Let’s talk about Fashion. It is a subject on which I am profoundly ignorant and therefore, in the grand old American tradition, feel perfectly qualified to talk about.
At the beginning of Thoroughly Modern Milllie, we see flapper Julie Andrews rejoicing in her status as a modern woman, but bemoaning one fact: her beads refuse to hang straight.
Her hair is bobbed in the latest fashion, her new dress is daringly short, and her beads hang right down to her waist. Unfortunately, they take a couple of bends to get there. The flapper outfit was, unfortunately, designed for someone who was, well, a bit less well-endowed.
How times had changed! This was not a problem her mother would have faced. Looking at it from our own viewpoint, it seems to us as if the ideal woman went from the corseted hourglass buxomness of the Gibson girl directly to the silk-underweared boyish figure of the twenties. Didn’t women go into World War I as full-blown battleships and emerge into the Roaring Twenties as little pilot boats? Isn’t that how it happened?
I remember reading a novel of the period wherein a character, looking into her mirror, counts herself lucky that, despite having borne two children and seen them grow to adulthood, she had still kept her figure. So she had, the author acidly remarks, having been remarkably flat in both aspects her whole life. And why, pray, did we suddenly adopt fashions that really looked good only on the underdone?
The Fashion Industry, I have been told, is in business to create garments that hide or minimize our flaws and accent or bring out our strong points.
But in that case one is driven to wonder what profound social revolution is revealed in the fact that the fashions of that day no longer emphasized (and, presumably, enhanced) what were then called the womanly attributes of the figure. Why was it that fashion went in a direction that led to the paradox that a full-bodied female who tried to follow the latest trends found her body flatly contradicting her clothes? Why did she end up looking faintly ridiculous in them?
One could say that the problem recurred in the case of the Sack Dress of the Fifties. Once again we have a fashion that preferred straight lines to curves. However, with the Sack it didn’t really matter very much what you were shaped like under the fabric, anyhow.
At that time, many writers had a simple explanation for why haute couture was imposing such unfeminine garments on their gullible customers. The designers were male (read homosexual) and misogynists. Which, if it displayed a complete ignorance of the psyche of the homosexual male, at least had the virtue of suggesting that the result accurately reflected the intent. It was simple common sense to think whoever came up with that thing had to hate women.
But the Sack gets us nearer to a very peculiar question: If you know something makes you look really bad, why wear it?
There are, of course, many folks who seem to turn that problem on its head. If you carefully planned a research program to find a garment that looks really bad on a potbellied man, you would have to work pretty long to come up with something worse than an undersized T-shirt. Yet this is precisely what many of them select.
Being made of a knitted fabric, it not only faithfully follows every bulge, it also grows shorter the more it is stretched around its circumference. So on a really good sized pot-o-lard, we have the double bang of a tight dome of fabric with a nice, full midriff swelling out below. And if we are truly lucky, that protrusion over the top of the pants will be decorated with dark body hair.
But speaking of the pants, let’s not forget that this is the same individual who, when he bends over, favors us with that other charming aspect, the butt crack. (A friend who lives in the Bay Area and I were having an e-mail discussion about this point. She says she is driven crazy by the fashion of young Hispanic males in her area wearing pants sizes too large with dropped crotches and butt cracks exposed. She says she has “the wildest urge to rush over and yank them all down.”)
The point here is that there are some individuals (of both sexes) who have not only apparently given up trying to find any fashion that would look good on them, they have taken it a step further by wearing things that make them look as bad as possible. In fact, some seem quite intent on highlighting whatever physical features they possess that depart the farthest from our conventions of beauty. They seem to be saying, Okay, you won’t offer me anything that makes me looks good, eh? Well, let me show you how bad I can really look.
An inverted victory, but a victory nonetheless.
But I’m not really thinking about them. They’ve simply declared victory and opted out. Instead, I’m thinking about the people who fall into two other categories: either they mistakenly believe that some fashion makes them look good or they are simply intent on wearing the current fashion, however bad it is.
As an example of the first category, let me point to the mini-skirt.
Now I happen to like the mini-skirt and think that, provided you have the figure for it, it can make you and your legs look about as good as they are ever going to look. The problem, of course, is that some people who don’t have the figure to wear a mini-skirt still insist on wearing them. I think one can make a general rule: those of us with too much poundage, too much cellulite, or too many years should look carefully at the parts of our bodies our favorite fashion exposes. (Note to the critical: I always wear long pants.)
Which brings me to a current fashion that I find incomprehensible: the low cut pants/bare midriff look. I have seen this look on young, hard-bodied ladies, anorexic girls, and those with more generous figures. I have yet to see it look good on any of them. Which is odd, because the old hip-hugger pants looked good on a pretty wide range of figure types. I swear it is as if someone experimented by moving the pants line up and down the hip until they found a place that was unflattering to most everyone and then settled on that. I’ve even made a small campaign of researching it and let me tell you, the best this style ever gets, on fashion models’ bodies with perfectly fitted clothes, is to rise to the level of not being actively ugly.
The problem is accentuated by the fact that, with the top of the pants falling onto the downward curve of the hip, even the smallest layer of fat under the skin creates a bulge at the pants line. For those who have a normal quotient of body fat, that bulge threatens to get badly out of control. The bare midriff displays yet more bulge for all but the truly underfed.
At this point one could logically ask, since this look is universal on the young (and the not so young), whether it might merely be a matter of changing tastes. That is, perhaps the problem is that while I find the look unredeemably unattractive, perhaps body tastes have changed yet again and I am standing on the wrong side of the divide. Maybe I am simply out of date. Perhaps to these young wearers of that style, the result is really cool and they think it makes them look just awesome.
A feasible theory and one I felt I should test. At a recent pre-wedding bash of a friend’s daughter I asked her and her friends, who wear this look almost exclusively, what they thought it did for them.
Every single one of them said that they thought it was an unattractive fashion that failed to flatter them at all! But all of them wear it and expect to continue to. Why?
Because it’s in style. You simply have to wear what is in style.
Okay. I now realize I am fighting a force that is simply too powerful to be defeated by anything like mere logic. After all, anything that can get a fair percentage of the population to wear butt-floss underwear is not to be challenged lightly. And I know it is not really a dark conspiracy. The industry is just some people making a very good living seeing a need and filling it.
Still, I’ve lately found a nice amount of diversion (and a certain catharsis) in thinking about The Mikado and trying to figure out exactly what would be appropriate for them:
My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time.
To let the punishment fit the crime–
The punishment fit the crime.
Go ahead. Think about it.