Let’s talk about the biggest and most famous hair product of interwar Britain: Amami shampoo. It was scarcely possible to read tabloid newspapers for any length of time and not see one of the ubiquitous adverts for this brand, with the strapline ‘Friday Night is Amami Night’ used consistently across the interwar period. The brand targeted young women and encouraged them to cultivate a habit of washing their hair with Amami shampoo on Fridays. By encouraging its users to all use the product on the same day of the week, Amami attempted to build a communal experience for women in the interwar period.
In addition to this persistent print campaign, Amami also released an advertising film in 1936, which is available to watch on the BFI Player for anyone based in the UK. Advertising films such as this one would be shown in cinemas, which tended to screen programmes of around three hours in length that contained a mixture of feature films, news reels, cartoons, and perhaps an ‘interest’ film.
The short film, entitled Crowning Glory, is directed by Andrew Buchanan, a Putney native who directed a small number of non-fiction shorts in the 1930s and 1940s. Crowning Glory is his first known directing credit, but it is none the less ambitious for that. The film stands out for its rather laboured commercial messaging, but also for its unusual formal choices. It also highlights who the ideal Amami customer was; and demonstrates the values with which Amami intended to align itself.
The first tongue-in-cheek device the film employs is in the opening credits; after listing the various actors against their character names, the final entry on the list is ‘The Audience – Yourselves’. This is followed by a shot of a film director walking onto a film set, and looking into the camera to directly address the audience. He invites the viewer to ‘join [him] in the interesting experiment of making’ a film. Immediately the film sets up the pretence of a live interaction between audience and character, in a manner still regularly used by children’s TV programming, today. This device serves to enhance the audience’s emotional investment in what is shown, making them feel complicit even though they do not truly have any agency over it.
The director’s journey to make a film is the framing device for the whole short. He states that the subject is ‘one dear to every woman’s heart: her hair’, thus reaffirming Amami’s central brand message that its shampoo should be used by all women, as all women cared about their hair. However, the film’s subsequent visualisation of ‘every woman’ is, unsurprisingly, rather limited.
The film proceeds to show the audience British women in different environments. In the first section of the film, the director finds a woman going for a walk in the countryside (‘a girl who symbolises the British love of the open air to perfection’); a young woman working in a London office (she ‘symbolises the feminine touch in commerce’); a society girl (‘equally important’ to the working woman); and a young woman swimming in a swimming pool (‘the girl who most truly represents sport’). Throughout these scenes the director comments about the women’s excellent hair, and is reassured that no matter what activity, Amami Shampoo and Wave sets can ensure women’s hair stays in tip-top shape.
In the scenes concerning the first, second and fourth woman, the director is physically present in their environment with his hand-held camera, and we can hear his voice in voice-over as if originating behind the camera. This format wavers slightly when we are introduced to the society girl, as she is getting ready for a party in her boudoir. Although the voice-over makes it clear the director is observing her, he is not physically shown to be in the same room as her, giving the scene a more voyeuristic feel. Crowning Glory then changes track and shows the party this society girl is attending as a more straight-forward fiction film sequence. The voice-over disappears and partygoers talk amongst themselves. The film director, however, is also present at the party and spends a few minutes making gags about the party’s other attendees.
Although the film sets these four examples up as representing a wide range of women, they are of course in truth a very narrow representation of femininity. All four women are young, slender, white, apparently unmarried and childless, and middle-class as a minimum. The cinema audiences to which this film was shown was potentially much more diverse. The assertion at the start of the film that ‘every woman’ cares about her hair, combined with the clear visual messaging that only women of a specific type represent ‘the British woman’, likely lead to some female viewers of this advert feeling excluded from the film’s message.
After showing the swimming woman, the film breaks the fourth wall even more decisively. The director is shown in close-up, addressing the camera directly. He tells the viewer: ‘You are going to provide the climax to this picture’; the shot changes to a circular frame to signify the view through a camera lens. Inside the circle, a cinema audience is visible. A woman gets up from her seat and starts walking up the aisle, closer and closer to the camera until she ‘smashes’ it, which is signified by a cartoon scene transition.
In the subsequent shot we see the woman, later identified as Betty, arrive home and talk to a female friend. The very first shot of this sequence is framed as if it is on a theatre stage, adding a further layer of complexity to the advert’s interlocking layers of fiction. Betty’s friend berates Betty for not looking after her hair properly, and decides that a wash with Amami shampoo is in order to lift both Betty’s hair and spirits. The friend stresses that the shampoo should be used ‘every Friday night’ in keeping with the Amami brand.
Looking after your hair is explicitly stated to be as the key to keep a man’s interest and affections. The shampoo is followed by a wave set treatment which is so successful, Betty barely recognises herself. Her ever-attentive friend reminds her to use the wave set every night, and the shampoo every Friday night. The film concludes with Betty not only successfully winning the affections of Dick, her suitor, but also with her friend’s suitor commenting on how well Betty is looking. The closing shot, naturally, has the shampoo’s slogan emblazoned across the screen.
Amami was producing its setting lotion until 2010 but in its later years it was mainly used by women with a particular interest in vintage hair styling. During the interwar period, however, it was one of the most well-known hair products in Britain. Whilst its advertising film was formally innovative, its messaging was predictably narrow and patriarchal. Crowning Glory is a good example of a popular text that demonstrates pervasive cultural ideas in interwar Britain.
Watch Crowning Glory on BFI Player (UK only).
 JH Hutchison, The Complete Kinemanager, (London: Kinematograph Publications, 1937), p. 49