Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Exhibition of Women's Fashions: The madness of a Wasp Waist

We women like to blame men for some of the foolish fashions we espouse, saying it’s what men like.  But the truth is that men can be conditioned into ‘liking’ a certain style of fashion and then began to expect their women to follow it.   Once a woman is seized by the idea that a certain look is attractive, she will go to any lengths to adopt it, even if it is harmful, punishing her body to conform with the fashionable look. Thankfully, fashions flow back and forth like the tides of the sea while some particularly obnoxious ones are washed away forever.

Amongst obnoxious fashions was the binding of feet by upper class ladies of Old China. 
tiny pointed shoes for bound feet
Young girls had their toes broken and bound from an early age so that they would have tiny little stumps to hobble on for the rest of their lives.  This was deemed feminine and attractive.   Apparently it made women walk in a certain way, much as very high heels do nowadays, which had an erotic effect on the men.  Such dainty, feminine, shoes no more than three or five inches at the most!  Can you imagine walking on such feet?  Imposed imprisonment and madness, typical exploitation of the female body we might say these days. . . . yet this fashion was apparently started by a tenth century court dancer, Yao Niang.  The men liked it, of course, as it kept women weak and in their place but they were not entirely to blame.  It was the
Bound feet
mothers who kept this up because it was not considered feminine to work in the fields and no self respecting upper class girl wanted to look like a servant or a farm woman with huge boats for feet.

Another horrible fashion or custom is genital mutilation (and there's a case for male circumcision too but that's another issue) Again it is the mothers who perform this ceremony on their daughters, a custom intended to reduce the dread threat of female sexual desire and promiscuity, keeping the girls virginal and pure.   All it does is make coitus and childbirth very painful, creating a lifelong trauma in the women and ghastly health problerms.   As for the mothers, well, it’s what they had endured, it was the ancient custom, it was what ‘men liked’ and deemed to be right – so why should their daughters escape what they had suffered?  Plus who would marry a girl with normal feet or genitals?   By now, their men wanted and expected such abnormalities.

It seems a woman's lot will always be connected with her body image and the pain of trying to conform to some current fashion.  Nowadays it’s all about dieting and keeping fit in a gym so that women should look toned and healthy which is certainly better than some of the weird practices of various native cultures and the ridiculous, distorting fashions of so called civilised societies. We’re into muscles now, not the soft, plump feminine flesh loved by men of yore.   It's as if women want to look more like pretty young boys.  And the usual desire to play about with the body is evident in the craze for breast implants, liposuction, botox, hair colourings in astonishing dreamy shades and all the other aids to youth and beauty – even though these are often proved to have harmful side effects.  The recent fashion is for youth and nowadays men also enter with enthusiasm into these fashionable ideals.  We cannot bear to age, we want to be eternally young, mobile and energetic, always busy, always rushing around in a frenzy of activity.  Age and its limitations, its calmer pace, its philosophical time for contemplation no longer has dignity but is viewed with horror.  The psychologist, Carl Jung would have called this a ‘puer/puella’ mentality.  The puer is the Greek name for the Eternal Youth, the Peter Pan syndrome in other words.  We are all, men and women, becoming Peter Pans.

All fashions that involve, mutilation, piercing, tattooing are ways of enhancing, elaborating or mortifying the flesh.  The popularity of thin stiletto heels  and the cramped pointed toes of the 1960's often created deformed feet and bunions in women (apart from ruining parquet floors and linoleums)   And we still want to wear enormously high heels despite the fact that the woman is constantly walking on tip toe and they can throw our pelvis or back out and are so uncomfortable when worn for too long a period.  They are considered erotic and make legs look longer and more shapely . . .  and so we wear them. 

Intriguingly, fashions also move around the body parts, the so called 'erogenous zones.'  The prudish Victorians showed considerable areas of flesh round shoulders and bust when young and single or when dressing up for theatre, opera and evening activities.  But showing an ankle or petticoat was most inflammatory it seems.  Hats also seem to have had an interesting significance through time and the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a trend setter of her day, introduced hats that almost swept the ceiling with their enormous plumes and piles of false hair.  They were often threatened by the candles in the chandeliers.  And the wide skirts of the 18th and 19th century were equally dangerous if a lady got too near to a fire or oil lamp.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

The advent of the corset is perhaps one of the oddest of all fashion items used to alter a woman’s figure.  Men have also used a corset, of course, and still do so (one of my Greek uncles used to wear one in his forties when his belly began to expand with too much moussaka).  Nowadays a strong corset may be used medically to help those with back problems, or in order to fit comfortably into certain clothes, or for erotic purposes and fetish wear but they are not as dangerous as some of the corsetry worn in other periods. The fashion went to its greatest extreme in the Victorian age when wasp waists became the rage.

Corsetry has been used for centuries, even practised by primitive tribes. Before this period,  corsetry was used by the Tudors but these corsets, which were fortified by 'buckram', a canvas material stiffened with glue, were intended to flatten the bust and not make impossible tiny waists.  In fact they were considered to be quite comfortable and supportive of all the heavy skirts and clothing of the period.  There is also mention of whalebone for stiffening in the lists of Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe.   In the usual shifting of erogenous zones, this was a time of flat busts.  Even nowadays, the flatter bust of clothes models is preferred to the big and busty look which is always associated with more erotic clothing and activities.  Though we all know that men generally prefer the latter shape!

However, like the process of footbinding and genital interference,  corsets were introduced early in a girl's childhood.  She was put into tiny little corsets to train her body into shape.  In the mid to late 19the century the fashion amongst young women took over to pull the waists in tighter and tighter until an incredible tiny waist was achieved making the body a very strange, wasp like shape.   They were very proud of having a waist that a man could span with his hands.  These began to be made less restrictive as doctors and wiser people began to realise just how some of the wasp waists were affecting a woman's health, squeezing her insides into a narrow and unnatural space.  It certainly must be one of the reasons heroines in books and in real life too were always fainting all over the place!  Interestingly there are also adverts for young boys using corsets at the time. But we don't hear of them lacing up and making wasp waists.  It isn't a dead fashion either.  There are still exponents of the wasp waist, both male and female in this day and age.

DonnaFugata, Sicily exhibition

The look in the Edwardian era shifted again and the oddest shape, the 'S' bend now emerged , where the bust was thrust forward and bottom thrust back.  Tiny waists as well.  Again, it affected a women's walk and posture.   Oh, oh, oh...the madness of wasp waists!

At a recent exhibition at the Villa Donnafugata in Sicily there were several examples of corsetry for children and ladies.   It has to be said these corsets look attractive and sexy.  The clothes of the time so beautiful.  But also uncomfortable and fussy and formal.  All the same, I'd rather like to sweep around in some of these dresses I found in an old fashion magazine!

child corsets
a child corset and two varied adult shapes.

Interesting sites:

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.