Streetscape: Irwin Shaw’s “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses”

September 14, 2008

Irwin Shaw’s “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” offers a pessimistic if not unresolved look at gender relations and the status-quo-is-the-best-we’ll-get social construct. In it, the two characters—a married couple walking along a New York city street—are shown to have divergent reactions toward the sources and symptoms of extramarital affairs.

“Summer Dresses” is a short story at its best, showing action and narrative progress mostly by dialogue, taking full use of the nuances of everyday conversation, a perfect medium for The New Yorker of the 1930s. Almost all of the text is in quotation marks, and few descriptive that divide the sections of dialogue serve to set the place… a street corner, a table in a bar, a waiter.

As the story progresses, we see that the two are isolated. She wants to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and skate and see a French film and “have a nice Sunday.” He makes no objection, but for other reasons.

“Let’s not see anybody all day,” she said. “Let’s just hang around with each other. You and me. We’re always up to our neck in people, drinking their Scotch or drinking our Scotch; we only see each other in bed. I want to go out with my husband all day long. I want him to talk only to me and listen only to me.”
“What’s to stop us?” Michael asked.

Stopping Michael is his infatuation with other women, exploring the “other” or unfamiliar. Therefore, he stares, and this drives Frances crazy.

“—say, are you listening to me?”
“Sure,” he said. He took his eyes off the hatless girl with the dark hair, cut dancer-style like a helmet, who was walking past him.
“That’s the program for the day,” Frances said flatly. “Or maybe you’d just rather walk up and down Fifth Avenue.”
“No,” Michael said. “Not at all.”
“You always look at other women,” Frances said. “Everywhere. Every damned place we go.”

Michael’s justification of this trait, and his inadequate attempt to console his wife, is what produces the story’s conflict. To him, admiring other women is natural, a release, a simple side-effect of his surroundings. In Michael’s words, “I casually inspect the universe.” And his immediate universe, New York City, is full of them. Location is a factor that even he admits.

He moved to the city from Ohio, and now has access to “battalions of women” who create a land where “everything is concentrated from all over the world into seven blocks—the best furs, the best clothes, and the handsomest women, out to spend money and feeling good about it.” Fifth Avenue comes to represent the nexus of visual pleasure for him.

Frances is confused about how to respond to Michael’s actions toward other women, but ultimately concedes: “You ought to see the look in your eye,” Frances said, “ as you casually inspect the universe on Fifth Avenue” … “All right, I don’t know why I started this. Let’s drop it. Let’s have a good time.” Perhaps she senses that this type of behavior will pass, like the symptoms of an adolescent mind. We see that this will tragically not be the case, however: “I’m a happily married man.” … “Example for the whole twentieth century…”

It’s obvious even to Michael that his staring habit is hurtful to his wife. But he doesn’t yield; she does. Possible future adultery (more serious than just looking) is passed off as out of his control.

“Aren’t you?” Frances asked harshly. “Come on, tell me. Talk. Aren’t you?”
“Maybe,” Michael said. He moved his chair back again. “How the hell do I know?”
“You know,” Frances persisted. “Don’t you know?”
“Yes,” Michael said after a while. “I know.”

Frances seems to be able to accept this conclusion, as long as Michael doesn’t go too far. Both of them are guilty of participating in the façade, and alcohol becomes a way for both of them to swallow their pride:

“At least do me one favor,” she said.
“Stop talking about how pretty this woman is or that one. Nice eyes, nice breasts, a pretty figure, good voice.” She mimicked his voice. “Keep it to yourself. I’m not interested.”
Michael waved to the waiter. “I’ll keep it to myself,” he said.
Frances flicked the corners of her eyes. “Another brandy,” she told the waiter.
“Two,” Michael said.

Today, Fifth Avenue, which cuts up and down the heart of Manhattan, is considered to be a shopping paradise, a popular retail center. It traverses Central Park, passes the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as the Guggenheim Museum, and is the site of many parades.

