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Photographer: Rob Stephenson

Sarah and Tom Lee advanced America’s consumerist culture, working from a variety of high-profile platforms. Sarah conceived advertising campaigns such as Bonwit’s “The Smart Woman’s Angle.” She later became a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and editor-in-chief of House Beautiful; worked for Hockaday, a woman-led advertising agency; and served as marketing director of the trend-setting Lord & Taylor department store. Starting in the 1930s Tom designed store windows at the Bonwit Teller and Bergdorf Goodman’s department stores in fanciful, theatrical styles, drawing upon his experience as a set and costume designer for the performing arts. He created displays of consumer products and played a role in the distinctive design of the still-ubiquitous Dove soap bar.

Sarah and Tom Lee worked at a time when the nation was growing exponentially more influential abroad and affluent at home. The story of the Lees’ era was, however, more complex. Cold War American politics saw the world and foreign cultures through a narrow nationalist lens. At the same time, the nation’s newfound prosperity was not equally distributed, and people of color, largely absent from mainstream media, were excluded from many aspects of everyday life. At four points in this exhibition, a “context pairing” juxtaposes an example of the Lees’ work with an object that provides a broader frame of reference.


Consumerism context

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While white women have long been prominent both behind the scenes and before the camera in the realm of fashion journalism, women of color have been excluded or their contributions overlooked by many journalists and historians. It was not until 1974, for example, that Vogue magazine, where Sarah had worked, featured an African American model, Beverly Johnson, on its cover.  

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