Transit Tuesday: Transit Chic

Public transportation in the early 20th century captured our imagination. It was modern, new, a technological advance not just for those with money, but for the people. The most iconic and compelling images place us against our machinery. The dress of women provides often the greatest contrast of “man” versus machine. Below are a few images/depictions of us and our transit systems that caught my fancy this morning.

This New York City image captures mostly a male commuting population in their summertime straw boaters (but interestingly, dark suits). A summertime ride on an open streetcar was probably one of the few refreshing moments during an urban summer. The men sit within the hard, regimented structure of the streetcar, advertising pasted on the structural elements above their heads. Then, a woman in sparkling white bends against the constraints of her corset to climb over the running board, her hat draped in a luscious shock of white feather. She is sinuous in form against the machinery, a highlight against the dark, male interior.

Woman boarding an NYC open streetcar. Photo credit: unknown. (please let me know if you have a credit for this image, besides poster websites)


A fashionable but sensibly dressed lady beckons to the viewer to accept her suggestion that the London Underground is “The Way for All.” It is not solely for the laborer or store clerk, but that the more fashionable could benefit in getting from point A to point B by joining their S-bended silhouettes to join the masses depicted in the background. Her S-bend corseted shape is further used to bend her further into the image, and give her a sense of forward motion.

London Transport Museum. 1983/4/124. Published by Underground Electric Railway Company Ltd, 1911.

Compare this with the despair and grit of the age of transit’s demise in the 1970s and 1980s, captured as only photography of the NYC Subway can. Yet Bruce Davidson, whose work in the 1980s NYC Subway is captured in the book Subway tried to rehumanize the transit system during a time when urban personal interactions had broken down. These two women are ready for a night on the town. Habitual subway riders create their own privacy among all the others we are thrown together with by chance on the train. These two women stand within momentary quiet for the few seconds before the graffiti covered train approaches and the disinterested vigilence of train riding begins. Their youth and beauty are out of sync with their environment, once new but now decayed and dangerous.

Most of us who live here never wear white on the subway.

Bruce Davidson.


About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.