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Coded Desire in 1920's Advertising.

CONSIDER the following print ad illustration, widely reproduced in mainstream American magazines in the 1920's: At an indeterminate evening hour, two handsome young men, elegantly dressed in tuxedos and top hats, lean close to each other as one lights the other's cigarette. Both men show a hint of a smile as they gaze into each other's eyes. The caption reads: "I can tell that taste in the dark." The taste in question is presumably that of the tobacco that's being advertised, in this case Chesterfield cigarettes. This 1926 print ad, produced for Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, reflects the social mores of the era. It was a time in advertising when women were seldom shown smoking, while images of male camaraderie and even homosociability were commonplace.

From the perspective of the late 20th century, the subtext of male-to-male desire in this ad seems clear enough. The question is, how would a man living in the early part of the century--especially one who may have shared such a desire--have interpreted this illustration? What is clear is that a number of artists and admen of the day were themselves homosexual, so it would not be unexpected for their affectional desires to have seeped into their ads. Moreover, we know from recent scholarship, such as that of George Chauncey in Gay New York (1994), that homosexual men of the era were accustomed to communicating in code, ever alert to visual cues that might be "hidden in plain sight" in a mainstream publication. As the examples offered in this essay will show, ads that depict relatively innocent scenes of male homosociability can often be read as scenes of male couple domesticity, pickup encounters, leisurely morning-after occasions, and the like.

Ample evidence for coded--and, for that matter, overt--homoerotic content in the fine arts has been offered by such art historians as Jonathan Weinberg in Speaking for Vice (1993) and Allen Ellenzweig in his historical survey, The Homoerotic Photograph (1992). But the less exalted genre of advertising has remained largely unexplored, especially as it thrived before the advent of photography as the dominant pictoral medium in ads. Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, has published several essays on illustrator J. C. Leyendecker that convincingly make the connection between the artist's known homosexuality and the content of his illustrations. But there were many other illustrators for whom a similar connection could be made, if the evidence from one particular magazine, Vanity Fair, is any indication.

Vanity Fair began in 1913 under the title of Dress & Vanity Fair as a publication aimed principally at women. But publisher Conde Nast was dissatisfied and hired art editor Frank Crowninshield to revamp the magazine. The resulting publication shifted its focus to sophisticated urban readers of both sexes. Its content included articles on politics, the arts, city life, humor, personality profiles, fashion spreads for both men and women. Its list of contributors reads like a who's who of writers in the post-World War I era and the Jazz Age. Its ads clearly reflect its upscale market of white, privileged sophisticates: the "leisure class," as it was then known. While most of the illustrations here are from Vanity Fair, they could also have been seen in a number of other magazines, such as Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Century.

ILLUSTRATOR J. C. Leyendecker was an established professional by the turn of the century. At his death in 1951, he would be best known for his men's fashion illustrations and magazine cover art. In 1905, he embarked on the Arrow Collar ad campaign for Cluett, Peabody & Company, which became one of the most financially rewarding and artistically influential ad campaigns of the first half of the century. From the first of his 48 covers for Collier's magazine in 1898 through his 322 covers for The Saturday Evening Post, Leyendecker was regarded as one of America's premier illustrators. A devoted fan was Norman Rockwell, who allowed only 321 of his own illustrations to grace The Saturday Evening Post in deference to his idol.

Leyendecker's illustrations idealized American masculinity. His Arrow Collar men had such an appeal to women that, by the 1920's, the painted icons were receiving thousands of fan letters and even marriage proposals. Leyendecker knew that consumerism and eroticism sprang from the same acquisitive impulse. But, again, any homoerotic content is assimilated to the acceptable male models of the day, as Richard Martin (1995) points out:

Leyendecker reconciled homosexual desire with the canon of acceptable images of bonding, heroism and striving in American culture. In his capacity not to dissent or disrupt, yet to insinuate homoerotic desire, Leyendecker established a compatibility in popular visual art between the mainstream male ideal and the homoerotic subject. There is a significance in the fact that Leyendecker does not offend and does not afford an exclusionary queer reading, deflecting heterosexual gaze. Rather, he creates the power of a universal gaze from the charisma of the homoerotic.

A classic example would be Leyendecker's illustration for a 1910 Arrow Collar ad (Figure 1), originally painted and presented in color, which depicts two men, a woman, and a collie, relaxing together on the steps of an outdoor porch, probably at a golf clubhouse, as the men both hold bags of clubs. Situated at either side of the picture plane, the men are gazing at one another with an intensity that suggests a significant emotional investment. Seated behind the male at left, the woman and dog are being ignored, and though this pair occupies the central compositional space, the real drama of the scene exists in the visual interaction of the men.

