TIME Pop Culture

From Kitsch to Park Avenue: The Cultural History of the Plastic Pink Flamingo

plastic-pink-flamingo
Getty Images

The flamingo has taken a rather tumultuous flight through an ever-changing landscape of taste and class

In 1957, a 21-year-old art school graduate named Don Featherstone created his second major design for the Massachusetts-based lawn and garden decoration manufacturer Union Products: a three-dimensional plastic pink flamingo propped up by two thin, metal legs that could be plunged into soft dirt.

Featherstone’s duck and flamingo ornaments sold in pairs for US$2.76, and were advertised as “Plastics for the Lawn.” They became simultaneously popular and derided in the late 1950s and remain a recognizable species of American material culture.

Featherstone died this past June, but over five decades after he submitted his design, the plastic pink flamingo continues to grace American lawns and homes. While many are quick to label the plastic ornament as the epitome of kitsch, the flamingo has actually taken a rather tumultuous flight through an ever-changing landscape of taste and class.

A product of its time

All three of the ornament’s basic elements – plastic material, pink color and the flamingo design – have a particular relevance to the late 1950s.

The year 1957 was the year of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock and the ‘57 Chevy, of popular plastic toys like Wham-O’s hula hoop and the Frisbee – all icons of midcentury nostalgia. The late 1950s also witnessed the solidification of a commodity-driven suburban way of life, along with a host of new anxieties over class and status.

In the postwar era, cheap, sturdy and versatile plastics were becoming an increasingly popular material for mass-produced commercial products, from Tupperware to Model 500 rotary phones.

Design historian Jeffrey Meikle discusses how this era was referred to as “a new Rococo marked by extravagance, excess, and vulgarity.” Many design and cultural critics pilloried plastic for its ability to easily depart from established design principles, though consumers and manufacturers kept the craze going.

The fad was clearly waning by the 1960s. In a famous scene from The Graduate, actor Dustin Hoffman expresses disillusionment in the “great future in plastics.”

And then there’s the color pink. Art historian Karal Ann Marling explains that in the 1950s, pink was perceived as “young, daring – and omnisexual.” She points out that popular celebrities like Mamie Eisenhower, Jayne Mansfield and Elvis Presley loved to incorporate pink in their wardrobes, their bedroom decor and – in the case of Elvis – their cars.

Featherstone’s design wasn’t the first time flamingos swooped into American culture, either. In fact, Americans had long cherished the exotic bird, native to the Caribbean and parts of South America, and this love affair came to a head in 1957 with an explosion in popularity of Caribbean culture.

Caribbean-American pop star Harry Belafonte’s album Calypso, which contained the hit single Banana Boat Song (Day-O), dominated the Billboard charts in 1956. And as a 1957 LIFE Magazine cover story attests, Americans were flocking to Caribbean resorts in record numbers.

Jennifer Price wrote the most comprehensive essay on the plastic pink flamingo in her book Flight Maps. She details how 19th-century European and American settlers hunted flamingos to extinction in Florida.

But as the state drew wealthy vacationers in the 1910s and 1920s, resort owners imported the pink birds to populate their grounds. They even named Miami Beach’s first luxury hotel “The Flamingo.” Soon, Florida and these exotic-looking birds became synonymous with wealth and leisure.

As the century progressed, the development of interstate highways and a rise in disposable income made Florida a practical destination for middle-class and working-class families. Vacation spots made accessible by the Interstate Highway System cashed in on the style and flair of the Caribbean fad. The flamingo was now associated with a region that was both exotic and affordable.

Out in the wild

Despite the plastic pink flamingo’s resonance with so many things 1957, the ornament was almost instantly ridiculed as kitsch, which was a particularly damning designation given its habitat: the American lawn.

As one of the few outward social spaces in the privacy-obsessed architecture of suburbia, lawns were (and still are) subject to extreme social pressure. They were perceived as both a symbol of the American dream and a productive way to spend one’s newfound leisure time.

However, “Keeping up with the Joneses” was less about outspending your neighbor than it was about conformity and maintaining appearances. The preferred look of middle class lawns was well-manicured and free of ornament, with flowers abutting the house.

