into one marketing tool. "Being young meant trying the latest thing," Ms. Marling says.

That didn't necessarily mean that images being offered to '50s women were swallowed in their entirety, but they were intermingled with notions of the "self." Mamie Eisenhower, subject of an entire chapter, matched then-contemporary fashion ideas of class (minks, Dior dresses) with youth kitsch (charm bracelets) and eccentricity (bangs).

Another chapter subject, Elvis Presley, was certainly enamored of the new shocking colors of the era, especially pink, when choosing his wardrobe and wheels. But Elvis' own imprint on "shock" novelty had to do with another obsession of the era, according to Ms. Marling: mobility.

"Even when [Elvis is] riveted to the spot," she writes, "the effect is of a man in motion, of a moving body just barely come to rest."

The love affair with motion obviously was manifested through automobiles. Ms. Marling's chapter on the industry is clearly her best as she conjures up images of grotesque urban sculptures on wheels masquerading as rocket ships, a subconscious '50s nod to the space race. The author's gift for melding economic and political realities with the '50s look gives her painstakingly researched analysis the necessary bite.

Unfortunately, a book about the romance of style should be written with a little more pizazz. Ms. Marling's prose is often limp or abrupt. Viewing the Ike years with nostalgia or irony (or a combination of both) would have produced a cliched approach, but the author's objective detachment leaves us with a scholarly synthesis of a decidedly nonacademic subject.

For all its insights, "As Seen on TV" can be a very plodding read.

Mr. Anft is a writer and critic living in Baltimore.

Title: "As Seen On TV: The Visual Culture Of Everyday Life in the 1950s"

Author: Karal Ann Marling

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Length, price: 287 pages, $24.95

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