Modernity is the transient,
The fleeting, the contingent;
It is one half of art,
The other being the eternal
And the immovable
— Charles Baudelaire “Les Fleurs du Mal”

This dissertation discusses the elements and characteristics of the modern lifestyle in America during the 50’s using advertising and fashion as a case of study.

The 50’s are known as the ‘golden age of advertising’ and it is a period where functionality, mass production, aesthetics and design build a nation while reconfiguring the social roles of women and men, when sexism was not only tolerated, it was expected and actively encouraged, following the 1930’s depression and World War II but before the sexual revolution.

To contextualise this particular era it will be explained how design and industrial production were transformed from their first European form and reproduced in a very particular way in America, following an ideology of democracy and meritocracy. How capitalism, consumerism and individualism were wide spread and idealised, generating what we know now as the ‘modern lifestyle’.

Finally I will analyse the role of women within the family structure* and the conditions of a modern women’s life under the modern structure, her image projected throughout fashion and advertising, describing how those elements recreate the new modern family and social roles of both male and female and how this has influenced our current lifestyle. To be expanded in future posts.

The production of objects before the Industrial Revolution had that individuality given by their own moment of creation, the object made by hand and the artesian had a special connection, giving to the object a special quality, the production time was usually long and the price high. The possibilities of own stuff were limited; a luxury just possible for the elite, and the style was mostly representative of the aristocracy’s taste. Art Nouveau as an example takes the functionality away and focuses on ornamentation. Objects were not important for their function but for their ornamental value and their symbolic power.

With the Industrial Revolution came the division of labour, as the way to minimise costs and speed up the production, these new changes gave space for a new occupation; ‘designer’. The designer plays an important role in the production process, creating all kinds of objects that need to be desirable to consumable, that will be available for the general population at an affordable price, focusing on the objects function more than their decorative value but giving space to the joyfulness of aesthetics.

Designing for industry is based in the bold premise that the craftsmen and crafts women skills can be replicated by a mechanical system in which machines act like humans and humans like machines, this process is named ‘deskilling’[1] One of the primary concerns of designers was the idea that design or style was elitist, it was seen as a luxury just for the rich. Mass production techniques seemed to offer part of the solution, as design products could be mass-produced.

Industrialisation has different faces depending on the social context, European design seems to be more concerned about the designers vision and self expression while American design is more pragmatic and main stream and has certain particularities to be discussed later on this essay, however ‘in the United States, notions of contemporaneity found material realisation in popular perceptions of the power of technology to create exciting new products for mass consumption*[2] The elitist tradition of rarefied or limited edition luxury items with innately high levels of skilled craftsmanship that had dictated Western aesthetic sensibilities was challenged by the utopian ideas of the modernists.

Modern production and design has been based on the idea of the new, the relationship of men – nature is no longer relevant, nature is the resource to be exploited, just the first stage in the production lane, and man is forced to find a new relationship with the machine. This process dramatically changed the social landscape and the new social configuration includes living in cities; work in factories and automated work practices. All these new sets of values are described as ‘Modern’ and represented a whole new era.

The modernists saw themselves as the creators of a ‘machine age’ aesthetic truly redolent of the twentieth century, which, freed from the shackles of historicism, explored new forms and materials that were felt to be symbolically, if not actually, compatible with the mass-production capacity of a progressive industrial culture
— Jonathan Woodham

 This whole idea was taken further in America, from their foundation ethics to their social behaviour; a new nation is built on the idea of the new. The first World War had had a considerable effect on United States industrial capacity, the end of mass migration in 1921 further stimulated the growth in the mechanisation of labour; the expansion of electricity supply industry alongside a housing boom led to a dramatic increase in the volume and range of domestic appliances which themselves became consumerist symbols stylistically expressive of an ephemeral contemporary lifestyle [4]

America was based on the ideal of Meritocracy, the rights of equality and justice, and equal access to a lifestyle based on merit and hard work. But why this new lifestyle seems so standardised, so seamless? Who was creating all this stylistic ideals?

Advertising in America has a strong understanding of consumer psychology, the understanding of every day life in ordinary people and how to create a whole utopian lifestyle is permanently fed from the cinema, radio, magazines and television. After the 1929 Wall Street Crash industrial design and advertising had a radical change, the psychological aspects of consumption, materials and production technologies are not the most important worry but the new idea of ‘consumer engineering’ what Woodham would explain as ‘’shortening the cycle of consumption its emphasis on the fashionability and ephemerality of everyday goods. Otherwise known as ‘planned obsolesce’ such as an outlook was a significant factor in the recovery of the America industrial economy’’ Then consumption becomes a value, an important means of being American.