To homeowners’ associations, the plastic pink flamingo’s bright color and synthetic material was an affront to the middle-class yearning for sophistication (though a piece of pink plastic is no less “natural” than a lawn maintained by DDT and Miracle-Gro).

A cultural migration

On the other hand – as Jennifer Price points out – working-class consumers tended to express themselves differently, favoring loud, playful and decorative schemes for their homes and lawn.

Flamingos sprouting from small lawns in Catholic neighborhoods seemed less out of place among concrete Virgin Mary statues and tiny St Francis fountains.

In the 1950s, publications like LIFE propagated a narrowly defined definition of middle class style and taste. So the display of the plastic pink flamingo in the 1950s and 1960s was perhaps not mere unsophisticated kitsch, but rather an overt rejection of the “middle-brow striving for the high-brow” lawn aesthetic.

While cultural critics like Gillo Dorfles have maintained that lawn decorations like garden gnomes and sculptured animals were an “archetypal image conjured up by the word ‘kitsch,’” a younger generation saw the plastic pink flamingo as a rebellion against the “stay normal” pressures of postwar suburbia.

Their camp appropriation of the plastic pink flamingos crossed the boundaries of good and bad taste, making Pink Flamingos a fitting title for John Waters’ 1972 transgressive film about two contenders for the title “filthiest person alive.”

Eventually, this transgressive power began to also wane, and the product faced possible extinction in the early 2000s due to the rising cost of oil.

Luckily the flock has survived (you can still purchase a pair for around $20 on Amazon). Today plastic pink flamingos have even been spotted gracing planters on a brownstone off Park Avenue in Manhattan, illustrating just how far the bird has migrated among American classes and tastes.

This article originally appeared on The ConversationThe Conversation

TIME White House

See Michelle Obama’s Best Outfits of 2015

Whether attending the White House Correspondents' Dinner or traveling to India, Michelle Obama always makes sure she's a First Lady in style

TIME Style

Hermès Birkin Bag Sold for Record $221k at Auction

CHINA-HONG KONG-CHRISTIE-PREVIEW (CN)
Li Peng—Xinhua/Landov Visitors view the displayed expensive bags during the preview of Christie's Hong Kong 2015 spring season in Hong Kong on May 28, 2015.

The diamond-encrusted bag went to an unknown buyer for a staggering $221,846

A Hermès Birkin with diamonds set a record in Hong Kong on Monday as the most expensive handbag sold at an auction — ever.

The bag was up for auction at Christie’s afternoon handbags and accessories sale and sold for 1.72 million Hong Kong dollars or $221,846, reports the Wall Street Journal. The Birkin was bagged by a phone bidder, whose identity is unknown.

The latest luxury sale beat out the previous record holder, which was also a Hermès Birkin bag that sold for $203,150 at a 2011 Heritage Auctions sale in New York. The WSJ points out that though a diamond and gold evening bag once owned by actress Elizabeth Taylor sold for $218,500 through Christie’s in New York in 2011, that bag was listed in the jewelry category.

Hong Kong and China has been experiencing a slump in luxury item sales as both Gucci and Chanel have been slashing prices in that market in recent months. But the record-setting sale suggests there’s still an appetite for high-end accessories — at least at the auction block. Though the Hermès Birkin that was sold on Monday went for a hefty price, it should be noted that the luxury company has other versions of the Birkin that are priced much, much higher.

 

TIME Style

What TIME Got Wrong About the Invention of Blue Jeans

"Pants don't wear worth a hoot up in the diggins"

As origin stories go, TIME’s account of how Levi Strauss came up with the idea for his trademark denim pants is hard to beat. Here’s how the magazine told it in a 1950 story on Levi Strauss & Co.’s 100th anniversary:

When 20-year-old Levi Strauss sailed from Manhattan round Cape Horn to San Francisco in 1850 to seek a fortune in the gold fields, he carried a roll of canvas in his baggage. He intended to sell it to a tentmaker to get enough cash for a grubstake. But when he got ashore, the complaint of a friendly miner gave him a better idea. “Pants don’t wear worth a hoot up in the diggins,” said the miner. “Can’t get a pair strong enough to last no time.”

