The romanticisation of consumption in Australia

The historiography of consumer culture in Australia has focused largely on women and domesticity rather than romance, with Marilyn Lake’s work on the sexualisation of femininity and romanticisation of advertisements in women’s magazines of the 1930s being one of the few exceptions.[36] Nevertheless the extant body of work on consumerism establishes a number of important findings, the most significant of which are the gendered nature of advertising, and the sophistication of Australian women where the consumption of personal and household goods was concerned. Consumer goods were advertised in distinctly gendered ways, catering to the gendered division in shopping activities whereby, for most of the twentieth century, men ‘made the majority of decision for motor mowers and electric shavers – items considered men’s products. They also made the majority of decisions for bottled wines and spirits, radios, radiograms, record players and television sets’.[37] On the whole, women shopped for men’s ‘ego expressive’ products – shirts, soaps, shampoos – for most of the twentieth century.

Meanwhile, advertisements for consumer goods bought by men tended to emphasise nationalism and men’s identities as workers – collective identities, rather than individual ones. Robert Crawford has demonstrated how, until the end of the 1950s, items of personal or leisure consumption for men were advertised with images of factories: products as diverse as beer, Berger Paints, Dunlop rubber, Boomerang whisky, Australian oil and General Motors-Holden cars.[38] These images also emphasised men’s social and economic role as producers. It was not until the late 1950s/early 1960s that advertising directed at Australian men shifted its focus to them as consumers. Although men’s ego-expressive products such as fragrances and powders were available during the 1930s, advertisements targeted women, who were urged to buy these products for Australian men to enhance their physical attractiveness and sex appeal.[39]

Mark Swiencicki has argued that the historiography of consumption in the United States has privileged women and entrenched them as primary consumers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. Swiencicki contended that if the consumption of services as well as goods was taken into account, American men can be demonstrated to have consumed at least twice as much as women between the period 1880 to 1930.[40] The same may have been true of Australian men. It may be that men were as avid consumers of goods and services as women, or even more so. Nevertheless, the point remains that in advertising material, these consumer practices were not romanticised and entwined with relationships, or infused with emotions of intimacy. The same could not be said to be true of advertising aimed at Australian women in the first half of the twentieth century.

Historical scholarship on Australian consumerism has linked practices of consumption to the sexualisation of women’s bodies in advertising in the 1920s. Rosemary Pringle, for example, argued that it was during this time that ‘“Girlie” pictures began to appear in such newspapers as Truth, Smith’s Weekly and the Labour Daily’, while ‘advertisers linked sexuality to the emotionalisation of housework and the establishment of private life as the place where we “find our real selves”.’[41] The timing is significant because, as Ann Stephen’s work on the marketing of soap during the interwar years demonstrated, this was the period when American magazines and American companies began to penetrate the hitherto impregnable British market for women’s consumer goods. Stephen’s work makes clear the link between the circulation of American women’s magazines in Australia and the glamour of American products for women, demonstrating that by the time the American company Palmolive entered the Australian market in 1921, in direct competition to the British soap company Lever,

the quality of ‘Americanness’ already exerted a strong appeal on local audiences. This attraction was not difficult to understand, for Australian magazines, like their British counterparts could not compete with the scale and lavish colour of the two most popular US imports, the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal.[42]

Moreover, as Jill Matthews has noted, the association of global American commerce with exciting modernity and Hollywood glamour contributed to the attractiveness of the American brand.[43]

The interwar years were in some ways a culturally hybrid moment for advertising in Australian women’s magazines, when visual layouts based on American magazines were accompanied by advertising copy with a ‘British’ flavour.[44] Increasingly the visual style of Australian women’s magazine advertisements became more American, sometimes brazenly copied with minor adjustments to ‘Australianise’ the image.[45] The impetus towards Americanisation in Australian advertising styles and images thus occurred during the interwar years and was driven by the perception of American women’s modernity and the glamour of romantic consumption. This was reinforced by the gradual penetration of American beauty products into the Australian market during the 1930s, advertised through images of romantic consumption.[46]

