Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Retro retro

So, Mad Men has just started up again in the US, sparking a fresh wave of general '60s nostalgia. But we shouldn't fall into the trap of thinking we are the first people ever to idealise the past.

The films Midnight in Paris and The Artist, along with ABC TV's series Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, have sparked renewed interest in 1920s style; I found the images from my previous post on anachronistic fit while researching my Phryne Fisher costume for a costume party. No doubt Baz Lurhmann's version of The Great Gatsby will fuel the fire when it comes out early next year.

But as Lizzie Bramlett reminds us at The Vintage Traveler, the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow Great Gatsby film was just part of a general wave of 1920s and 1930s nostalgia during the 1970s. Art Deco, which had languished in popularity during the Atomic Age, enjoyed a comeback around this time, and there was a renewed interest in Golden Age Hollywood.

Take paisley, for instance. I associate it with '70s hippie clothing, and men's casual shirts in the 1980s and early 1990s. This picture, which I found at 'Ivy style' menswear blog The Trad, is from 'Clothes with Style', a 1985 article by legendary New York fashion journalist Robert Bryan, in the January 1985 edition of M magazine.

"It doesn't take a Douglas Fairbanks Jr to know that … a paisley shirt and khaki trousers are indigenous to a Saturday afternoon stroll," Bryan writes. Indeed.

But as this truly amazing visual history of paisley illuminates, it first entered Western fashion from Persia, via India, in the first part of the 17th century. It was so crazy popular that a French royal decree banned its import between 1686 and 1759.

Whether imported, made in Europe or brought home from India by soldiers and colonialists as souvenirs, cashmere shawls with paisley weaves became status symbols for women by the early 19th century. The English term 'paisley' comes from the central Scottish weaving town that came to specialise in the textiles.

Empress Josephine, 1809

During the Victorian era, paisley shawls were a common outer garment for women. Old shawls were also used as linings in newer garments, or cut up and DIYed into informal robes and jackets like this one from 1890:

By the 1960s, paisley had gathered counter-cultural associations – perhaps because the Beatles and psychedelic rockers had reignited interest in India (the psych-rock influence is clear in Prince's 1985 song 'Paisley Park'), or because hippies were generally into 'ethnic' and 'folk' motifs? Perhaps it's with these connotations in mind that Faye Dunaway wore a paisley bandanna in 1967 to portray 1930s rebel Bonnie Parker.

All these layers of retro associations in one image. Paisley's use in bandannas also took on other contexts when these scarves were used as signifiers of gang colours. Snoop Dogg has never stopped Crippin'…

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Forearms and sleeves

Today I had the sleeves of my T-shirt pulled up to just below my elbow as I was reading the paper, and when I happened to glance at them I quite liked the effect. I bought this top five or more years ago and sewed the lace around the collar and cuffs in 2010 as part of a costume for a party where we had to come dressed as our favourite kids' book character. I went as Burglar Betty from Alan and Janet Ahlberg's Burglar Bill:

…but at the time I couldn't find my copy of the book, and there were no images online of Burglar Betty, so I went by memory and ended up getting the colour of her top wrong, along with the fact it had plain cuffs, not lace. I didn't even wear a hat because I couldn't remember what it looked like.

The lace was just hurriedly tacked on for the party with the intention of unpicking it afterwards, but in the end I couldn't be bothered and it survived the wash anyway, so here it remains. The lace is not stretchy, so in order to still be able to push up my sleeves, I sewed the lace onto the cuffs at full stretch. Here's what they look like at my wrists:

The top is one of those cheaply made Asian imports and while the body and the upper arms are very tight on me, the sleeves are actually too long for me, even before I added the lace, and aren't tapered in the lower arm, so they're quite baggy. This is why I often push them up.

What struck me at the time was how gestural a three-quarter sleeve can make the forearm and hand look.

I'm not especially proud of my forearms or hands, but I like the way they look in this sleeve. It reminds me of the graceful look captured in 18th-century portraiture:

Queen Charlotte, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1781. Along with a portrait of Charlotte's husband George III, this hung in the royal dining room and was widely copied, coming to represent the 'official' royal portrait of the Georgian era. I love her graceful arms emerging from the lace sleeves.

Miss Susanna Gale, by Joshua Reynolds, c1763-64. This portrait is owned by the National Gallery of Victoria and is my favourite work in the gallery. I love Susanna's alert expression and the richness of her gown. She was the daughter of a colonial plantation owner and these paintings were commonly commissioned when the sitter went to study in England.

18th-century dresses seem designed to show off the forearm. They were closely fitted through the upper arm, and then cut shorter on the inner forearm while the sleeve continued over the elbow. The forearm emerged in a simple, elegant line, framed by the elaborate puffs of lace, ribbons, trim and ruching continuing past the elbow over the outer arm.

The best way to observe this effect is in portraits, as many museum garments are displayed on armless mannequins. This is a detail from The Marquise d'Aigurandes by Fran├žois-Hubert Drouais, 1759. Fashion Is My Muse explains further how fashions in ruffled lace sleeves changed over the course of the century.

