NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 121| October 12, 2007
I introduced a new poem (“Toujours Couture”) on the subject of fashion last month by Dorothy Terry (see archives, http://www.poetrydispatch.wordpress.com …click to category, highlight the author’s name…scroll down to above poem). In my intro, I mentioned the possibility of teaching an entire course based on the literature of fashion. Among the responses I received, this personal essay by Jean Casey went right into my Fashion Writing file. She caught it all, beautifully, brilliantly: the Times that were/are always a changin’–and the clothing that captures this. Enjoy. Norbert Blei
The Death of Fashion? by Jean Casey
I believed that Fashion had died, until I saw that our local newspaper recently surrendered it’s top front page headline to the problem of body piercing. You’ve all read the young lady’s tale by now, personal rights up against school board policy, and don’t you find it heartening that what we wear still matters, that somewhere there is a policy holding back chaos in the matter of dress codes? After all, for generations we have swum with the tides of hemlines, breeches versus trousers, bowlers versus baseball caps, and more importantly, what to bare and what not to bare, and now, what to pierce and what not to pierce. Considerably before the current fad, the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest wore ornamental seashells on their noses for which the French named them the Nez Perce. That appellation didn’t seem to cause more or less trouble than everything else the white men did to them.
Until this headline, I figured that the whole issue of covering and adorning ourselves had arrived at Katie-bar-the-door, no holds barred, be whatever you want to be, everything from heroin chic to unmade bed. In fact, this summer I went to a reunion of dear old friends who were dear young friends when we all set about to create a high school with open campus involving lots of personal responsibility. (The place is now locked up tighter than Waupun.) Given that the affair was a picnic, it was certainly appropriate to expect casual dress. Gil came to greet me, and the first thing I saw was his royal blue tee shirt announcing in bold white letters: “I’m in shape! Round is a shape!” Well, yes indeed. Hard to get past a clothing statement like that.
Weddings are even more perplexing, especially since they now seem to be three day events, mimicking, perhaps, the English Shooting Parties where the invited used to bring trunks full of apparel for servants to haul upstairs on their backs. What to wear? It becomes more and more apparent that the only attempt at elegant dressing is done by the bridal party while the audience may wear anything, absolutely anything! (A friend, however, e-mailed that she attended a wedding in July where the bridegroom and his henchmen had worn white tails and Nikes. I doubt that I would have been a party to that, especially when the bride’s father had predictably paid a pretty penny to supply his daughter with the dress she’d always dreamed of having.)
What serve as fashion magazines these days which I often check into while waiting for my monthly haircut at Trudy’s, or Vanity Fair, and the New York Times Sunday Supplement supplied to me by Gretchen who then carts off my Atlantics and New Yorkers, are not at all what I remember from a simpler time. The models look either angry, blatantly provocative, suicidal or stoned. It’s small wonder. They are wearing such bad stuff, none of which fits. Have you noticed that the boys are all wearing outsized pants, particularly shorts, with crotches down to the knees, while the girls are bundled into unevenly hemmed rayon blend dresses under tight little sweaters that have shrunk two sizes? And sometimes, these poor waifs are shown in misshapen skirts and strange unmatching tops that do not meet in the middle. I saw that look when I was in grade school during the Great Depression. Many of my classmates wore hand-me-down dresses from their sisters and mothers, cut off and hemmed up for them, over which they wore cardigans that were felted from too many washings.
The new erogenous zone would appear not to be the navel, even though that’s what we see in the ads these days, boys with their sweaters rucked up, lying on couches to display their muscular abdomens, and girls with those tops that just plain do not do the job of meeting with the bottoms. It is, instead, hands. Particularly female hands. They seem always to be buried somewhere in sweater sleeves. They must be kept from view. That cannot be much stranger than the Japanese woman’s kimono with the vee at the back of the collar to expose the nape of the neck, considered a real delicacy, or the stiletto high heels in western culture that play havoc with floors and feet, but which certainly show off legs. When you think about it, legs have only been completely uncovered since the 1920’s, and when they appeared, they certainly caused a fuss. There wasn’t a red-blooded guy in any service in W.W.II who didn’t have Betty Grable’s legs pinned up somewhere near his bunk or cot or even inside his helmet.
A study of old movies will indicate that the Thirties were not a great moment for Fashion. However, during the Forties when talking pictures reached maturity, Hollywood designers were getting the hang of creating high Fashion in black and white. The country, however, was at war, and supplies of fabric for the home front were limited. Civilian women copied the tailored, fitted suits worn by women in the military, and women who went to help the war effort in factories began to wear trousers, some of which they borrowed from their brothers’ and husbands’ closets At the end of W.W.II, Dior, from his studio in Paris proclaimed The New Look with long, almost to the ankle, full skirts cinched at the waist by wide belts. This presented a major crisis. Everyone bought at least one of these flowing, flattering skirts and, in an effort to rescue the rest of a wardrobe of skirts, added fabric inserts just below the belt, which would achieve the desired length and be hidden by jackets and sweaters. It never occurred to anyone to wear two lengths. Once Paris had decreed, women in Europe and America adapted, measured and went to great efforts to conform. Kitchen appliances began to be mass produced in avocado and gold instead of white, colors and fabrics in clothing were ordained by the designers, and heaven help you if you did not look well in citron the year it was the “in” color.
