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People Need Sacred Dances

This is a piece about the relationship between objects and emotion.

Specifically, the flapper and the attempts by publishers and cultural figures to redefine American taste in the post-World War I years. The discussion will focus on the fashion writing of the New Yorker‘s Lois Long with the inventor of public relations (PR), Edward Bernays, as a central figure.

New York’s Fifth Avenue was busy on 31 March 1929. It was the Easter Sunday Parade, with the usual procession of floats along with the inevitable crowds. But it looked as if there was something radical taking place within it. A group of women who were part of the march stopped walking and, on the signal of Edward Bernays, lit the Lucky Strike cigarettes that were hidden under their clothes. This action was captured by enthused photographers and was depicted as a defining moment in women’s liberation, a clarion call for equality. At one point the feminist Ruth Hale, who was part of the ensemble, called for female observers to join them, shouting, ‘Women! Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!’ The next day these sentiments were echoed in The New York Times. It ran a cover story with the headline: ‘Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom.’ But why exactly did this demonstration take place?

Edward Bernays was heavily influenced by his uncle, Sigmund Freud. Freud constructed what was essentially a pessimistic and paranoid theory about human nature. Freud believed that dangerous, instinctual drives were hidden inside the minds of all individuals.


1914, the Austria-Hungarian Empire led Europe into war. The abject horrors of war validated Freud’s lack of faith in humanity. In November the same year, he wrote to fellow psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salome expressing his sense of the inevitable: ‘The saddest thing about it is that it is exactly the way we should have expected people to behave from our knowledge of psycho-analysis.’ Governments had unlocked the primitive forces that human beings usually repress. During this time, Bernays had been working in America as a press agent. When the country entered the war in 1917, the US government set up a Committee on Public Information; it was to be the first western propaganda office of its kind. Bernays was subsequently employed to promote America’s war aims in the press. President Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States would not fight to restore the old empires but instead ‘attain the utmost hope of liberty and ordered peace’ for Europe. The campaign of democracy was successful; Bernays and his colleagues marketed Wilson as a man who would create a new world in which the individual would be free. As he watched the crowds surge around Wilson on Armistice Day, Bernays wondered if it were possible to apply the same publicity methods ‘to the expanding postwar economy and the increasing complexity of public demands.’

Bernays returned to New York and followed ‘a similar pattern of activity.’ He worked in a small office off Broadway and established himself as Public Relations Councilman. It was a title he invented to equate his PR work with legal counsel „because of its professional connotations’ and the fact that a PR man ‘functions primarily as an advisor to his client, very much like a lawyer does.’  Since the end of the 19th century, America had become a mass industrial society with millions clustered together in the cities. Bernays was determined to find a way to manage and alter the way these new crowds thought and felt. He grounded the principles and practices of modern PR on the assumption that ordinary people lacked the reason to play any significant role in public deliberation. He said, ‘the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits, and emotions.’ Bernays relied heavily upon the writings of his Uncle Sigmund, who had sent him a copy of his General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. By invoking Freud he pursued public influence via a narrow set of applied psychoanalytic theories. Bernays points out that ‘It was chiefly the psychologists of the school of Freud who have pointed out that many of man’s thoughts and actions are compensatory substitutes for desires which he has been obliged to suppress.’

Bernays envisioned a modern PR that had its origins within a scientific framework; an industry that relied on behavioural sciences that seek to explain, predict and control human behaviour. As he explains, ‘This general principle, that men are very largely actuated by motives which they conceal from themselves, is as of true of mass as of individual psychology.’  While Freud wanted people to be aware of their subconscious drives and desires, Bernays saw Freud‟s teachings as a way to exploit those passions. Larry Tye, Bernays’ biographer, continues, ‘Most of all, Eddie borrowed his uncle’s insights into symbols and other forces that motivate people, using them as building blocks for the art and science of public relations.’ The selling of tobacco to women in the 1920s enabled Bernays‟ manipulation of Freudian thought. In 1928, Bernays was hired as American Tobacco‟s public relations advisor to encourage women to smoke.’ It was both a marketing exercise and a way to experiment with the minds of the masses. In order to discover what cigarettes meant to women he consulted a psychoanalyst. One of the first psychoanalysts in America, A.A Brill told Bernays that cigarettes, with their phallic shape, represented the penis. Brill argued that cigarettes could be connected with transcending male power, ‘Today the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.’ The calculated, public display of smoking, argues Matthew Hilton, ‘playfully toed with alternative constructions of femininity.’

Bernays believed that people had only a small amount of knowledge and even less self-knowledge. Knowing that ‘the correct approach to a problem may be indirect.’ he created the illusion of female independence through smoking. He orchestrated the event on Fifth Avenue to confirm his theory that it was possible to provoke people into behaving irrationally if you link products to their emotional desires and feelings.

The advent of cheaper fabrics, ready-to-wear clothing and increased wages for the average working woman meant that, ‘fashion became democratic.’ Fashion in this period prompted women to actively engage with modernity not in an abstract way but in terms of lifestyle and image. For the burgeoning middle classes, fashion became another investment in time and money. Pierre Bourdieu found that this aspirant class harboured ‘a degree of anxiety about external appearances.’ The 1920s was the era when the term ‘flapper’ came into popular usage. It was synonymous with a streamlined, simple aesthetic and a challenge to traditional concepts of femininity. The flapper was the calculated outcome of advertising experts located along Madison Avenue in New York City. They used the flapper to sell consumer products and used consumer products to define the flapper. Brendan Gill, who served on the magazine’s editorial staff, remembered Lois Long as being ‘the embodiment of the glamorous insider.’ With her jet black hair bobbed just above her ears, a thin strand of pearls dangling from her neck and a cigarette constantly perched between her fingers she could easily, as one contemporary put it, ‘have modelled for Miss Jazz Age.’ What Long offered the magazine was her taste and lifestyle. Ralph Ingersoll, in his autobiography, Point of Departure explains the contrasting talents that combined to make Long an instant success. She ‘combined two rare ingredients: an ability to be perpetually stimulated, blended with an ability to be perpetually critical.’

