Not an Odalisque

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Book Review: Victorian Secrets: what a corset taught me about the past, the present and myself by Sarah A. Chrisman

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How do you make a book about wearing a corset gripping? Because I was gripped at two am, turning each page to find out what happened to Sarah Chrisman, adventuring though Victorian attire. Her book blends titbits about corsets and their history into a narrative of what happens when you wear a one in everyday life, and both aspects are surprisingly interesting.

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Did you know that those skeletons they say had ribs deformed by corsets were actually bent out of shape by the preservation process? That they weren’t just for the wealthy—maids and labourers had corsets designed to support their work? That they were astoundingly cheap? Have you ever thought carefully about those claims that women had bones removed to make their corsets fit? Because it was the era before Florence Nightingale; a badly broken leg was usually a death sentence, they’d saw it off without anaesthetic and then you’d die of an infection. That corsets, in short, weren’t like you think they were?

While we’re learning about corsets of the past, we join Chrisman on a journey as she transforms from an ugly duckling to a swan during a year (and a bit) of tight lacing. She immediately learns to sit up straight and walk tall (corsets don’t allow slouching). She used to eat in restaurants known for their big portions (in America!) until her stomach hurt, but there’s no room in a corset for overeating, so her heartburn is cured and she begins to lose weight. As her wardrobe becomes more and more Victorian, she learns to walk elegantly in kitten heels, wash her hands regularly and not wipe her dirty fingers on her trousers.

It is a little drastic. I couldn’t help thinking that those lessons could have been mastered without steel or whalebone. To make up for it, though, she tells her tale with an enjoyable acerbic approach to, well, everyone except her husband. She isn’t going to let polyester and rayon at the Victorian fashion show go by without protest. It’s rather fun, being on the inside, reading all the things you don’t allow yourself the freedom to say, or think. Her reaction to “I crafted it from things at the thrift store,” is as scathing as the one I always wanted to give. Such fun!

Then one’s sympathies begin to shift. The tipping point for me is when Polly (I hope to God that isn’t her real name) turns up at a Victorian ball in a blue polyester ball gown. This monstrosity is so memorable as to be referred to chapters later, when she makes her next appearance, Polyester Polly. I begin to think: poor Polly. Polly has turned up at a social event with the outfit she can afford. How much should she be maligned for it? How many people should be lambasted for failing to live up to Chrisman’s standards of attire? How evil are her fellow massage class students who use too much oil, is her mother for questioning her choice to tight lace, is her mother in law for talking too much? She is so primed to take offense, she’s even sure that cardiologist in the coffee shop queue is looking at her funny.

Chrisman seems relentlessly negative about everyone around her. The following come under serious fire: people who drink coffee; people who have mobile phones; people who run cars; people who wear synthetic fabrics; modern medical practitioners; and most of all feminists.

Sarah began to seriously lose my sympathies exactly half way through the book. She travelled to a cheap custom corset maker, and despite her misgivings when she noticed a pair of handcuffs for sale, handed over much more money than she’d been quoted as a deposit for two corsets. Escaping, suitably fleeced, she writes the shop off with: “to me, corsets are about Victoriana, not sadomasochism. My idea of proper wrist accessories are jewelled bracelets, not handcuffs.” Because, yeah, it was the BDSM that went wrong in that transaction.

There’s a paradox at the heart of this book: the only person sufficiently motivated to write it must be a zealot, and a zealot cannot give the impartial view the book requires. Sarah Chrisman has all the enthusiasm of a convert. She believes in corsets enough to wear one night and day, to spend serious money on them and attend all the relevant conventions and high teas. Somewhere along her journey, she goes to a Victorian place where we can’t follow. Sure of the old fashioned method, she ignores medical intervention on her broken foot in favour of a concoction of camphor. She tells us women’s lib has gone too far and we should recognise our inherent differences (say, dontcha know that in oppressive societies women often have power in domestic settings?). She has any number of health tips, but I find it hard to take health advice from an era in which the main source of vitamin C was jam.

