Damsels in Design Presents
“Fashionability and Automobility: The Women of General Motors Styling Section, 1950s”
a lecture by Wendi Parson
February 16, 6:30-8:00
6 East 16th Street, Room 908
Of all the useful and beautiful products designed by Stylists the best known and most appreciated is the American automobile, which ranks second only to women’s fashions in the attention given to changing and improving appearance.
— Harley Earl, GM Styling Chief, 1956
When the Fortune 500 made its debut in 1955, General Motors Corporation topped the list. The automobile manufacturer with annual sales of 5 million units commanded a fifty percent share of the U.S. market and enjoyed an expanding global footprint. The following year, the ceremonial opening of the General Motors Technical Center, a sprawling pastoral campus set in suburban Detroit, garnered national attention. Dubbed the “Versailles of Industry” by Life magazine, the Eero Saarinen-designed GM Technical Center represented the pinnacle of International Style architecture and imparted an aura of magnificence worthy of the world’s largest automaker.
Recognizing that women influenced 7 of 10 automobile purchases, by the mid-1950s GM’s Styling Section employed nine women designers – the majority of whom trained as industrial designers or fine artists. Through their role in national publicity campaigns, these pioneering women, collectively known as the “Damsels of Design,” forged a vital link between the automaker and consumers by invoking fashion and beauty and effectively extending the glamour of the company and its products far beyond the GM Technical Center gates. Particularly in the face of market saturation and economic recession late in the decade, the women of GM Styling Section were well poised to fuel the desire of the car-buying public.
Wendi Parson holds a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., and is pursuing a master’s degree in the History of Decorative Arts and Design, a program offered jointly by the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. A communications professional, she has lent her expertise to leading organizations in the automotive and design/innovation sectors, including: General Motors Corporation, Detroit, Mich.; Ford Motor Company, Dearborn, Mich., Smart Design, an award-winning design consultancy based in New York City; and Taxi 07, a project of the Design Trust for Public Space, a not-for-profit dedicated to improving public space in New York City. During her tenure at General Motors, Parson served as the communications lead for GM Design, based at the General Motors Technical Center.