How to Undress: Domestic advice of the 1930s

A 1937 domestic advice feature published in Life Magazine (15 February, pp. 41-43) contrasts descriptions of how a woman might dress unobserved with how she ought to dress in front of her husband. The article stresses the importance of rolling down stockings instead of pulling them off from the toes, in order to avoid ‘unesthetic wrinkles’ [sic] and so that a husband may be pleased by ‘his wife’s graceful method of displaying her legs’. The advice is accompanied by photographs by Peter Stackpole, depicting a careless undressing, followed by an ‘artful’ alternative.

Life Magazine, 15 February,  1937, pp. 41-43

Life Magazine, 15 February, 1937, p. 41

This advice requires that a woman always considers dressing and undressing as performances. Erving Goffman’s (1959) explorations of the ‘presentation of self in everyday life’ identifies ‘back stage’ events and locations, in which individuals engage in private activities in preparation for everyday performance of self. Undressing might commonly be considered a ‘back stage’ activity, but Life infers that it should instead be considered as part of the performance of self – a ‘front stage’ activity – with the expectation that the act will be observed by others. It transforms the domestic space of the bedroom into a performance venue, and the wife into a striptease artist (incidentally, the models used for the photoshoot were burlesque dancers).

Life Magazine, 15 February,  1937, pp. 41-43

Life Magazine, 15 February, 1937, p. 42

Responding to popular demand from ‘amused’ readers, Life’s 15 March edition included a follow-up featuring ‘various methods, some good, some bad, of male disrobing’ (Life, 15 March 1937, pp. 68-69). The advice for men focuses on the contrast between slovenliness and neatness in the removal of clothes.

Life Magazine, 15 March 1937, p. 68.

Life Magazine, 15 March 1937, p. 68.

 

Life Magazine, 15 March 1937, p. 69.

Life Magazine, 15 March 1937, p. 69.

The article inspired this short film which contrasts the undressing of one glamorous and one not-so-glamorous starlet:

The film transforms the voyeur from a husband into a peeping tom. It proposes that even a single a woman must be constantly aware of her gestures and behaviour, performing at all times as if observed. The advice is perhaps even more relevant now, with the threat of hidden webcams and compromised cloud storage.

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One thought on “How to Undress: Domestic advice of the 1930s

  1. Pingback: Fitting Room Privacy: Do You Undress Like You're Being Watched? | agaara

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