The blond on the left sits with his body facing the viewer, but the desire in his heavy-lidded gaze is palpable. He clutches his golf bag, which rests diagonally across his right arm to his left foot, covering his crotch. Its symbolism as a phallic element is unmistakable, given its placement, and even the exaggerated scrotal shape and position of the golf bag's pocket bolsters the allusion. While his spread-leg position affords him comfort, it also implies genital accessibility, even with the visual barrier of the golf bag. In addition, though undetectable here in black and white, he wears a red necktie, a coded signal since the late- 1890's for homosexuality among gay men of New York. The man on the right rests his right hand atop his golf bag, the clubs protruding upward. For mainstream consumption, it is certainly plausible that the depiction is merely that of a close male friendship, an institution that was celebrated in cultural understandings of the era. Still, for the homosexually inclined, it would be hard to miss the undercurrent of homoerotic desire in this illustration.

Before moving to Vanity Fair, let me mention two Ivory Soap ads that appeared in a variety of other magazines in 1916-17. During the years of World War I, homosocial scenarios of military men were common in advertising. Portrayals of men bonded together in dangerous circumstances were meant to tug at the heartstrings of national pride. But as an Ivory Soap ad (Figure 2) from 1916 suggests, raising the permissible quotient of male emotional expressiveness also elevated the possibilities for homoerotic content. In this ad, the general mood is one of a shared camaraderie in bathing, but the central figure is a naked soldier who's engaged with another man in the water below.

Another Ivory ad (Figure 3) appears to be a shower scene after a sporting event, as the caption carefully explains, but the visual evidence is strikingly homoerotic. Six male figures are shown: two clothed and four nude. Three appear to be awaiting their chance for the showers, which are occupied by two others, seen from the rear, their nudity only partially veiled by streaming water. Three of the waiting figures are watching the two showerers, one of whom is cupping his buttocks in his hands, presumably lathering, but certainly attracting the attention of the clothed man on the right. The three figures on the left are in inordinately close proximity to one another, judging by the placement of their feet. The front figure leans down to dry his right leg with a towel that barely covers his crotch, while the proximity of the figure behind him, whose towel is slung casually over his shoulder, is more than suggestive of the straight cliche, "You dropped your soap!"

Beyond the apparent homoerotic appeal of this picture, it may have had additional resonance for urban gay men of the period. George Chauncey describes in Gay New York the city-wide proliferation of bathhouses at a time when most private tenements did not have bathing facilities. And while sexual contact was discouraged at these venues, Chauncey conceded that it undoubtedly did take place at certain kinds of establishments.

An ad for Varsity Athletic Underwear that appeared in the May, 1919, issue of Vanity Fair (Figure 4) contains some intriguing ambiguity. What makes this underwear specifically "athletic" is unclear, but the "Varsity" in the product's name would lead us to assume that we're in a college dorm or frat house. These might be college athletes, but even given stylistic conventions of the time, they appear to be mature men rather than college lads. Whether they're dressing or undressing is unclear, but standing in partial dishabille on either side of what appears to be a single bed, they regard one another in an attentive, male-to-male gaze. The ad copy begins with the line, "You'll know it by the flag," presumably a reference to the product label, but an ambiguous use of the word "it" if we assume that they're about to have a sexual encounter.

Ambiguity is alive and well in a Vanity Fair ad that appeared in April, 1923 (Figure 5), which presents a dark interior scenario involving two men. This ad for Standard Plumbing Fixtures (of all things!) presents a cozy domestic scene picturing an older, seated gentleman wearing a smoking jacket or silk robe, taking time out from his newspaper reading to light the cigarette of a younger standing man, also in a robe. The older gent is wearing a formal shirt, collar, and tie, but the younger one appears to be bare-chested beneath his robe. Perhaps he has just come from his toilette in the bathroom behind them, which is brightly lit to showcase the company's plumbing products. Have they been out together, or are they just preparing for the evening ahead? Is this a father and son, two members of a men's club, an older gentleman and his younger lover at home--or even a daddy and his trick? The ambiguity of the narrative is such that a variety of interpretations seems possible, to say the least.

The two men in an ad for Absorbine, Jr. (October, 1923; Figure 6) could be college dorm mates, brothers, clients in a bathhouse, or members of a club, engaged in men's toilet activities as they are, taking time out to discuss the wonders of the product in question, which was touted as a liniment, a gargle, and an antiseptic first-aid lotion for after-shaving discomfort. And while the scene may be innocent enough, it is the first line of the copy that arrests our attention: "A not uncommon introduction where men meet intimately."

In the next month's issue, an ad for the Bakelite Corporation (Figure 7) is illustrated with an unusual happenstance. In this ad for pipes and cigarette holders, three people are shown attending a football game. The female in the foreground seems incidental to the action, however, and appears quite bored. Next to her, one man is holding his pipe firmly to his lips while a second man leans over between the couple, compositionally dominating them, receiving a light for his cigarette (extended in length by its holder) from the first. The pipe smoker, heavy-lidded and with a hint of a smile, appears slightly fey as he watches the exchange in progress, a gesture that involves the insertion of a cylindrical object into his bowl-indeed into his "pipe," a slang word for rectum.