Levi promptly went into the clothing business. He had a tailor cut a pair of trousers from his canvas roll, and soon the miner was strolling all over town, boasting how strong were these “pants of Levi’s.” With one satisfied customer, Strauss found he had a steady stream of men who wanted “Levis.” In a shop on San Francisco’s California Street, he began making dozens of pairs of the waist-high overalls which defied the wear & tear of bronc-riding, gold-mining and plain ordinary living.

Years later, the article continued, a miner known only as “Alkali” annoyed his tailor by regularly carrying rocks around that broke his pocket seams. The tailor got the idea to use rivets on the corners of the pockets for stabilization; those rivets were the source of the idea for Strauss’ signature rivets.

Alas, the real story doesn’t quite measure up. As the company tells it, Strauss went West to open a dry-goods store for gold miners; dry goods were the family business, established by his brothers before Levi even got to the United States. To be fair, he did sell cloth—but as a businessman, not an ingenious fortune-seeker. Furthermore, the crucial tailor tip-off about the rivets came from a customer of the San Francisco Levi Strauss & Co. store, who was looking for a business partner to back the idea. On this day, May 20, in 1873, Strauss and his partner, Jacob Davis, were given a patent for work pants strengthened with rivets—the first example of what we now know as blue jeans.

By 1950, per TIME’s count, Levi’s had made 95 million pairs. (The going rate in 1950 was $3.50 a pop.) As for Strauss, he died in 1902.

Read the full 1950 story, here in the TIME Vault: Iron Bottoms

TIME Style

See Some of History’s Most Extraordinary Jewels

Princess Mathilde's diamond isn't the only one with history

It’s no surprise that diamonds are expensive, but one lot in a sale of jewels being held on Tuesday at Sotheby’s in Geneva goes above and beyond: the “magnificent fancy vivid pink diamond ring” dubbed the Historic Pink is expected to be sold for up to 17.5 million Swiss Francs, which is nearly $19 million.

That price is due to more than just the 8.72-carat stone at the center of the ring. The diamond is believed to have belonged to Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, a niece of Napoleon Bonaparte and member of the Russian royal family who became a famous Parisian socialite. According to Sotheby’s research, the stone was sold as part of a collection from Princess Mathilde in 1904, after which it can be traced directly to the collection of its recent owner, Huguette Clark. Clark herself was pretty much as close to a princess as an American can get: the heiress and philanthropist, who died in 2011 after a reclusive old age, came from spectacular wealth and pedigree.

But the Historic Pink is far from the only gem with a rich back story. Here are some of history’s fanciest and most famous jewels.

TIME On Our Radar

Mario Testino: ‘I Believe Men Have Changed’

Renowned fashion and celebrity photographer Mario Testino’s new book, SIR, attempts to redefine masculinity.

Over a celebrated, three-decade career, Mario Testino, the godfather of fashion photography, has become renowned for capturing the faces of the world’s most notable women, from Princess Diana to international supermodels such as Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen. But a significant body of his work has long gone unnoticed—intimate and playful portraits of men depicted in unconventional societal roles.

“I have never thought of myself as just a photographer of women, or women’s fashion, and even though I am probably most known for that,” Testino tells TIME. “[A book about men] is something I have wanted to do for a long time, and over the years I have had different ideas about it, but it never felt quite ready. I guess I didn’t feel like I had fully explored the possibilities.”

Now, the images have resurfaced through SIR, Testino’s latest and largest photography book to date. The limited edition book, published by Taschen with a print run of 1,000, is signed by the photographer and features more than 300 photographs dedicated solely to the men Testino documented over the last 30 years.

Mario Testino—Mario Testino

Born and raised in Lima, Testino explored new continents far removed from his native Peru, to Rio de Janeiro, where as a teenager he became fascinated by the Brazilians’ indulgence with the perfect body, and to London where he embarked on his photographic career. During this journey, the prolific photographer not only witnessed the evolution of men’s style and self-perception, but his boundary-pushing approach to portraiture actually contributed to the transformation: Josh Hartnett in smudged red lipstick and fake eyelashes; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards locked in a brotherly hug in a Los Angeles hotel room; David Beckham snapped kissed by Orlando Bloom at a party in Milan.