The association of goods and romantic love was not new in Australian culture; by the outbreak of World War I, the Richmond Furnishing Company’s advertisements in the Melbourne-based Table Talk magazine had already made this connection. Text advertisements for the company’s wares and its store address were embedded in short love stories, play tableaux and letters purporting to be from mothers advising their daughters on marriage. What was new in the interwar years, however, was the expansion of advertisements for female ego-expressive products associated with beauty and romance in the 1920s, and, by the 1930s, youthful ‘sex appeal’.[47]

In the early twentieth century, advertisements for domestic products – Horlicks malted milk, dress patterns and accessories, sewing machines, chocolate laxettes for the management of the family’s health – were more numerous than advertisements for shampoos, perfumes or cosmetics. The visual image was also significantly different. Advertisements for ego-expressive products in The Australian Women’s Weekly[48] before World War I were black and white line drawings with a preponderance of informative text over pictures. The emphasis was on health and hygiene. For example, beautiful hair was a sign of good health rather than sexual allure. Whatever the subtext might have been, beauty was advertised for its own sake rather than in the context of overt romantic encounters.

This began to change in the 1920s, when advertisements for ego-expressive products were set within the context of romantic love and marriage. The contrast between British and American advertising styles and techniques during this period is clearly demonstrated in the rivalry between Lever and Palmolive. In contrast to Lever’s soap advertisements in Australian women’s magazines, which emphasised imperial themes of racial whiteness and hygiene even in the 1920s, the American company Palmolive focused entirely on female beauty, youth and romance, telling them to: ‘Live Your Romances! Keep that Schoolgirl Complexion!’ The advertisement went on to advise women that

BEAUTY, Charm, Youth may not be the fundamentals of romance, but they help. Practically every reader of a ‘best seller’ pictures the heroine as being possessed of those attributes. To live one’s romances to-day, one stays young as long as she can, makes herself as naturally attractive as she can and trusts the rest to her womanly intelligence.

This advertisement, which first ran in women’s magazines in the United States and was later carried by The Australian Women’s Weekly and Table Talk, established a nexus between women, beauty, youth, romantic love and consumption – of ‘best selling’ romance novels and films as well as soap. Other companies followed suit in hawking glamorous or luxurious romance with beauty products. Thus a 1922 advertisement for Icilma face cream in Table Talk featured a sketch of an elegantly dressed woman standing on a balcony in front of open French doors leading into a ballroom where couples are dancing. She is powdering her nose while a man stands attentively behind her, and the caption underneath reads: ‘Her Complexion won his attention.’

Kissproof lipstick ran advertisements in Table Talk in 1930 featuring a cartoon drawing of two young women talking in front of a mirror while one applied lipstick. The modernity of these women is conveyed by their bobbed and shingled hair, sports jackets, and the golf club one is carrying under her arm. The caption, part of the conversation between the two ‘flappers’, reads:

There’s no doubt about it, dear, that Kissproof Lipstick you told me about is magic, pure and simple! I’m getting so popular – just a glorious time! Kissproof Lipstick makes my lips so small and, er, you know, so – inviting! And the way it stays on, no matter what happens!

With this and other lipstick advertisements in the 1930s and 1940s promising ‘seductive’ and ‘provocatively appealing’ lips, femininity, as Lake argued, ‘was beginning to cast off its passivity as the logic of the incitement to pleasure took its course’.[49] Liz Conor has further commented upon young women’s dynamic sense of ‘self-mastery’ or agency in presenting a ‘modern’ appearance through clothes as well as cosmetics: ‘perhaps for the first time in the West, modern women understood self-display to be part of the quest for mobility, self-determination, and sexual identity’[50] – an identity fashioned in part from the images of screen stars in American romantic movies, to which young Australian women made up seventy per cent of the audience.[51]

The Americanisation of Australian women’s magazines during the interwar years in terms of the promotion of romantic consumption such as dancing and dining out, as well as the romanticisation of ego-expressive commodities, was accompanied by the Americanisation of expertise on romantic love, but not without a certain measure of initial scepticism and sardonic commentary. In a 1924 issue of Table Talk, the social column ‘What People are Saying and Doing’ featured a short article on ‘Love and Millions’, an ironic report on how:

An attractive stranger, Miss Alfaretta Hallam, from America, of course, is lecturing in Sydney on many popular subjects including our old friend, ‘Love, Courtship, and Matrimony,’ only, being a modern and an American, she disguised it as ‘Practical Psychology.’[52]

This was among the first of many articles linking American expertise to romantic love as well as the psychologisation of the self. Moreover, the metaphors used by Alfaretta Hallam – the ‘business of marriage’, the ‘training’ involved in relationships, the idea that choosing a husband is like choosing a career – all emphasised the intertwining of romantic love with commerce and the market. The Australian reviewer recognised this and ended the short article with a dig at the American association between the professionalisation of love and money. Hallam’s next lecture tour, the article concluded, was ‘How to Make a Million Honestly’.

As with advertisements, a struggle between ‘British’ and ‘American’ styles and authority is evident in Table Talk magazine during the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1926, Table Talk – which was always obsessed with romance, marriage and domestic harmony – ran a series on ‘The New Wife’. Among the ‘experts’ it summoned to discuss and give advice on happy marriages were English and Australian social hostesses. A similar series subsequently featured in 1930, ‘Making a Success of Marriage’, again featured female society leaders from Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, but not from England. In the same year, however, Table Talk commissioned an article by the American writer Rupert Hughes on ‘What is True Love?’ Hughes’s expertise arose from his reputation as a novelist and was described by the magazine as one who has, by his outspokenness and common sense views, set all America talking’.[53] The Thirties saw reprints in Table Talk of American articles on love, romance and marriage by Kathleen Norris – ‘America’s Foremost Magazine Writer’ – as well as an increasing number of articles on Hollywood romances, divorces, and happy marriages. By 1936, the magazine turned to Eleanor Roosevelt to assure readers that ‘A Wage-Earning Wife Does Not Cause Divorce’.[54]

British – and occasionally European – contributors continued to be featured as ‘experts’ on love, romance and marriage, but only if they were novelists, psychologists or philosophers: Bertrand Russell, A. A. Milne and Evelyn Waugh among them. Yet it was evident that the widespread influence of American dating rituals and practices of romantic consumption had also reached Britain. The English writer Alan Kennington, whose articles on relationships were sometimes reprinted in Table Talk, wrote a piece titled ‘Should Girls Go Dutch?’ and explained that ‘“Going Dutch” is an American expression, origin unknown’.[55] He opined that it was a common practice among Europeans and, presumably, Americans, but rarer in England. Kennington’s article indicates anxieties in the United Kingdom as well as in Australia over the growing practice of romantic consumption and the concomitant commodification of love inherent in ‘American’ practices of dating. Although the article seemed to be directed towards the lower middle classes whose romantic consumption was constrained by low wages, the pen and ink illustration that accompanied the article depicted the impossibly idealised image of glamorous, romantic dating among the wealthy – the man in white tie and tails, his arms around an elegantly dressed woman with a fur stole, both of them outside an up-market theatre.

