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Breaking down gender roles during the mid-century modern era

Posted on March 18, 2019 at 4:28 PM by Betsy Grabinski

This week, nearly 200 Women and Gender Studies students toured the Designed for a Modern Life exhibition with an emphasis on how fashion and design affected gender identification in mid-century America.

The exhibition includes textiles, decorative arts and works of art dating from 1945 through 1969 and students were asked to contemplate life in this period and the differences between female and male roles. Post World War II, a new suburban lifestyle, a fear of Communism, and a reaffirmation of traditional roles led to women being placed back into the roles of caregivers and caretakers of their homes and families.

Fashion helped to reassert these gender roles through overtly feminine clothing and formal rules of dress for women. As an emerging middle class grew larger, life became more casual as seen through the many choices of goods available, but gender roles remained formalized and traditional. From the 1960s and on women's clothing became less structured and freer with shorter skirts and new synthetic materials allowing for wild prints and exciting color combinations.

One of the other areas of change for women during this era was being recognized for their role in art and design. For much of history, women artists were excluded from the records because they were often not allowed to participate in many aspects of art making and even if they did, they were hardly ever recognized for that work. As women began to become dissatisfied with their traditional roles they began to be more vocal, leading to the women's movement and a chance to revisit those women who were working in the arts and crafts and recognize their contributions to the field.

"In the classroom these students are learning about gender inequalities, the history of traditional gender roles, and how the past continues to affect our world today," said Associate Curator Adrienne Gennett. "By coming to an exhibition such as Designed for a Modern Life, they have the opportunity to see a moment of history in person, not just read it in a textbook. The clothing and objects made in this period tell the story of women's lives in the mid-century - their roles, their interests, and often their hopes for a changing future."


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