Some men were called back into uniform for the Korean conflict which was all-encompassing for those men and their families, lasting three years and costing too many lives. The rest of America entered the Fifties with “Leave it to Beaver” sitcoms, an expanding economy and a burgeoning middle class escaping from W.W.II, hungering and thirsting for homes and families, and watching the latest edicts from the fashion mavens. Men’s styles were left alone with slight modifications in shoulder pad heights and tie, lapel and hat brim widths to keep the haberdashers in business. A husband and father could safely pull out the same suits from his closet year after year until they were threadbare. Not so his wife. Paris still called the shots each year, and America rushed to copy. Notably immune to this annual travail was the British Monarchy which seemed to have developed a style all its own adapted from the Edwardian era and centered on the absolute necessity for queenly hats to match queenly dresses in flower garden colors. Compared to the sack dress with a band and bow just below the knees which one year effectively hobbled scores of American women, the Monarchy’s garden party frocks looked positively sane.
In Hollywood, smart designers like Edith Head and Helen Rose were setting their own pace, one which would begin to liberate American women from Paris couturiers and introduce the relaxed and wearable clothing that Bacall and Hepbum wore so well, along with shapes and fabrics that would look sumptuous in Technicolor. Released from the constraints of black and white films, these savvy designers set about making beautiful women look even more beautiful. Not too long ago one of those channels that shows old movies featured Designing Woman starring Gregory Peck looking decidedly uncomfortable as a sportswriter and Lauren Bacall looking absolutely gorgeous as a dress designer, but given only poorly scripted words to say with that magnificent, smoky voice. The idea and the costuming came from Helen Rose who did very well with the clothes in an otherwise predictable semi-farce with overtones of Damon Runyan mixed with the unbeatable Tracy and Hepbum films. I finally turned off the sound so I could watch the clothes, undistracted by the vagaries of the plot. At the film’s beginning, Bacall was conservatively dressed in softly molded and tailored street-wear, a perfect foil for the elegant silk evening coat she would later wear as she swept into her New York apartment pulling off her long white gloves from under the capped sleeves. Later, in a hostess gown, serving up little sandwiches to Gregory’s poker pals, she floated through the room, a butterfly with gauzy white chiffon sleeves for wings, a wasp waist, and an abundance of striped taffeta in black, white and lavender panels forming a sumptuous skirt. No matter that these clothes would be a danger in the kitchen and dirt catchers on the street, they made Lauren look like the sort of beautiful creature men needed to open doors for, and carry drinks to, and tuck safely into the seats of cabs and cars.
Then came the sixties, the Beetles, Mary Quant in swinging London Town, and panty hose and mini skirts, in that order. The hose that could only be ordered in theatrical costuming catalogues suddenly burst upon the scene liberating women from all sorts of pulleys and harnesses which were properly labeled “underpinnings.” Add to that the sexual revolution in the Age of Aquarius, flower children in Haight-Ashbury, the Viet Nam war and a generation that took to the streets to demonstrate and smoke the weed. It was evident that a wholly new wardrobe of anti-Fashion was required. Second-hand clothes bought from crowded city boutiques and patched together with army surplus boots and topcoats were the rage among the rebellious young and an outrage to their parents, which in many ways, brings us just about up to the present, doesn’t it? Once Fashion became a matter of individual choice not to be trammeled by parents or social institutions, it moved in a zigzag course, bouncing off modified grunge, demanding more baring and daring, until it no longer had the coherence to dictate.
This creates a dilemma for women of a certain age when we shop. The contemporary wail is:” I went to buy a dress, and I couldn’t find a thing I’d want to wear!” Men of the same age continue to coast along, relatively immune to change, having for the most part resisted the era of leisure suits and gold chains which fueled mid-life crises. They have retired from business suits and ties to more comfortable cords and khakis, sweaters and soft shirts, and they maintain one suit in the back of the closet for wakes and weddings.
Since alterations are very much a thing of the past, unless you are fortunate enough to know someone like Kathy who will do a hem or let out a seam, we all dress in something approximating the contours of our size and shape. It’s called “comfortable fit” and “unstructured.” No more do little gray-haired seamstresses appear at the call of a salesperson to crawl around you marking a hem in a fitting room and chalking for dart changes. No more are there places like I.Magnin on Union square in San Francisco where a woman in a wonderful “little black dress” welcomed you, seated you in a comfortable chair in a large carpeted area with lots of full length mirrors, counseled with you about what you needed, and then went to a series of walnut paneled doors, opened one, reached into a collection of carefully hung dresses and brought forth a garment for you to view, draped carefully across her arm. No more are we slaves to Fashion, because we have no idea what it is.
Our last significant questions seem to be, “to bare or not to bare,” and what is left to pierce? Since I represent a group on the higher end of the age scale, neither of these issues is important. We know that we look better covered up, and we doubt that our doctors would want us to put unnecessary holes anywhere. In our sweats and sneakers, we’ll climb up into the bleachers to watch the passing parade and prepare to wave our pennants when something stylish, natty, pretty, and maybe even gorgeous passes by. There is always that possibility…