A photographic perspective on the 1950s in Europe 4

Cherchez la femme – Between bouffant and boiler suit
The cigar-smoking businessman, his apron-clad wife, their cute, obedient children and an always impeccable home: in the US as well as in Western Europe, the ‘nuclear family’ was championed in the 1950s as a counterweight to the destabilization brought about by the Cold War. Radio, television and advertising jointly conveyed this ideal vision, with slogans such as ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘Femininity Begins At Home’. Today, still, the fifties are mainly viewed as an age of conformity in which gender roles were clearly defined and uncritically adhered to. But beneath the surface, discontent with the status quo was growing. Having been part of the working force during the war, not all women were eager to return to being a wife and mother. While the baby-boom reinforced the identification of women with the relation to their husbands and children, many chose a diff erent path. Women on both sides of the Iron Curtain started to juggle a household and a job. While in the West, brand-new kitchen appliances and smart housekeeping tools helped women to save time for professional activities, in Eastern Europe they were aided by centralized governmental services and facilities. Still, throughout the decade social repression was a daily reality for women all around Europe – from France, where women were not yet fully enfranchised, to the UK, where conservative postwar policies supported women in their capacity as wife and mother. Only 1.2% of the university population in the 1950s was female, while home and parenting remained to be seen as a woman’s responsibility solely. This series of photographs features women in three different guises: 53-yearold grandmother Olive Walker – Europe’s only lady sweep- representing the woman at work, a dishwashing housekeeper taking up the gauntlet for the woman at home, and actress Carme Trèmols as the glamour lady on a pedestal.

Doing the dishes with boxing gloves, 1950s – Siegfried Pilz / United Archives. In Copyright
Olive Walker, England’s only lady sweep, 1951 – George Douglas / TopFoto.co.uk. In Copyright
Filming ‘Roc’ with Carme Trèmols, 1958 / Ajuntament de Girona / CRDI. Copyright not evaluated

Suspicious minds – A continent under pressure
A festive inauguration, a jolly outing and a casual conversation: at first glance, these photographs are the epitome of the proverbial ‘Fabulous Fifties’. In reality, however, they expose some of the lingering doubts and burning suspicions that took hold of Europe. Despite a beaming Richard Nixon proudly cutting the cord, the American Exhibition at Sokolniki park near Moscow was an extremely controversial aff air, that sharpened east/west tensions. Even before the opening, fueled by conspiracy theories (McCarthyism), debate erupted over the presumed communist allegiances of some of the artists featured. Later, the exhibit’s stunning kitchen and ‘Typical American House’ displays spurred heated discussions about the misrepresentation of the Free World.
Th at nothing was clear-cut in the relationship between west and east is also attested to by the portrait of the fl ight crew of a Swedish Catalina. In what became known as the Catalina affair, Soviet fighter jets shot down their fl ying boat above international waters, as it was searching for another plane that had disappeared off the radar. It took 40 years for Sweden to admit to having breached the Soviet Frontier during a spying mission, and for the Soviets to confi rm they were indeed responsible for the retaliation. Finally, things weren’t all roses between the Allies either. The fear of ‘Americanisation’ took on ‘red panic’ proportions, quite a few Western countries had strong communist movements, and post-imperial Britain struggled to find its place in the new bi-polar world. To these sailors from the American nuclear submarine Nautilus, those lingering tensions would have been completely forgotten for at least a few hours during their day out in London, heading to the Winter Garden Theatre in the enchanting company of the Folies-Bergère showgirls.

Vicepresident Nixon opens the American Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, August 1959 / United Archives/Sovfoto/Universal Images Group. In Copyright
The crew of a flying boat, June 1952 / TopFoto.co.uk. In Copyright
American sailors and London showgirls, August 1958 / TopFoto.co.uk. In Copyright

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