The scene described earlier between two other cigarette-lighting men, this time in the dark, is that much more explicit in its homoerotic appeal (Figure 8). Instead of looking at the cigarette to see that it's making contact with the match, both men are gazing directly into each other's eyes. The umbrella held by the man on the left points to the crotch of the fellow on the right, its curved, highlighted handle projecting phallically toward the other man. But if all that weren't enough, the caption, "I can tell that taste in the dark' seems calculated to drive the message home. On the surface, of course, "taste" can refer to Chesterfields, but the word can also mean preference or predilection, whether for a type of clothes or a type of sex--something that can be recognized "in the dark" in a way that would seem irrelevant to cigarette brands. The very phrase "I can tell" implies knowing something, being able to recognize something, even in the dark, that might otherwise be mysterious.

A Brooks Brothers Clothing ad (Figure 9) from June, 1927, offers a pointed example of the male-to-male gaze, but here admiration seems tinged with envy for the well-dressed man in the foreground on the part of similarly attired men, who carefully watch him pass by. On one level, of course, Brooks Brothers wants us to believe that their clothing can attract such avid interest on the part of other men, but how realistic is it to suppose that a group of presumably straight men would be that interested in the formal wear of another man? The latter cuts a dashing figure, to be sure, but his attire is scarcely distinguishable from that of the other three (who may, after all, be wearing Brooks Brothers, as well).

Two ads for B. Altman & Company, a Fifth Avenue department store that folded in the late 1970's, are for men's beach and casual wear (Figures 10 and 11). They appear to be painted by the same illustrator and ran in 1928 and 1930. Both involve cigarettes, either being offered or smoked, and both could be interpreted as casual pick-up encounters. Each portrays one of the two primary figures in a relaxed, supine position. In the first, a striped beach pole is placed in the near distance and positioned directly above the crotch of the prone man. Casually resting his head on his right hand, he looks to be in conversation with the seated figure, who returns his gaze with a mixture of approval and smugness. The copy provides a description of leisure respite that is richly sensual, almost erotic: "'Give me a sun, white hot upon the sand, cool depths for a swim and a long, lazy bake--and I'll show you a vacation worth while...' Altman Beach Clothes, please, are meant for just such long, delightful hours along the bea ch."

The second depicts a similar scene that looks even more like a pick-up. Here, a man wearing a suit and tie, albeit with his jacket slung casually under his arm, leans down to offer a cigarette to a recumbent sunbather in beach attire. Judging by their different attire, it appears they did not come there together, but have just encountered each other. The reclining man has his torso raised slightly with its weight on his bent right elbow and buttock, his body oriented outward toward the viewer, but the standing man's position directly above would afford him a full view. The sunbather's legs are slightly raised, bent, and spread, suggesting invitation or acquiescence. A third man sits with his back to the viewer in the near distance, his head turned slightly to his left as if cocking his ear to hear what's going on. This figure could easily have been a woman or a child, but the fact that it's another young men makes this a strictly homosocial scene, perhaps a cruisy beach frequented by men.

All of these ad illustrations depict mate behaviors that are within the bounds of acceptable masculinity as prescribed by the culture of the times. American culture did not assume that sexual or affectional dynamics were likely or even possible between men, which is why these drawings were allowed to get by. In a similar manner, gay men could pass for straight even while leading double lives. Doubtless they were a lucrative market for certain kinds of products, such as clothing and toiletries, then as now, which is why advertisers were willing to risk a bit of ambiguously gay interaction to attract their business. At the same time, we shouldn't underestimate the ability of individual artists, designers, and ad executives who were themselves homosexual to insinuate their tastes into their ads, consciously or otherwise.

The Great Depression of the 30's descended like a frost upon the laissez-faire cultural attitudes of the Jazz Age, including attitudes toward sexual diversity and experimentation. Ads in this period, during which Vanity Fair ceased to exist, only rarely contained the kinds of graphics that appeared in the preceding two decades. Photography assumed a greater role in advertising, and the visual emphasis shifted to the products themselves. But the ads of that earlier era testify to a relatively liberated era in which homosocial activity and display were considered a normal part of life.

David B. Boyce teaches gay history and gay studies at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. This article is dedicated to the memory of Richard Martin, who died in November, 1999.


Chauncey, George. Gay New York:. Gender, Urban. Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World 1890-1940. Basic Books, 1994.

Marlin, Richard. "J.C. Leyendecker and the Homoerotic Invention of Men's Fashion Icons, 1910-1930" in Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, Vol. 21. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Martin, Richard. "Gay Blade & Homoerotic Content in J.C. Leyendecker's Gillette Advertising Images" in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer 1995.

Weinberg, J. Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth. Yale University Press, 1993.
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Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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