These articles, still photos of glamorous film stars in romantic poses, and advertisements in women’s magazines accustomed Australian women to the idea of romantic consumption. They were calculated to provoke yearnings for beauty, youth, romance, luxurious ego-expressive products, and the experience of ‘romantic’ activities or services in the process of what Illouz has called ‘consuming the romantic utopia’. By contrast, very few (if any) or these romanticised images appeared in Australian men’s magazines, either in advertisements or as illustrations accompanying articles. It was not that men’s magazines were uninterested in romance, marriage or relationships. When Man: The Australian Magazine for Men was launched in December 1936, the inaugural editorial proclaimed that the magazine would ‘cater as completely as possible for the varied monthly reading requirements of the average male’. Moreover, it would feature ‘90% the work of Australian writers’ and ‘100% Australian artists’.[56] Among the articles on fiction, business, current affairs and sports, however, were the occasional pieces on romance and marriage. The Australian writer Gilbert Anstruther wrote several articles on the subject between 1937 and 1942, such as ‘Are Husbands Worth While?’[57] or ‘I Know About Love’.[58] Austin Roberts analysed love and jealousy in the psychology section, while Browning Thompson did the same in the sociology column. Between the late 1930s and the late 1950s, other male authors pitched in with articles on ‘Marriage and Morals of the Future’, ‘Why Husbands Leave Home’, ‘Husbands Who Hate Women’, ‘How to – Where to – And Why You Shouldn’t – Be Unfaithful’, and ‘How to Get Along With Women’. Not until the late 1940s, however, did Man feature advertisements for ego-expressive products set within a romantic context. An advertisement for Ingram’s shaving cream in 1947 featured a cartoonish picture of a man climbing over a balustrade at night – presumably invoking the figure of Romeo – and a woman stroking his smooth chin. The caption was joking in tone and clumsy in text:

Question: To what did Helen of Troy owe her fascination? The face that launched a thousand ships must have had something more than the usual complement of eyes and things. INGRAM’S, on the other hand, has launched a thousand faces. A million, maybe …

Another advertisement for ‘Be-Tall’ shoes in April 1957 showed the illustration of a blissfully smiling woman clasping a man’s shoulder as he towers over her. The caption read: ‘Tall men get the plums.’ Be-Tall shoes were spruiked as ‘amazing height-increasing shoes’ which ‘help you grow almost 2 inches taller instantly’, promising an increase not only in height, but also in poise and the confidence, presumably, to go after and ‘get the plums’. Such advertisements of romanticised commodities were few and far between in Australian men’s magazines, and there was something slightly awkward about them.

It was not until American magazines such as Playboy were imported during the late 1960s that Australian men were introduced to a culture of romanticised (and, of course, sexualised) consumption for all sorts of products. For example, an advertisement for Renault’s Le Car had a photo of a woman sitting on top of the car, held in the close embrace of a man, while the caption referred to the ‘passion’ of driving. An American advertisement for Hennessy in the 1990s showed a woman’s ecstatic, upturned face as a man kisses her. The caption read: ‘If you’ve ever been kissed you already know the feeling of Cognac Hennessy.’ Interestingly enough where transnational ideas of romance are concerned, the couple are framed by the carved arches of a stone colonnade, vaguely suggestive of Europe. In this American advertisement romance is Europeanised, generic ‘Europe’ signifying luxurious romantic moments and classy destinations. Playboy notoriously commodified women’s bodies and sexuality, but it also commodified romance, as with John Stack’s 1980 article, ‘We’ll Take Romance!’ Accompanying suggestions for romantic moments were thoroughly entwined with luxury consumption:

A light and sexy Lillet with a twist of orange or lemon is our choice for a romantic aperitif ... For any occasion that seems extra-special, we recommend California Chandon, but nighttime is the right time for Cognac. Delamain (which runs from $22 to $100) is for foreplay, afterplay, and serious fooling around.

Investment acumen and sentiment do mix. Buy each other gifts that will last: lithographs, Oriental silk flowers, inlaid boxes, photographs, leather-bound books or first editions, cognac, fine stationery, personally blended scents, pottery, season tickets (to the ballet, symphony, theatre or even hockey), museum membership, dancing (or self-defense) lessons, antiques (such as handmade quilts, bits of embroidery, old china). Or a pair of sexy black pajamas.

Getting away even for a weekend is a terrific way to renew your relationship and take time off from professional stress at the same time. If you live in the country, try some bright lights/big city sight-seeing ... If, like most of us, you live in the city, look for an intimate country inn that you can make your own ...[59]

My point here is that although Australian men’s magazines carried articles about marriage and romantic relationships, romantic consumption did not feature widely until after World War II – and then it was introduced to Australia via imported American men’s magazines and advertising techniques copied from the Americans. In the first half of the twentieth century, therefore, there was a gender disjunction where ideas of romance and courtship or dating were concerned. This came to a head during World War II.