Precisely because the writer of this sort of book has to go to an extreme to do so, she also has to deal with everyone else’s reactions to her choices. Some of those are very positive, but that means that you have to read, again and again, of people telling her she looks lovely. By the last chapter I was ready to tear out the next page in which a stranger gives her a compliment. The negative responses are explored, too, and one gets the feeling that Chrisman is taking the opportunity to say to us everything she wished she’d said at the time. These are not reports of two way exchanges or opportunities for reflection, but opportunities to be indignant. The effect is a lack of balance that undermines Chrisman’s case. One side of the argument (hers) is well explored, and she often speaks of ‘educating’ people, but now I want to know more about the views she was arguing against, and until I do I shall take hers with a pinch of salt. Chrisman’s anti-feminism is tiring, but Polyester Polly’s omitted reasons for decrying the wearing of antique clothes would hold my interest.

Mixed in with all that, though, are some interesting nuggets. I rather liked her point that it’s underwear, not biology, that prevents women from peeing standing up. She makes many of the discoveries that I have about how Victorian clothing and practices are better suited to the world than modern things. Natural fibres are warmer, more breathable and stay cleaner. Ankle length skirts and petticoats are cosy and practical. Washing your hands gets them cleaner than sanitizing them. Kitten heels make for an elegant gait. She’s so enthusiastic about split crotch bloomers that I think I want a pair.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep some aspects of modern life. Central heating, say. And medicine. I’d love to go to one of Sarah Chrisman’s presentations of antique clothing. Just don’t put me next to her at a dinner party, she might find herself being ‘educated’ about feminism and the joy of handcuffs.

Victorian Secrets: what a corset taught me about the past, the present and myself by Sarah Chrisman is available at Amazon. Chrisman’s website is here.

 

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 3, 2014 at 6:30 pm

On Owning Too Much Stuff

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A song which was popular among my university friends contained the line, “I’m buried in my bedroom under fourteen feet of clothes, I could drown in all this clutter, I suppose.” At the time I thought it was a metaphor for inertia. As I type this, though, I am warming my feet with a jumble of dressing gowns, tops, scarves and coats, and I begin to understand that it may have been a description.

I’ve just moved into a new flat. I’m really rather pleased with it. It has some downsides, including walls painted in hospital green and one of those beds which may be great for tying people to, but tends to trap the feet of long girls during the night. These in no way outweigh the upsides, however: the generous storage space and the lack of shared walls, making it a space where no one can hear you scream (well, it’s above a church, so most of the time no one can hear you scream, but on Sunday mornings the entire congregation can listen to every moan). Moving, though, has proved trying, mostly because I own too much stuff.

I don’t think of myself as a particularly acquisitive person. I try to live a simple life. The last time my flat, black shoes wore out, I waited three months then wandered into Clarks to ask for a pair just the same, but that didn’t let water in. I don’t have a television, I don’t much like handbags, gadgets, hair straighteners, or whatever young people are buying these days. If I take extraordinary joy in my Kenwood Chef or 1950s dresses, I rest assured that my trainers are five years old and were bought in the sale.

When you try to pack your life into a small car, you begin to notice things, though. I own twenty-two baking tins. I’m sure I have three copies of ‘Les Liaisons dangereuses’, but I can’t find any of them, while ‘Rebecca’s proliferate. I sleep in old shirts because the only nightdress left without a hole in it is made of red silk, barely covers my bum and looks like something you’d take on a dirty weekend, but I have five dressing gowns. Then there are the clothes. For years, now, I’ve been locked in a Sisyphean struggle with the clothes.

If some people think that I have a large wardrobe, it is nothing compared to my mother’s. Filling the wardrobes in her bedroom, she kept rails of garments in the attic, rotating them, every six months, to suit the season. It must be said that even on her worst days she looked rather smart. When she died I got the clothes. Grief aside, I ought to have been pleased. All the outfits I envied her when she was alive, the Calvin Klein coat, the cocktail dresses, the Droopy & Brown’s gowns, came into my possession. One problem: they didn’t fit.

