Yesterday, I came across this slideshow Rare color photos: Women at work in the 1940s on CBS News. It features photos from the Library of Congress that show women at work, mostly in World War II factories, in full color.
I loved the slideshow, and as I was clicking through the photos, I began to realize how unusual they are. When looking at old photos, it can be hard to see past the black and white tones and the different clothing and relate to the people in them. We typically only see people from the past in full color if they are portrayed actors in movies or TV shows — and, for me anyway, the effect is completely different.
Growing up, I loved anything to do with recreating the past. Along with my deep love for American Girl books and dolls, I also loved the TV show “Homefront,” which ran from 1991-1993. My mom watched every episode (and I’m betting all the VHS tapes of episodes that she recorded off the TV are still in our basement) and I apparently watched many myself. I don’t know how many episodes I saw, but I watched enough episodes to develop a childhood girl crush on the character Ginger, who was a wannabe actress and the “Lemo-Tomato Juice” pinup girl. (I also developed a long-lasting love for Kyle Chandler who was so endearing — and so young and not yet the Coach Taylor we know and love today! — on that show.) My mom actually made me a Lemo-Tomato Juice girl costume to play in. I alternated the 40s pinup look with Samantha Parkington’s frilly pinafores from Victorian America (also sewn by my mom) and Addie’s cowrie shell necklace and braids.
So yeah, I was really into history and nostalgia and dressing up in historical costumes as a kid,when it was easy enough for me to believe that I would have had a great life at any point in history — I would be the pinup girl, the rich girl, or even the slave who made it to freedom. But as an adult with a History minor, I can’t help but think what it would have actually been like for me at all these different points in history.
When I started taking all of my history classes in college, I began to find myself getting really uncomfortable when people glamorize mid-century America (or any era in history). More recently, this happens when people are discussing “Mad Men.” While I love the drama and the characters, and can fully admit the costumes are gorgeous, I stop short when it comes to going to Banana Republic and buying the whole “Mad Men”-inspired line, or having a “Mad Men” wedding. Because as much as I’d like to focus on what I’d look like wearing Joan’s awesome dresses, I’m distracted by thoughts of What would that time period really have been like for me? I definitely wouldn’t have the job I have now; if I worked outside the home, I’d be waiting on other people. I wouldn’t be marrying Eric. I wouldn’t necessarily be in good health. I wouldn’t have the choices I have today (however threatened they may feel right now). And I probably wouldn’t have that awesome of clothes.
Liking the way things looked in the past and wanting to live that life are, of course, very different things, and I don’t think it’s a big deal to like a certain aesthetic just because you like it. Still, I’m surprised by how many people blur that line and how easily “I love Betty’s dress!” slides into “Being a housewife looks awesome…it was just such a simpler time!” Yeah, maybe it was a simpler time for some, but…I don’t know. I like my iPhone. And my Civil Rights.
For me, these color photos of women from World War II make it easier to see how women in the 1940s were both like us but also had lives incredibly unlike ours, something that — no matter how good the costume department is — is really hard to do when watching a TV show.