I found this advertisement for men’s shirts from 1952. The premise of the advertisement is that four out of five men want these new shirts, but the fifth man, who does not want it, is dressed in what seems to a tribal outfit. This ad portrays the white man as being ‘civilized’ while the black man is primitive, unappreciative of luxury. The advertisement is appealing to the racism of white men by conveying the idea that, in order to distance themselves from the crudeness of non-white aesthetics, they must buy Van Heusen. This reminded me of the way that West Side Story normalizes whiteness, and in the process, relegates non-whites to outsiders who are not invited into the ‘civilized’ world (ironically for WSS) of the whites.

Assigned musical: WSS

Source: Unknown

2 Replies to “WSS and Racism”

  1. This ad is honestly, terrifically horrific, or should I say “terror”ifically horrific. Now to break it down step by step.

    Visually, the ad presents four homogeneous white men and one tribal Black man. Each of the white men are described as being well dressed and well mannered, who desire the Van Heusen Oxfords, while the Black man is portrayed as an uncivilized tribesman. This is true even down to the facial expressions of each of the individuals, with happier, smoother drawings on the white men, while the Black man has viciously drawn eyes. There is even a subtle body positioning difference between the slightly off-center Black man and the straight dead one white men – potentially drawing a parallel image of how this ad views culturally different groups as being “off-center,” “turned away” from the civilized straightforward man.

    This ad not only culturally appropriates, it also slashes the culture down by framing it as being undignified and uncivilized. It perfectly, in a very tragic to think about way, presents the 1950s American culture of predisposed notions and bias that only white men are civilized. Furthermore, it presents this homogeneous way of looking at being cultured and dignified: one must dress the same, look the same, act the same, even hold their body in the same way. I think it takes this conversation a step further as well, not only about race, but also seemingly unknowingly into the realm of gender and identity.

    Both of these ideas are tackled in West Side Story, and the contrast between this ad and West Side Story actually demonstrates a really telling social aspect. In West Side Story the only difference, in appearance, between the Sharks and the Jets is their physical skin color. Even though they dress and act, like similar youth, the Sharks are still discriminated against – even in the “oxford Van Heusen” clothes, they are still, in this horrific society, seen as lesser. On the aspect of gender identity, look at the character of Anybody, who dressed like the boys, wants to be like the boys, and still they don’t accept her/him/them (I’m not sure of Anybody’s gender identity, so I am using a variety of pronouns). She/he/they walk, talk, look, act, the same, but because she/he/they is not a traditional white male she/he/they is shunned throughout most of the musical.

    I would be curious to delve deeper into how Van Heusen ads have evolved since this one, especially since they are still a decently popular company today.

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