Perhaps, I thought, leaving them on their rails, one day they would. Not the Margret Thatcher skirt-suits or the high heeled wellingtons, but some of the other items. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out just yet. Time passed, moths feasted, and eventually through an unhealthy combination of stress, exercise, tongue mutilation, and an addiction to caffeinated sweets, I lost some weight. At around the same time that my father decided he didn’t want to live in a mausoleum any longer and unceremoniously dumped my mother’s wardrobe on my living room floor. The next weekend some friends were visiting, so we had a grand sorting session. I was two sizes skinnier, and yet the clothes still didn’t fit. I had to recognise that my mother was several inches shorter than me, with a different shape and a totally different sense of style.

That was about a year and a half ago. Since then, I’ve spent countless hours washing and ironing, and given pieces of clothing to friends, charity shops, asylum seekers and pretty much anyone who would take them. During the process, I realised that I was dealing with clothes ranging from a size sixteen to a small ten. I can’t remember my mother as a size ten. Quite possibly, it was having me that put paid to it. Yet here they are.

Back to the clothes on the bed. The ones I’ve lugged all the way over from Yorkshire. There’s a vintage slip with attractive red lace edging, only one size too big. A top, which was my favourite for the year or two after I bought it in 1999, has a tendency to grow as I wear it, so that it’s hanging off me by lunchtime. There’s my favourite skirt from last winter, which unfortunately needs a safety pin if it’s going to stay up now.

Can you see a pattern here?

Did you think that this was going to be a piece about how I should clean up my act, clean out my wardrobe and live a happier, more fulfilled life now that I’m clutter free? That’s insane women’s magazine logic. No, just when I was in the doldrums of wardrobe depression, packing yet another case with rarely-worn garments, I had a moment of insight.

I had just written an email containing the line, “costuming is going to be a problem.” A friend had suggested an activity for which I needed to dress as a Victorian, and I’d was concerned about my lack of suitable clothing. As I pulled an absurd blouse, with a front full of frills and two bulbous leg of mutton sleeves, out of its box, I realised that costuming wasn’t a problem at all. I might not look all that sexy, and I certainly don’t have any authentic Victorian lingerie, but I can put together a passable outfit. Just as I could for my friend’s medieval hen party, even if I was doing wench while everyone else wafted about as a princess. For her mother-in-law’s 1960s party I was even able to take a spare and rescue my friend from rented costume hell. This pile of clothing is a treasure-trove.

I love my wardrobe, the memories and the opportunities it holds. I’d just rather write about it than unpack it.

Written by Not an Odalisque

September 18, 2010 at 8:43 pm

The Very Girly Dress

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I own a very girly dress. It’s pink and it’s floral. It sports bows and butterflies. It’s the sort of dress which you only buy because your inner five year old is going to throw a tantrum in the middle of the shop if you don’t let her have it. I bought it because it was the perfect dancing dress. By which I mean not that it had a swirly skirt, but that it was great for sweating in: no sleeves, breathable, washable. I’m a practical woman at heart. All the same, I had an indecisive moment. I stood in the changing room and asked, “Could you take me seriously in this dress?”

“Perhaps,” the assistant replied, “if you tried for a really serious expression.”

I bought it anyway.

Last night I put it on, stood in front of a mirror and thought to myself, “the tongue piercing really doesn’t go.” Usually I think that it provides a subtle, slightly surprising, edge to my image. With the pink dress, wasn’t provocative, it was downright unsettling. Little girly really doesn’t go with something that makes you think of blow jobs.

I sallied out to go dancing. Three compliments later I was feeling good about my dress. Then my father told me, “Two people have said to me tonight, ‘When she first started dancing, she always wore black. Now she looks so pretty and feminine.’” Skipping over the change of seasons, the loss of a dress size and the necessity for investment in clothes suitable for dancing, this seems a strange sort of comment. I’m being praised for becoming more feminine. Being feminine is a good thing. Why? Is it intrinsically good, or do good things come of it?

Nothing very good came of it last night. I didn’t notice any men queuing up to dance with me. No one gallantly fetched me water or chivalrously carried my shoes to the car. One, tiny interaction made me realise the assumptions that people made, though.