But I am more interested in the exposure of the forearm, because historically Western women's forearms have not been eroticised – although in Japan, their judicious display is part of the geisha's art. Today, men's forearms have become sexy. There's a photo gallery of 15 "super sexy" male celebs, some of whom aren't revealing more than a couple of inches' worth.

One fan of musician Raul Malo enthuses about how on stage, he rolls his sleeves up between songs:
Love long sleeve shirts with the sleeves rolled up just about two or three turns […] I'm not sure I can explain what it is that makes a sexy forearm but it has to do with the amount of hair on the arm, the tan, the musculature of the forearm, a refined wrist....not too thin, not too pale not too much hair or too little hair.
Documentary series The Desire Project has an episode devoted to women's appreciation of male forearms. In the commentary of this blog post about the project, user @ilikemints says, in part:
[My boyfriend] got really confused. He had never heard of the male forearm as a sexy body part before, or what made a forearm sexy. I had to do an image search to show him, explain why that was a big part of why dudes in bands tend to get ladies even if they're ugly (he has been in bands for almost 15 years!), because playing guitars and drums get dudes' forearms ripped. He knew that women like guys' bodies, but had never really thought deeply about individual male physical attributes that had merit or were valued in any specific way, other than general "that dude's really muscular, most girls want that"…
Perhaps it's in the name of gender contrast that popular culture does not encourage female forearms to be either muscular or slim. They are one of the few parts of the female body that can be plump. Instead, we tend to concentrate our arm-related shaming and resculpting on the fleshy upper arm. Remember the absurd mania over Michelle Obama's arms?

"You can cover up legs and bottoms, but many women lament their flabby 'tuckshop lady arms' or 'batwings' because they're often bared to the world," says fitness trainer James Menage in Woman's Day magazine, which alleges "flabby arm syndrome is on the rise." Meanwhile at Mamamia, women bemoan the difficulty of finding summer clothing with sleeves.

Some in the plus-size fashion community knowingly suggest that plus-size clothes are sleeveless so that shoppers will be coerced into buying shawls, boleros and short-sleeved cardigans as additional summer items. Those with an edgier, more activist bent argue that shoppers should not capitulate to pressure to disguise 'unflattering' aspects of their bodies. Plus-size fashion retailer Dream Diva includes in its manifesto:
In summer a plus size girl wants to enjoy the warmth of the sun on her skin just as much as anyone else. Strappy and sleeveless tops and short skirts and sundresses are what she wants to wear.

Sure you hear some plus size women saying that they want to cover up their upper arms and that they prefer to wear dark colours because they create an illusion of a smaller body shape. But these plus sizes are the exception to the rule.

The "now" plus size girl is not afraid to show off her curves and is proud of who she is and is happy in her own skin.
Conversely, flaunting very muscular or thin arms is another kind of wardrobe malfunction. Last year I wrote in detail about UK tabloid The Daily Mail's war on sinew, which targets celebrities including Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie and Courteney Cox. The raw disgust in the language the paper uses is quite extraordinary, as well as its dismay that these women continue to go out in public showing their sinewy arms to the world.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Anachronistic fit

We all have a basic idea of how dresses fitted in the 1920s: they hung loosely from the shoulders in a tubular or columnar form, and if the dress had a waist, it was usually dropped to the hips. The hem could hover anywhere between the knee and just above the ankle; mid-calf seems to have been common, although much like today, young chickybabes liked to push the envelope and wear shorter skirts, rouge their knees and roll their stockings down… and all that jazz.

This is a fairly typical evening dress of the period, featuring the ancient Egyptian motifs that were very modish after the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb.

We also have a basic idea that these fashions looked best on a very slim, youthful figure. But women of all ages and shapes wore columnar dresses, too – as our models, here are Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan:

So clearly it wasn't impossible to get these dresses to fit correctly at the time. However, my Google Image searching has turned up some examples of anachronistic fit. In 2007, the Reedsburg Area Women's Club in Wisconsin staged a fundraising parade of dresses from 1928-1931 using club members as the models.

Looking at these pics, I felt a cognitive dissonance that I can only describe as "costume party". There was something a little wrong about the way some of the dresses fitted, in the way that a hired costume never seems to fit properly and the wearer seems awkward and self-conscious.

This model looks too tall for this 1928 dress; the dropped waist sits too high.

But this dress looks much more '1920s' on her.

This 1928 wedding dress is too small; see how it pulls across the bust and at the armholes, and digs in at the hips?

This dress is also too small in the hips.

This 1929 frock also looks much too short for the model and too tight in the bodice – much more like a contemporary fit.

But she looks much better in this 1930s-style fit.

I also came across a fascinating Tumblr called Draw This Dress, in which two illustrators, Emily Carroll and Vera Brosgol, bring to life garments from museum collections, vintage stores and historical photos. What's fascinating about this site is the way they take the dresses from their static, lifeless contexts and put them on dynamic, emotionally expressive, sometimes dishevelled bodies.

They liberally use that fashion-illustration convention of adding a weightless quality to the garments – which is very noticeable when comparing Grant Cowan's Dreaming of Dior illustrations to the actual garments in the Darnell Collection.