After centuries of people who did not own stuff, the new lifestyle seems so nice and glamorous; the new ideals have a strong impact within individual’s ideas of success and intrinsically increased social anxiety through the pressure of change and envy by social competition and showing off the new, the latest, the trend, what the radio says is the new, what is seen on television, what should be the ideal. The radio, television and printed media had the most important role creating this utopian world; the media was the new technology and the most powerful tool of consumerism. Meanwhile Europeans had manifestos to point out a political statement and ideology; Americans had the magazines pointing out the utopian world (entirely materialistic), inclusive and modern where anybody can be a super star if they have the look.

However in Democracy anyone can choose their own social standing, having equality and liberty as rights, the dream seems touchable, the ground is set and the Advertising does the rest. This makes a substantial change not only to individual perception of social standing but also to the collective way to conceive society. Modernism democratises consumption, and in its original European version the revolutionary became the mainstream.

The key point is that the ideal lifestyle is no longer reachable as it is permanently changing, it is not just to look good but to follow a trend, this is the age of glamour [5]. This whole new ideology that America adopted promoting a consumer society, where materiality is more relevant than spiritual and intellectual faculties, has a strong focus on the ‘ideal family’ and push the women’s role exclusively at home, it is intentionally sexist and as that, starts showing the women as an object of desire, the construction of the ideal beauty promoted from the American dream is to me born in the 50’s, the entire aesthetic is so artificial, seductive and erotic that spread over countries borders and became global.

About this Bauman would say, “every culture lives by the invention and propagation of life meanings, and every order lives by manipulating the urge for transcendence; but once capitalised, the energy generated by the urge can be used and misused in many different ways, though the profits from each allocation benefit clients unequally.” [6]

Therefore it is not only about ideology but its reproduction and life. Presently status symbols can be related to how successful one is at business, fashion, sports or generally projecting an expensive image [7]. Money then becomes a validation of position and right to social inclusion. This creates a paradox, the pursuit of success is infinite and unobtainable; class once bound by lineage and social etiquette has been succeeded by material possession and competition.

As a conclusion; American industry and economy realised the potential that design has of directing consumer behaviour, it creates a whole image of how to live that didn’t exist before, not in a democratic way. Faking the values of the modern ideology into a meaningless unstoppable mass consumption cycle, idealised the unachievable and undervalued the spiritual and self expressional, having a massive impact on human behaviour and social construction, and I believe has permeated too many layers within the globe, influencing cultures all around the world, playing with one of the most powerful and manipulative human aspects; the emotions.

Modern Paris



* The role of women from their power of reproduction in both a biological and social ways, as a head of the family and her key role as the new target market, women has the highest power of consumption as they get to decide how the house should look like, what to eat, how to dress the kids and in general what to buy to survive while the men just generate the income, not so different to the cavemen going out for hunting, the modern man goes out to hunt the money to bring home while women do everything else.

[1] ‘The Genius of Design’, video recording.

[2] WOODHAM, Jonathan M ‘Twentieth-Century Design’ p.65

[3] WOODHAM, Jonathan M ‘Twentieth-Century Design’ p.29

[4] WOODHAM, Jonathan M ‘Twentieth-Century Design’ p.64

[5] Glamour in the definition of Virginia Postrel like an essential quality that is an scape, an illusion, an ideal, a dream, something that is not real a metaphor and inspiration for the ‘wannabes’

[6] BAUMAN, Zygmunt “The individualized society” p5.

[7] One of the new values entirely aesthetic is the glamour and glamorous life as representation of success; ‘Glamour is not just beauty or luxury. It is not a style but an effect, a quality that depends on the play of imagination. Its power is not sensation but inspiration (…) their glamour includes the risks but omits the tedium, the sore feet, the dirt, the accounting. Glamour is never boring’ (ROSA: 2004: 24) Hollywood did not invented it but it generate a whole environment for it, making it desirable and enviable.



  • BAUMAN, Zygmunt “Work, consumerism and the new poor”, open University Press, Philadelphia 1998.
  • BAUMAN, Zygmunt “Wasted lives, Modernity and its Outcasts”, Polity, USA, 2001.
  • BAUMAN, Zygmunt “The individualized society”, polity, Oxford, 2001.
  • FRINGS, Gini Stephens, 9th Edition “Fashion from concept to consumer”, Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersey 2008.
  • HEBDIGE, Dick “The meanings of style; From Culture to Hegemony’
  • HUGHES, Robert, ‘The Shock of the New, Art and The Century of Change’ British Broadcasting Corporation, 1980.
  • HUSTWIT, Gary, “Helvetica” Documentary, Plexy Productions New York, 2007.
  • ROSA, Joseph (Editor), “Glamour, fashion + industrial design + architecture” San Francisco Museum of Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2004.
  • “The Genius of Design”, video recording.
  • SCHAMA, Simon, ‘The American Future, a History’ BBC video recording.
  • TASCHEN, ICONS, ‘20th Century Photography, Museum Ludwig Cologne’ Taschen, 2001.
  • WOODHAM, Jonathan M. “Twentieth-Century Design” Oxford History of Art, Oxford New York, 1997.
Fashion Sociologist