Originality, Mass Production and Canadian Fashion Reporting
Faye Hammill (University of Strathclyde)
This paper presents material from the AHRC-funded project, ‘Magazines, Travel and Middlebrow Culture in Canada, 1925-1960’ (www.middlebrowcanada.org), which focuses on six of the most successful and long-running English- and French-Canadian magazines. Part of the project explores the way in which the magazines’ fashion reporting relates to their nationalist agendas and to their middlebrow cultural positioning.
In the realm of fashion, as in other areas, mainstream Canadian magazines became both exhibition spaces and marketplaces for imported foreign styles. Covers and stylised illustrations presented fashion as an art form, often using theatrical or fairytale motifs to exhibit haute couture as something to be admired from afar, as modelled by the ‘elect’ members of an international leisure class. By contrast, in the shopping guides, pattern services and advertising sections, the latest London, New York and Paris styles are made available to ordinary Canadians. The notion of a simple style which adapts foreign influences, achieving distinction whilst avoiding eccentricity, is salient in the magazines’ fashion coverage.
Canadian fashion sense was usually evoked in terms of a set of distinctive choices amongst available options, rather than as an original style in itself. A March 1932 article in Chatelaine deplored the process by which selected Paris models were copied and promoted by US manufacturers, resulting in widely reproduced styles known as ‘runners’ or ‘flivvers’. The article argues that the Canadian woman, in contrast to the American, possesses ‘some ineffable quality of individuality which defies the quick turn-over of mass production’, and describes her adding every carefully-chosen detail to her outfit ‘with the sure, clear touch of the artist’. Indeed, Canadian accounts of innovation and mass production in fashion are frequently inflected, in this way, with specifically national meanings.
My discussion of these magazine texts will be framed using theories of middlebrow culture, the modernist imprimatur, and the commodified authentic. The Canadian magazines construct haute couture as high culture: their Paris correspondents comment on the fashion shows alongside art events such as opera, ballet, and exhibitions. In these texts, the magic names of the top Paris designers functioned in a similar way to the ‘imprimaturs’ of modernist authorship which ‘sanction elite, high cultural consumption in times when economies of mass cultural value predominate’ (Jaffe). Yet the magazines themselves are products of mass culture. Similarly, while couture originals were surrounded by ‘the mystique of the originary object’ (Outka), this mystique could itself be marketed, and – paradoxically – used to sell any number of copies. The fashion industry, in fact, depended on practices of imitation and commodification which, in the cultural marketplace, are understood as middlebrow. In my analysis of fashion reporting, therefore, I take up the magazines’ own notion of Canada as a middle space, able to combine and adapt American and European styles, to mediate high culture for a mass audience, and to balance the competing claims of creativity and correctness, distinction and conformity.