“I believe men have changed,” Testino says. “I feel that men are more open to ideas and possibilities in many things including what they wear and how they look. Men have had these ideas put upon them about how to be that are generations old, but I think today they are more open to live their lives in a way that is right for them and not to follow a principle which is outmoded.”

Michelle Molloy, who edited this gallery, is a senior international photo editor at TIME.

Ye Ming is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

TIME Style

See Beyonce Prove She’s the Queen of Sheer at the 2015 Met Gala

Other celebrities may try, but no one does the red carpet like Beyonce

Beyonce proved once again that she knows how to both make an entrance and capture the headlines.

While her appearance at last year’s Costume Institute Gala at the Met was dominated by Elevator-gate , the superstar has this year ensured that everyone is talking about her on her own terms. Showing up late to the annual event, Beyonce walked the red carpet in a shockingly sheer Givenchy gown that all but guaranteed every eye would be on her.

Read next: Solange Knowles Dazzles in Unique Giles Dress at Met Gala 2015

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Style

When Elvis Got Drafted, So Did His Hair

Take It All Off
Hulton Archive / Getty Images Elvis Presley receiving a haircut from a US Army barber at Fort Chaffee, Ark., in 1958

At ease, sideburns

When Elvis Presley reported to be inducted into the Army on this day, March 24, in 1958, his legions of fans weren’t exactly taken by surprise. It had been early 1957 when TIME reported that he was likely to go:

Tooling up to a Memphis induction center in his li’l ol’ unpretentious cream-colored Cadillac, Dreamboat Groaner Elvis Presley, a hulking 21, went bravely inside, peeled off his inconspicuous scarlet and black jacket and other trappings, permitted medicos to examine him. The doctors’ verdict: a fine broth of a lad, pelvis and all, eligible for drafting—probably to serve in some special services division, tote some such gone weapon as a guitar. Before rolling off in his Caddie, Elvis allowed that the intelligence test he had taken was a breeze. Groaned the bobby-soxers’ golden calf: “Di’nt seem hard a’tall. Ah’m sure Ah passed!” (He did.)

But the big question wasn’t whether he would pass the test. The big question was what the Army would do about his hair.

About a month after Presley was declared draft-eligible, lawmakers like New Jersey Senator Clifford Case were investigating, on their constituents’ behalves, whether the singer could get an exemption to buzz-cut regulations that would allow him to keep his sideburns and pompadour. Though the Army did not make an official statement on the matter, officials did declare that he would not receive any special treatment.

The singer was originally ordered to report for a draft-board physical on Jan. 20, 1958, but he ended up getting a “hardship deferment” in order to finish making a movie. (The hardship was the studio’s, which had already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the picture, not his own.) He finally reported to the Army in March — but, by then, the hair question had already been at least partially resolved.

As TIME reported late that February, he “jumped the clippers by getting a ‘normal’ haircut that shortened his sideburns a good inch, left him still looking much too dreamy for the Army.”

And that was that. When Sergeant Presley’s two years of service ended, he announced that, though he would return to rock ‘n’ roll, his sideburns were gone for good.

TIME Apple

Apple Is Turning Itself into a Fashion Company

New Product Announcements At The Apple Inc. Spring Forward Event
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, speaks during the Apple Inc. Spring Forward event in San Francisco, Calif. on March 9, 2015.

That's the real meaning of "more personal" technology

So much of Apple’s “Spring Forward” event last week has been analyzed to death, but I’d like to focus for a moment on the outfit that CEO Tim Cook wore. Yes, I know, such trivial considerations like executive fashion are inane when discussing a company like Apple–or at least they used to be–but bear with me.

The costumes CEOs wear during keynote events have become a part of the marketing message, especially when they involve multibillionaires slumming in something you could buy for $100 at Ross. For years, Steve Jobs wore rumpled, fading 501s, New Balance sneakers and the now-iconic black mock turtleneck. Early on in his keynotes, Tim Cook wore an untucked button-down shirt over nondescript jeans. (Fashion writers sniped that he had “no fashion.”)