I stopped to buy beer. I do so about once a fortnight. Same place, same product, same transaction. This time: different dress. As I approach the counter a lad comments “I wouldn’t have you down for a Fosters drinker.” I wouldn’t, either, three of the four cans were for my father, but then this petrol station doesn’t stock my preferred drink, a good pale ale, which I told him. He was very surprised that I even knew what a pale ale was. Women in girly dresses, it seems, aren’t meant to know their beers. Nevertheless, I went to pay.

I was IDed. I’m twenty-six. I’m five foot ten. I looked like I was twenty by the time I was fourteen. No one ever IDs me. Until I put on the pink dress. To make up for it, though, the cashier flirted his little heart out and made funny jokes about being a potential stalker. He gave me a voucher I hadn’t earned and a cheery wave as I drove away.

It’s only one evening. A couple of tiny incidents. Definitely not a representative sample of society. But I’m left with these two things: praise for looking more girly, and the results of looking more girly, including assumptions of youth, ignorance, willingness to flirt and desire for gifts.

I know that I make a choice when I get dressed about the assumptions I invite. I know that if I wanted to be taken seriously I could probably manage it with a sharp, black suit. What worries me is the pressure to look girly, and thus to choose the assumptions I experienced last night. Women may seem to have a range of available dress codes, but you try going out looking butch and see how much trouble you get for not conforming in comparison to the advantages (assumptions about your sexuality may be problematic for you, too, but since I’m basing my knowledge of this on my ex-girlfriend I don’t know how that one will affect you). I will never know how much the way I dress everyday affects how people treat me, to find out would require replacing my wardrobe overnight. It must be said that this would hardly be an issue if I were a man.

I’m not going to give up my girly dress, although I might get a pink sparkly tongue stud to complete the look.* I think the answer is going to be in balance. My next purchase will have to be something so different from the very girly dress that it throws the whole identity of the wearer into doubt. I think I’ve found it. How about a pretty halter dress on which the cherries, on closer inspection, turn out to be bright, red skulls?

*I’m not really going to do that, it would be unspeakably vulgar.

Written by Not an Odalisque

July 4, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Anyone for a Pair of Chastity Jeans?

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This week a man in Australia was acquitted of rape because the jury considered that it is impassable to remove a pair of tight jeans without the wearer’s cooperation. Tight jeans make women rape-proof.

This is fantastic news. Skinny jeans are a simple solution to the worldwide epidemic of sexual violence! We can hand them out at schools and health centres, along with condoms and leaflets on STIs. There should be a nationwide campaign to convince women to wear them, featuring upbeat sound bites from women who had been threatened with rape, but mercifully escaped due to the expedient donning of this garment. No longer shall women cower in their houses when they could be out, wandering dark alleys, and no longer shall they arrange safe calls with friends, or privately wonder whether the man who suggests walking them home is a greater risk than the unknown strangers on the route. Skinny jeans spell liberation!

I really do wish it were true. The problem is that while some men are fumbling weaklings who couldn’t unhook your bra if they were given a manual and half-dressed mannequin to practice on for ten minutes beforehand, other men aren’t. Other women aren’t, come to that. Sometimes it is about physical strength, sometimes it’s skill and sometimes it all the pressure a rapist needs to exert is psychological. When you are faced with someone who can do you harm, who wants, in fact, to hurt you, and who has the ability, you to try to survive. For some reason, keeping hold of your handbag in a tussle with a mugger is considered foolish, while even the slightest indication that you didn’t fight tooth and nail not to be raped is interpreted as tacit consent.

Have a look at this page. About half way down you’ll find a passage in which women are advised to run from their potential rapist, even if he has a gun, because:

“POLICE only make 4 of 10 shots when they are in range of 3-9 feet. […] The predator will only hit you (a running target) 4 in 100 times. And even then, it most likely WILL NOT be a vital organ. RUN!”

Now tell me, next time someone points a gun at you, are you going to weigh the probabilities of taking a bullet somewhere vital and run for it? Me, I think I’d miss my chance while stuck on “arrrggghh, gun!” What if your assailant had a knife? What if he was just (and this is my experience) a big, strong man with martial arts training? Where, in that moment of panic, do you want to draw the line between self-preservation and acquiescence?

