'Make lisle the style': the politics of fashion in the Japanese silk boycott, 1937-1940

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Date: Spring 2005
From: Journal of Social History(Vol. 38, Issue 3)
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 15,330 words

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On a Friday afternoon in late January, 1938, a standing-room crowd of 600, including many of the leading society women of the District of Columbia, attended an unusual fashion show at the Wardman Park Theater. The hour-long pageant entitled, Life Without Silk: From Morning to Midnight in Cotton and Rayon, sponsored by the League of Women Shoppers (LWS), aimed, quite literally, to make a cause fashionable. Directed by Lee Simonson, the well-known scenic designer who wore a woolen necktie, the LWS organized the show to popularize the nascent campaign to boycott Japanese silk. Simonson and the D.C. branch of the LWS intended Life Without Silk to "reveal the chic a woman can acquire without a thread of Japanese silk." To promote the boycott, they believed, was also to raise consciousness about socially-responsible and stylish modes of non-silk fashion. (1)

The audience members, many of them prominent boycott supporters, attended Life Without Silk as proponents and originators of such styles. Demonstrating that "Washington women can dress smartly in clothes made of cotton, rayon, and wool--everything but silk," the pageant's participants--mostly "members of the Junior League and women prominent in the social life of the capital"--modeled non-silk styles fit for any occasion and any time of day. A model who wore a "gayly printed morning coat of a cotton pique" was followed by others clad in suede suits, and hats, "tennis costumes of rayon, with copper tunic top, zippered down the front," cashmere cocktail dresses, and flowered cotton evening gowns. "To judge by the volume of applause, it was evident that women could look smart on the beach, at the races, around a bridge table, at the dance or in an embassy garden without silk," one newspaper reported. The show had "dowagers and sub-debs alike 'ohing' and 'ahing' in admiration." The highlight of the pageant occurred when the dancer and movie star Eleanor Powell, whom the Washington Post described as the "owner of what many believe to be the shapeliest legs in Hollywood," emerged on stage with those legs "encased in cotton stockings." (2)

Outside the theater, a contingent of women representing the American Federation of Hosiery Workers (AFHW), a union affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), marched in protest of the boycott. (3) Some 300 hosiery workers had traveled by train from Reading, Pennsylvania, the heart of the country's full-fashioned hosiery industry, to challenge the premises of the silk-free fashion show. Refusing to cede the moral high ground to the LWS, the hosiery workers argued that the dictates of both ethical consumption and good fashion required not a boycott but the continued purchase of silk. Decrying the silk boycott as short-sighted and wrong-headed, the paraders, many of whom claimed to be unemployed, argued that a silk boycott would victimize American industry, particularly American hosiery workers, far more than it would hurt the Japanese economy. "Why Make Us The Victims of Foreign War?," asked one sign; "Wear Silk and Save Our Jobs," implored another. The hosiery workers claimed that there...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A132292628