Flapper girl, Lois Long (right) challenged notions of Victorian femininity.

Long approached fashion writing as an art; she criticised women’s clothes with independence and humour. The main objective in her writing was to instruct and entertain by taking fashion seriously. ‘I am a representative of one of those advanced papers,’ she wrote in 1925, ‘that can tell you months ahead just exactly what it is going to be THE thing to do.’ Long’s work highlighted the possibility and attraction of mass consumption to her readers. In a then unheard of move she noted the price of garments, rejected stores or as Long put it, would ‘send shops rejoicing on their way.’ Previously, fashion features were entirely uncritical and consisted of adverts masquerading as articles. Yet there was an inevitable inconsistency to this fashion reportage appearing in The New Yorker. As concise, assured in voice and rich in content as Long’s columns were they tended to function as extended advertisements. Her influence was such that ‘a line in her column could sell out a counter in a big department store.’ While ostensibly more cutting-edge than the Vogue pieces, the aim of her ‘On and Off the Avenue’ columns was the same. Long’s work is transitional in itself, appearing at the nexus of fashion writing and advertising. This jars with the commonly held view that the editor insisted upon the separation of business and editorial. In fact, that view is misleading. Travis establishes that ‘Ross’s masculinist producer sensibilities coexisted alongside an abiding interest in the pleasures of consumption. He championed certain aspects of consumer culture and, more important, was a sly innovator when it came to creating consumers through magazines.’  In particular, he introduced the discussion of ‘specific products and brand names into The New Yorker’s service columns (On and Off the Avenue, Tables for Two, When Nights were Bold). The ‘On and Off the Avenue’ pieces offer an interesting perspective on the development between business, consumer culture and the growth of women’s public freedom. Long’s mocking tone could disguise The New Yorker’s ulterior motive at first glance but it quickly collapses under scrutiny.

A style only achieved worth once it was replicated countless times. ‘Fashion does not exist until it goes into the street,’ Chanel once clarified. Long echoed Chanel but for different reasons. She was a champion of the flapper mode of dress but only on the condition that it was made in America:

It is true that nobody can design clothes better than the French. But the big and popular couturiers are decidedly giving the lie to the tradition of exquisite French workmanship. Go ahead and buy an original little Chanel around here if you want to. And watch it drop to pieces on your back the second wearing. The franc is going up, French prices are going up, the duty is as heavy as ever, and the clothes are slung together. Copies and reproductions may not give you the same feeling as a celebrated label, but they do stay together longer. And it is just about time that American women acquired some sense on the subject.


While the French designs outstrip the American version by way of cachet, economically they are a disaster; Long stresses the importance of attire that is durable while being a close approximation to the ‘celebrated label.’ Veblen describes imitation as an act where the charm lies in ‘the suggestion of leisure.’  He goes on to argue that clothes are a ‘sign of social worth’ and elegant dress can fuel the illusion that you are part of an upper class milieu who ‘consumes without producing.’ Opposite Long’s article is an advert (See below) that takes up most of the page. Its title pronounces that ‘The Mode of Deauville and Biarritz has been interpreted by Best’s for the New York Women of Fashion going South.’  By invoking affluent French seaside towns such as Deauville and Biarritz it seems to be appropriating Gallic vacationing style for Americans. The ad features two flappers in tasteful hats and dresses. The scene is synonymous with escape; it features palm trees and the figures are holding parasols, with land that stretches an infinite distance. Below, the text elaborates that this is „chic simplicity for daytime ‘with prices that are exceedingly moderate.’ Long dissuades readers from purchasing French clothes and the following ad seems to craft an American version of sybaritic French relaxation. Both report and advert appear to be complicit in promulgating the same message: buy American. The magazine historian James Playsted Wood stresses the powerful influence advertisements in the magazine wielded; ‘New Yorker advertising, running from the sedate to the lush, always refined tastes and flatters with the assumption that expense is no handicap to the discriminating. The art and copy for numerous advertisements are done in a style complementary to the cartoons and quips of the editorial.’

Bernays, heavily influenced by his uncle, viewed the theory of hidden irrational forces inside human beings as a fascinating prospect. He wondered whether he might be able to make money manipulating the unconscious. Bernays’ innovations in the field of group psychology, lent him unusual sway over millions of Americans who were eager for their leisure to be well spent, as an opportunity for self-improvement. This emerging middle class still looked to cultural authorities for cues about consumption. Bernays cast his shadow over The New Yorker as it was driven by pseudo-progressive ideals of smart consumption. If Lois Long accurately represented the flapper in the Jazz Age, she was also a character type, fully contrived by Ross. As editor, he helped fashion her lifestyle, taste in clothing and even the way she wore her hair. The New Yorker enjoyed great success because it capitalized an emerging advertising niche for luxury goods, which earned it hefty profits despite a specific readership.


6 responses »

  1. Really interesting article

  2. Fantastic article; love the way it’s presented. I hadn’t really read much about the history of flapper girls’ before. Love the femininity and strength in this piece.


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