I have no trouble in believing that a pair of tight jeans could be removed by a determined rapist. That process is a lot easier for me to understand than the one which leads him to rape, and I’m not denying that as a possibility. My point is, though, that fixating on whether or not the jeans were ripped off is based on a flawed notion of how rape works. Even if he had stood up, walked to the other side of the room and quietly said “remove your jeans” it would still be rape if she didn’t consent. Abject terror is not consent.

I have to wonder how many items of clothing are left to women. Is it only coincidence that you’re asking for it if you’re skirt is too short, your neckline too low, your heels too high, and now, apparently, your jeans too tight? Excuse me, I have to change into something utterly shapeless in case someone works out that I’m a woman.

Written by Not an Odalisque

May 2, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Primark, Padding, Porn and Pumpkins

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This week another story about the sexualisation of children hit; Primark has been selling padded bikinis for seven year olds. These outrages come around every now and again. Previously, Tesco gave us the pole dancing kit for children to “release the sex kitten inside,” and even now, shops help little girls store their phallic signifiers in Playboy pencil cases. This week, a Guardian researcher dug up a “Future WAG” T shirt for three year olds and some high heeled shoes in small sizes.

My main thought after finishing the article about the bikinis was not “save our kids from paedo Primark!” but, “how do you make a bikini for £4?” Is there some poor child making these in a Bangladeshi sweatshop? It seems unlikely that anyone is being paid a fair wage. None of that is pertinent, however.

I’m often shocked by what kids wear. I’m shocked by what a lot of adults wear, too. Perhaps I’m just easily shocked. Children in heels and make-up, children in bikinis and push up bras, trouble me. They worry me in the same way that little boys playing with toy guns do. We are teaching children their role and giving them little chance to escape it. But I really don’t think that we can blame Primark.

I don’t like big multinationals. I knit my own jumpers and I think tofu is delicious. When I think of Primark I think of slave labour, environmentally destructive cotton growing and transportation, a wasteful culture in which clothes are considered disposable, and ugly, scratchy, garments, cheaply made out of synthetic fabric. I’m a snob. I am, however, a snob whose father works for a multinational. While the activists rail, I hear from the other side, too. It’s surprising how often the other side is rather reasonable. “How can you still be selling baby milk in X, after all the harm you did there?” I ask. “It was designed to save children whose mothers don’t produce milk. You think we should let them die?” he answers. More recently “Why are all your ready meals full of fat, salt and sugar?” “ Because when we stopped putting them in, people stopped buying them.” Oh. Good point.

Culture is powerful and children are infinitely suggestible. However, Primark wouldn’t be stocking padded bikinis for children if no one wanted to buy them, or, at least, they wouldn’t be stocking them for very long. The grownups are spending the money. The grownups are in moral paroxysms about the products. The fuss is getting so great, though, that I can’t help thinking that there is more to it than worries over the failure of feminism to release women from objectification. I’ve seen the handful of people who turn out for Object’s rallies. Women’s objectification doesn’t seem to upset more than a few feminists, who nonetheless shave their legs because it isn’t socially acceptable not to. So why the fuss when it comes to children?

I think that the language of the article in the Sun gives a valuable clue. With accusations that Primark’s bikini encourages paedophilia as “little girls wearing them would be sexualised and made attractive to predatory perverts,” and the coining of the term “paedophile pound” it invokes the threatening figure of the sexual predator. There are two objects of incontrovertible hate in our society: Nazis and paedophiles. They are the big bad wolves of our culture. The fact that most children suffer at the hands of family members doesn’t influence our image of the paedophile, lurking behind the bushes to drag away little girls for rape and murder. The paedophile has to be absolutely, uncontrovertibly other. He cannot be like us, he is not one of us. His life can’t even be allowed to resemble us. Why? Because we don’t want to admit the truth, and if we saw our similarities we would have to. This is the truth: we fancy children.