Some images of New York’s Fifth Avenue during the time of Irwin Shaw:

New York’s Fifth Avenue and 42nd street, showing an crowd gathering in celebration of Armistice Day, November 11, 1937. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library’s Digital Collection; Wurts Brothers, photorapher; “Streetscape and Townscape of Metropolitan New York City, 1860-1942.”

New York’s Fifth Avenue and 44th street, May 13, 1938. By the clock, it appears to be about 1:30 PM. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library’s Digital Collections; Berenice Abbott, photographer; “Changing New York: Photographs by Berenice Abbott.”
1. Shaw, Irwin. “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.” Short Stories from the New Yorker. New York: Simon and Shuster; 1967. 3-8.

The Chrysler Building: Art in Transition

June 29, 2008

During the late 1800s, as architects and structural designers were learning how they would incorporate the then-new advances in the composition of metal, the skylines of cities in Europe and America began to transform. The Chrysler Building came to be recognized as New York’s most recognizable skyscraper, conveying an optimistic look toward modernity through its use of new materials and visual themes which adapted to practical purposes.

Built in 1930, the Chrysler Building by William van Alen is a monument that represents art in transition. Unlike painting, literature, or music, architecture is practiced within the confines of real-use application, and depends the most heavily on science among the above-mentioned arts. When architects and engineers gained the ability (and desire) to build higher, for example, they had to keep human/social aspects of the use of spacing in mind. For example, New York adopted zoning rules which required super-tall buildings to be tapered at the top so that the street level wouldn’t be suffocated by the blocking of sunlight.

The Chrysler Building as seen in 1931. The building is placed at the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 42nd street, Manhattan, New York. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery:

As I interpret it, the building clearly does not conform to its surrounding aesthetic, and neither does it convey the notion of clarity and logic through straight lines and industrious spacing that would characterize later works. To this extent, The Chrysler Building is a transitional piece. Ian Sutton’s contribution to the “World of Art” series, Western Architecture, places the building in such a context:

Between the purely commercial products of Art Deco, the Odeons and the Roxys, and the more serious, high-minded Modernism of Gropius and the Bauhaus, there is a middle ground which shares something of both. Like the latter, the architects in question also believed in the future (or at least the present), but for them ornament was no crime. The new materials, steel glass, reinforced concrete, were an opportunity, not a discipline. They favoured the curve rather than the straight line (the style was nicknamed ‘Streamlined Moderne’); it was chic, it was up-to-date, it was avant-garde with a touch of elitism, the perfect background to the jazz age.

Speaking of the jazz age, a few auteurs—notably Fitzgerald—come to mind. And actually, I can see how this building for some New Yorkers might have represented an embrace of futurism, technology, and success (even in the midst of the 1930s). For four months, the Chrysler Building was tallest building in the world (a title overtaken by the Empire State Building. (I am reminded of today’s climate in which the status of tallest building—whether in Taiwan, Dubai, Chicago, etc.—changes hands during and shortly after construction). The building is decorative, romantic, non-economical. Sutton describes the technological environment that made such buildings possible:

Three new inventions made it possible to build higher One was Elisha G. Otis’s perfection of his elevator, an essential requirement for tall buildings. Another was Sir Henry Bessemer’s new process of manufacturing steel, an alloy that provided greater strength with less weight and had tensile properties lacking in cast iron. Both these inventions date from the 1850s, but their effect was not felt until the 1870s. The third was the development of fireproofing for the iron (later steel) frame.

The Chrysler Building under construction in 1929. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery:

In the future, I will look at architecture characterizing periods before and after the Chrysler Building’s reign. Though, the building remains one of the tallest in New York City, which implies that such a reign never ended (if you are judging such things by height). Later buildings would be less decorative and seemingly more judicious in its use of space. It is possible that the spirit which inspired the building’s was stifled in part by the economy (the depression erupted in 1929), or other more “pragmatic” reasons for not producing such buildings.

1. Sutton, Ian. Western Architecture: From Ancient Greece to the Present. London: Thames & Hudson; 1999. 311, 322.