That changed this week. Cook announced the sale of the Apple Watch not only with his shirt tucked in, but enveloped by a dark zip cardigan. The jeans looked to be upgraded to selvage denim. The message–coming during a week when Apple’s stock entered the blue-chip Dow Industrials and the company itself started pushing $17,000 gold watches–was clear, if fitting: Fashion now matters at Apple. I’m talking about, of course, much more than Tim Cook’s jeans.

None of this is much of a surprise. In fact, it’s been a long time coming. After Steve Jobs died, Cook’s Apple began caving to shareholder demands to offer dividends and split its stock–moves that Jobs vocally opposed during his tenure. And under Jobs, Apple products were high-end devices to give consumers the highest-quality personal computers available, not to become luxury fashions.

But if the change has been gradual and low key, Apple under Tim Cook is beginning to make some radical breaks with the Apple according to Jobs. For decades, Apple fanboys fought against the Microsoft hegemony of the PC industry and for the purity of Apple’s vision for personal computing. To be an Apple fanboy in 2015, however, is to be a fan of The Man. The ultimate corporate outsider is, under Cook, becoming the consummate insider.

There is of course much that remains unchanged under Cook. The corporate culture is largely intact despite a sixfold increase in headcount. Design is as paramount a factor as ever in both hardware and software. (Perhaps even more so than before as some of Jobs’ whimsy has been thankfully abandoned.) Above all, the user remains the focus of all products, which are never released until fully baked. Cook called the Watch “the most personal device we’ve ever created”—and that’s all Apple has really done: make personal computing as personal as possible.

And yet it’s hard to ignore the subtle but significant ways Apple is changing. The old Apple disdained the idea of giving billions of dollars to investors when it could be stockpiled for innovation. The Dow was closer to a cabal of incumbents to be disrupted and not a place for rebel companies. And the idea of splitting Apple’s shares to fit into an anachronistic, price-weighted stock index conceived in the 19th Century would have seemed silly.

These changes at Apple are understandable. With $178 billion in cash (mostly overseas), Apple would be facing intense shareholder pressure not to distribute some of that largesse. But the old Apple took a cavalier attitude about investors. They weren’t just sitting in the back seat, they were put in the back-back seat of a station wagon, and should consider themselves lucky to be along for the ride. Growth was the goal Apple strove for. Dividends were paid by sissies.

The sale of expensive gold Apple Watches is also logical. There is no killer app, or even a killer function, for the smartwatch yet. But there won’t be until a lot of people start using them regularly. But they won’t wear one until there’s a killer app, and so on. To break this catch-22, Apple is pitching the watch as a luxury fashion item. Wear it because it makes you look good–because it’s fashion–and then Apple can tweak the technology inside once it figures out what features are most popular.

So the fashion factor of the Watch is enmeshed with the same goal Apple has for every product: a more personal technology. But even the idea that fashion is a goal that Apple should be pursuing at all marks a departure. iPods were once a cool, coveted gadget, and that image was played up in memorable TV ads. But in the end fashion was simply a byproduct of the design Apple used to make the iPod more personal.

Later, when Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he would have laughed at the idea it was a fashion accessory. Its purpose was to let you carry the Web itself around in your pocket. The sleek design on the outside told you about all the smart design inside.

With the smartwatch, Apple–along with everyone else – is still working on how to make what’s inside as compelling and intuitive as the iPhone. And so to many, its primary allure is as a status symbol. That notion strikes a lot of longtime Apple users as kind of odd, with many people joking that the $17,000 gold Watch has displaced Google Glass as the new gold standard for douchebags.

Cook and Apple will be able to brush off such jokes. The more expensive watches are not immediately visible on Apple’s site, and retail shoppers need to seek them out. It’s the same with the other changes Cook is making. They aren’t immediately visible, but they add up to a new Apple that’s very different from the company that Steve Jobs built.

Apple still thinks like a startup but, in many ways, it’s acting more and more like a blue-chip giant. It still clings to counterculture ideals and yet it’s become the company that, more than any other, defines cultural norms. A big, interesting question facing Tim Cook’s Apple is, how long can it continue to straddle such contradictions?

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