There, I’ve said it. I hope you’re shocked. Even if you are revolted and angry, stay with me for a moment to examine the evidence.

I started with the Sun, hoping to be able to make a point about the fact that they like to publish pictures of young women, as if it were impossible to be attractive over the age of thirty. But what I found was an article about how a twenty-seven year old celebrity is a “cougar”, because she finds a teenage boy attractive:

“She said: “I love Justin. I think he’s gorgeous.

“It’s kind of that you feel wrong for fancying him. I’m 27. His songs are amazing. I’d be a cougar for him. But it is wrong,”

Comedienne Shappi Khorsandi, – also on Monday’s BBC1 show – joked that men must have felt the same about fancying Billie when she was a teen pop star at just 15.”

Do you think that men felt uncomfortable about fancying Billie Piper? I don’t. Do you think that we’d feel the need to come up with a special name for a man who fancies younger women? No, I think that “heterosexual man” pretty much covers that base.

Our society is obsessed with youth. We sell it in bottles and surgical treatments, and we ogle it everywhere. Female TV presenters are sacked when they get to a certain age, because their function is primarily sexual and their sexual value has a sell-by date. Why do you think that the American high-school film has become a hugely popular genre? Could it possibly be because we get to ogle teenage girls for an hour and a half? Many of the beauty regimes we grown women follow to make ourselves attractive to men also make us resemble children. Why do porn stars shave off all, or almost all, of their pubic hair, in addition to the rest of their body hair? Are the rest of us expected to do that, too?

Dan and Dan sum up the situation excellently with “Bring back capital punishment for paedophiles; Photo feature on schoolgirl skirt styles.” I think that pornography holds the key to the issue of our obsession with paedophilia. Pornography is fantasy, a repository for desires we don’t admit to. It also influences desire, especially now that it is universally accessible—in fact unavoidable—online.

A couple of years ago I picked up five porn magazines at random in a motorway service station. None of them have pictures of mature women, although one youngster is labelled a “Mother I’d Like to Fuck.” There are numerous pictures of young blondes with pigtails and white cotton underwear, advertising sex lines with captions like “I’m 18, I really am, why would I lie?” and “I’m not so innocent.” One photo series set in a classroom lets us share in a Japanese schoolgirl’s “self-exploration.” Props include a teddy bear, a lollipop, plastic animals and, weirdly, a Halloween pumpkin. Youth is clearly at a premium in pornography (winter squashes less so).

I think I’m fairly open minded. I might laugh at your sexual fantasies (you on Fetlife with the yellow cagoule, I’m talking about you), but you’re welcome to them. Nevertheless, I saw red when I came across the feature “Fancy a Lolita?” in Sexscape. It begins by singing the praises of underage girls, and then provides a handy guide to fucking them, because “inexperienced dolls with lovely slim bodies are agonizingly attractive to middle aged and older guys. What are you waiting for?”

Apparently fast food restaurants and cinemas are the best places to find ‘Lolitas’, and older men are sure to get a good response because they are more exciting than homework. They should be sure not to give out their address, though, for fear of retributions from angry fathers. The risks are worth it, though, because her beauty, her innocence and her inexperience combine to make her the best sex object around. She’s more easily turned on than adult women, and apparently even tastes better. Like Brita-filtered water, I’m sure.

So this is what I know: there’s a group of people who are very angry about little girls wearing clothes which they perceive as the markers of sexual availability, and there’s a group of people who think that girls are sexy precisely because they don’t act or dress like adult women, and haven’t been sexually available to other men. It sounds to me like they are both on the same side.

I’ve never been tempted to sleep with a child. I have been attracted to people who were under eighteen, mostly when I was under eighteen, too. I’m twenty-five, and now and again I notice a beautiful teenager. I wouldn’t want to get involved with one, independence is an important quality in a lover, and teenagers don’t (or shouldn’t) possess it. But every time I buy into the culture which sells us young flesh, in the form of a face cream, a bikini wax or an album by a teenage pop star with a raunchy music video, I help it along a little bit.

I think that we all need to do a little bit of soul searching. Let the children be.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 18, 2010 at 10:51 pm