Fashion Anthropology: Primates of Park Avenue

Two women in evening dress, Nov. 1936. Woman's Home Companion.

Two women in evening dress, Nov. 1936. Woman’s Home Companion.

My husband and I like to read at the table, sharing paragraphs and tidbits of information. He surprised me last week by reading selections from Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir, by Wednesday Martin. (Simon & Schuster, 2015.) He found it engrossing, and so did I.

This report from an anthropologist who studied the women of New York’s Upper East Side as if they were members of an obscure tribe in the Amazon — or Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees — is quite a fascinating read.

(At my house, we debated for months about buying a new car before the 2001 Toyota stops running, so the existence of sane human beings willing to spend $141,000 dollars on a handbag was a little surprising!)

My husband and I do not live in the world of high status handbags, cripplingly high heels, Botoxed faces, or people who summer in the Hamptons and winter in Aspen.

If you don’t, either, this report from an anthropologist who studied the women of New York’s Upper East Side, taking field notes as if they were members of a tribe of hunter-gatherers, or a troop of chimpanzees, is quite a fascinating read.

Cover of Ladies' Home Journal, December 1936.

Cover of Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1936.

Dr. Martin (Ph. D. from Yale, degree in Anthropology from University of Michigan) was a young working mother (and a successful writer) with a husband whose income allowed them to move to New York’s Upper East Side with the intention of getting their children into a good public school.

Once there, as an outsider in a complex and apparently ruthless culture of tribal status, exchanged favors, and hostile Alpha Moms, Dr. Martin realized she had found her “field work.”

And, like many a reputable anthropologist before her, she eventually “went native.”

The chapter in which she recounts her quest for an Hermes Birkin bag, 35 centimeters — comparing herself to a chimpanzee named Mike who took over his troop in Gombe by choosing the right accessory (two kerosene canisters that he banged together to make noise) is both funny and — for us outsiders — horrifying.

So is a shoe-shopping expedition when the clerk says she shouldn’t worry about the pain of standing in the shoes, because she can do as many other members of her tribe do: “get one of those injections” — from a podiatrist who is willing to anesthetize her feet for the evening.

Society woman in rubies and diamonds, from an ad for silverplated tableware. December 1936, Ladies' Home Journal.

Society woman in rubies and diamonds, from an ad for silver-plated tableware. December 1936, Ladies’ Home Journal.

The tribe’s competitiveness — fueled by a fear of loss — is fascinating, as is Martin’s gradual acceptance and adoption of “the rules” in an effort to help her young achieve a secure place in the hierarchy. And, once she experiences a personal tragedy, she discovers yet another — surprising — aspect of tribal behavior.

You can read NPR’s interview with Wednesday Martin here.

I confess that Marvin Harris‘s book Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches got me hooked on anthropology for the common reader many decades ago. It was the controversial Harris who introduced me to the Yanomamo (thought to be the world’s most violent culture) and to Kwakiutl potlatch ceremonies (which can be compared to our own irrational expenditures on funerals and weddings.) The questions “Why do people wear clothes?” and “Why do people wear the clothes they choose to wear?” are essential to costume designers, so Primates of Park Avenue is well worth reading.

Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir is a highly enjoyable contribution to the psychology of fashion and to the anthropology of  our own bizarre culture.

Note: I thought illustrations of wealth and leisure from 1936 — a time of high unemployment — would be appropriate for a book about wealthy New Yorkers today.



Filed under A Costumers' Bookshelf, Maternity clothes, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture

6 responses to “Fashion Anthropology: Primates of Park Avenue

  1. Having lived among and mingled with members of this “tribe” I can attest to the accuracy of the book. Margaret mead herself would have been impressed with Martins undertaking.

  2. And now I know how some women wear those torture shoes!

  3. Christina

    Interested to read the book. I am always curious about social mobility. The Birkin bag is a good example of status dressing crossing social classes. Money buys you a Birkin bag. You don’t have to know it is a very tasteful well designed bag. I like the Birkin bag design for a number of reasons. Could never afford one but if I did where would that put me in the social and fashion hierarchy? Would I be perceived as an Upper East Side woman?

    • The book tells about many other signs that are part of the Upper East Side look — like daily, exhausting workouts. The Birkin bag phenomenon is international — and part of the status is that there is a waiting list to buy them — it takes connections, as well as money to burn….

  4. I want to say it is sweet that your husband and you like to read at the table together… my partner and I do the same ^.^ And yes, I immediately thought, 1936 fashion… that was the financial elite minority in the country at the time. Many women had to make due with one or two plain dresses, but even still they seemed to maintain an air of dignity and grace. Later 20th and 21st century clothes seem to lack that.

  5. Pingback: Fashion Anthropology: Primates of Park Avenue | Nerds In Luxury

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