Giving Calypso the Slip
Posted by Michael Eldridge on September 15, 2013
Earlier this year I was gathering materials for a post about “Calypso Couture”: calypso-themed summerwear and vacation togs—sundresses, bermuda shorts, and the like—that North American department stores and clothing manufacturers were hawking in the mid-1950s. Now that Labor Day has come and gone, I’ll have to pack those items away (with my white shoes) and haul them out again next Easter.
There is one item I’ll put on display right now, though, and I’ll let the Duke of Iron introduce it:
“The History of Seamprufe” might look to be one of the odder items in the Duke’s long discography. Still, by the mid-1950s (when the record appeared), calypsonians had been composing commercial jingles for decades. Even a usually high-minded figure like Atilla the Hun could offer an earnest paean to Eduardo Sa Gomes’ radio and record emporiums, and in the late 1940s and 50s, Sir Lancelot was renowned in Hollywood for his pseudo-spontaneous ditties for Ford, Philco, and a host of other local and national concerns. (Two episodes of Dinah Shore’s “Ford Show,” one with Carmen Miranda and another with Johnny Mercer, featuring his singing ads circulate widely on the Internet.) And so the idea of the Duke—who’d lately been favoring racy tunes like “Parakeets,” “I Left Her Behind For You,” and “The Big Bamboo“—writing an encomium to a ladies’ lingerie company maybe isn’t so odd after all.
(I should pause to note that Gordon Rohlehr, Ray Funk, and Kim Johnson have all written knowledgeably about the history of calypso in advertising. And I’m long overdue in giving a shout-out to Iconoscope1850, one of several stalwarts who have brought scads of classic—and sometimes quite rare—calypso records to the web via YouTube over the past couple of years. TheRealDJGIBS is another; be sure to check his “Calypso Classics” and “Jamaican Mento” playlists. Also: generalbuttnaked1—really[!]—collects calypso and mento from all over the YouTube universe.)
What’s more remarkable is that this wasn’t the first time Seamprufe had enlisted calypso to sell underwear. The Aronson-Caplin Company trademarked the “Seamprufe” brand in 1931, letting it lapse only when the firm apparently went out of business in 1978. In its heyday in the 40s and 50s, however, Seamprufe was one of the major names in women’s intimate apparel, having moved from humble origins in New York’s garment district to offices first on lower Broadway, catty-corner from the present-day Zuccotti Park, then on Madison Avenue, with a high-profile showroom on Fifth Avenue.
A late 1956 campaign in Mademoiselle showed no inkling of the nascent Calypso Craze, adopting a vaguely Iberian theme instead (though one suspects the guitar of the young girl in the foreground is meant to evoke rock and roll rather than, say, flamenco).
But a decade earlier, in 1947, Seamprufe was already promoting its “captivating Calypso Colors” (Caribbean Blue, White Coral, Oleander Pink), supposedly having “tak[en] color inspiration from the Indies.” There were no similarly inspired graphics, though, until 1949, by which time the “calypso” palette had expanded to eight colors (including “Trinidad tan”) and the ad copy had gotten goosed, too:
The same ad ran more than once in The New Yorker during the late winter of that year—tropical getaway season for the smart set.
Just how much calypso music was actually “in the air” in the U.S. in 1949 is subject to debate: I generally regard this period as a lull in calypso’s Stateside fortunes, the trough between the peaks of the mid-40s “Rum-and-Coca-Cola/Stone Cold Dead” phase and the full-on Craze of a decade later. Even Monogram Records wouldn’t initiate its cavalcade of calypso releases for few more years. (Things may have looked different from New York City, where calypso continued to occupy niches both uptown and downtown throughout the late 40s and early 50s.) At any rate, Seamprufe was apparently hedging its bets, as anecdotal evidence suggests that it was actually putting more resources into a somewhat different brand of exoticism. Search the web for Seamprufe in 1949 and what turns up more often than calypso is the “Shades of Scheherezade” campaign (for “Harem Colors,” including “Bagdad Blue”).
A footnote: better, perhaps, to dream of being an oriental dancing girl than to be a garment worker. Those “faithful employees” the Duke sang about—the ones cranking out all those “lovely slips”? Maybe the benevolent Messrs. Caplin really did treat them well in the “underworld of feminine fashion.” But they emphatically didn’t want the women who wore their undergarments to look for the union label, as they repeatedly discouraged postwar efforts by the ILGWU to organize workers at their plants.
I was grateful to refer the following web resources while writing this post:
- “City Seamprufe Plant Memorial to Late Founder” (Hughes County Historical Society)
- “Seamprufe” (Trademarkia.com)
- National Labor Relations Board vs. Seamprufe, Inc.
- And finally, the brilliant, time-wasting Gallery of Graphic Design