Today, thoughts on streamlining and fashion -- high
culture and pop culture. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Years ago I poked fun at
streamlined, tail-finned American cars from the
'50s. A local writer called to object: Maybe those
cars looked funny, he said, but they were some of
the finest automobiles ever built. Our conversation
has gone on ever since.
Later, he introduced me to work by the
controversial author Camille Paglia. Last night,
both streamlining and Paglia suddenly resurfaced.
First, a librarian lent me a new book,
Streamlined: The Esthetics of Minimized
Drag. Then, as I thumbed the book, I glanced
up and saw Paglia talking on the TV.
First, the book: it reminds us that the aim of
streamlining is to reduce turbulent drag in the
flow of air or water around a body. Good
streamlining makes it easier to propel a vehicle.
But what looks like streamlining doesn't always
mean less drag. The streamlining fad did more to
catch our imaginations than it did to speed travel.
Engineers often forgot that wind tunnel tests don't
apply to a vehicle moving along a stationary road.
And, for supersonic jets, streamlining rules change
utterly. Streamlining is complicated. It's all too
easy to confuse its purpose with styles that only
hint at that purpose.
Same point in Paglia's talk: Someone asked, "Don't
fashion magazines promote a kind of woman invented
by men?" Her answer: Sure, the shifting ideals of
high fashion have little to do with real women or
real clothing. But fashion isn't what drives women
to anorexia and bulimia. What fashion really does
is offer strong visual images to people who
wouldn't normally savor pop culture. It offers an
excuse for grooving on visual excess.
So, in both cases, function is replaced by an odd
energizing force. We see that at work in the TV
series Star Trek. The old series gave
us the miniskirted, big-hair fashion of the '60s.
The starship Enterprise also had the
tailfins of a '50s Cadillac. The show was a perfect
mirror for 1960s pop culture.
Clothes in the new Star Trek series
are as eclectic as today's fashions. Now we also
understand that, where there's no air, there need
be no streamlining. Starship architecture begins to
mirror the static avant-garde buildings on Earth's
But what's constant -- in both the dress and the
form of the space vehicles -- is energy! You and I
have fed off Star Trek's raw energy
since we were young. Whatever you think of Paglia,
fashion, or streamlining, they all remind us that
high culture flows from pop culture. Pop culture
has always been the well where we draw our energy.
It's hardly the place to look for useful clothing
or efficient travel. What it really is -- is the
place we go to recharge our batteries.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Streamlined: A Metaphor for Progress (The
Esthetics of Minimized Drag) (Claude
Lichtenstein and Franz Engler, eds.). Baden,
Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, no date given.
Paglia, C., Sexual Personae: Art and
Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Howell, J.W. and Howell, J.S., Cadillac
Eldorado. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Library, for suggesting the
Streamlined book and to Bill and
Jeanna Howell for their thoughts on Paglia,
streamlining, and 1950s American automobiles. See
also Episode 96 on
From an expensive Cadillac mailout
brochure, with permission of Bill Howell
The 1959 Cadillac Eldarado Seville
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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