They say the past is another country, and they’re not wrong. In the long-ago American past of the 1950s, male friendships were abundant, rainbows were everywhere, and nothing was more exciting than the gift of a new set of pajamas.
Were the people making these ads aware of just how campy they were? There’s no way of knowing.
At least, that’s what certain vintage ads for the 50s menswear brand Textron would have us believe. Often illustrated by cartoonist Fred—or Fritz—Siebel, these visions of Americana give us a strangely familiar taste of a fantastical homoerotic world, where grown men hang out together just being bros, and nothing, absolutely nothing untoward could possibly be happening behind the scenes.
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As podcaster Drew Mackie points out, it’s hard to understand the original context for an ad like this, unless the original concept was 100% gay. Which it may well have been! While we don’t know much about Siebel’s sexuality, we do know that he seemed to enjoy creating wholesome homoerotic scenes of American life.
Just guys being guys.
But there’s more to the Fred Siebel story. In addition to creating accidentally homoerotic art, Siebel was the man who created the first designs for Mr. Clean. That’s correct, Mr. Clean himself—butch, bald, and sporting one earring “for extra panache”, was also a Siebel creation.
Basically, whatever Siebel’s sexuality was, clearly we owe him a lot. Not only did he give us delightful scenes of men in pajamas, he gave us the gay icon that is Mr. Clean. Before he went into advertising, he made his name crafting unforgettable prop-art during WWII. He’d moved from his native Vienna to the states in the mid-30s. When the war broke out, Siebel lost most of his family who stayed behind in Europe.
After working in advertising, Siebel turned his talents toward children’s illustration, notably the 1959 hit “A Fly Went By” and Peggy Parish’s charming “Amelia Bedelia” books.
We’re indebted to Siegel for so much—his fanciful scenes of gay life may have come about accidentally, but they’re meaningful just the same.
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