It's also a genre marker of fashion illustration to stylise the look of the body in the dress… although where most fashion illustration evokes a sylph-like fantasy body, many of the Draw This Dress illustrations feature a womanly figure with plump arms and legs. Meanwhile, this has to be the greatest ancient Egyptian fashion illustration of all time! Of all time!

However, sometimes I felt that Draw This Dress didn't always get the fit period-correct.

I suspect the gown wouldn't have been nearly as short when originally worn.

Still, I really like the way Brosgol has styled this 1935 'Coq de la Roche' dress by Madeleine Vionnet to resemble Princess Leia in Star Wars (costumes by John Mollo). I find this fit way less anachronistic – or rather, anachronistic in a clever way, because it makes me remember that George Lucas was partly inspired by the adventure serials of the 1930s.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The heartache of the underwear department

Jeans, swimsuits and bras are perhaps the three most misery-causing garments to buy. All three are closely fitting and reveal the shape of the body, and all three have posed immense challenges to the garment industry to ensure good fits.

People come in a vast variety of shapes and sizes, none of which is intrinsically better or worse than the others, but some of which are marginalised by the clothing industries and by popular culture, making those who have these 'outlier' bodies feel ugly and rejected. My research is interested in the strategies by which this happens, and also in the embodied feelings of pleasure and shame linked to clothing fit and size.

An excellent place to observe these processes in action is the underwear floor of a department store. Because it's not a specialty lingerie store, it only stocks mainstream brands and sizes, and so it can't possibly fit everyone. It is an exercise in heartache, a machine for making women feel bad about their bodies.

Today I went to Myer Melbourne to buy a black T-shirt bra with plain thin straps. This is often defined as 'everyday' underwear (as opposed to the 'fashion' underwear you don in romantic scenarios when you want to be admired); its main purpose is to provide a smooth, moulded and unadorned silhouette that looks good under tight-fitting tops. My shopping was utilitarian – I was seeking to plug a hole in my repertoire of bras for everyday wear. But I also wanted something a little bit fancy; maybe some lace, ribbon, tucking or satin, or an understated print that combined black with other colours.

A truism of bra fitting is that women's shape changes over their lifetimes, but they cling to the idea that they wear a particular bra. There's a genre of popular media reportage bemoaning women who wear ill-fitting bras, which Time magazine neatly summarises:
If you are a woman, and you are wearing a bra, you are probably wearing the wrong size one. That's what they say. According to "experts," "industry studies" and "surveys," anywhere between 70% 85% of women are treating their breasts badly, either shoving them into too-small cups or allowing them to float freely in a draping sling. The statistic's origins are murky — some cite a Victoria's Secret poll, others something from the Wacoal brand. But it has been quoted back to me by friends, colleagues, interns. It sounds true. "Eighty percent of American woman are wearing the wrong bra" is the "more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married" statistic of the new millennium.
The current bra sizing system that combines a lettered cup size with a numbered back size was invented in the early 1930s as a marketing technique, similarly to the way corsets had earlier been marketed by defining certain body shapes or customer life cycle stages as problematic and then offering the corset as the solution.

In 1933, advertisements for SH Camp and Company were categorising their bras by their ability to counteract varying degrees of 'sag', with A being the least degree of correction needed and D the greatest. I haven't read anything yet that convinces me this system has any biometric basis whatsoever; the persistence of ad-hoc additions such as "DD", "FF" and "GG", as well the logical alphabetical progressions, certainly suggest bra manufacturers have been making sizes up as they went along.

Similarly, if the use of back measurements numbered by inch did not actually originate in biometrics, its adoption after WWII was a marketing response to a cultural interest in biometrics and ideal body proportions. If women were already measuring themselves against an ideal "36-24-36" hourglass figure, it made sense to size bras in inches as well.

It is ridiculous to believe your bra size defines you, yet so many women have strong emotional and psychological responses to bra sizes. Back sizes larger than 16 carry the same stigma as plus-size clothing, while women feel embarrassingly juvenile or unwomanly in AA and A cup sizes, and the stigma of obesity rubs off on cups larger than D. So do prurient, fetishistic associations; take the exploitation movie sequel Piranha 3DD, or the tabloid focus on the cup size of famous women's breast enlargements. Women feel freakish in large cup sizes.

This blog post from Knickers offers a good summary of bra sizing and fit issues that also offers insights into the general confusion that consumers feel. Many people feel that clothing size and fit ought to be intuitive: you try something on and if it feels comfortable, or if you're pleased with the way it makes your body look, then you call that feeling 'a good fit'.

For instance, when I buy a bra, I want it to make me look good in my clothes. I want the bra to create the illusion of a Barbie doll's smooth, firm body; it should not draw attention to its presence by creating visible rolls or lines in my flesh, or a crinkly texture that's visible on the surface of my top.

Also, because I sometimes wear low-cut or strappy tops and wide necklines, I needed to consider the accidental exposure of the bra. Mary Russo writes in The Female Grotesque that the notion of 'making a spectacle of oneself' carries specifically gendered assumptions:
"For a woman, making a spectacle out of herself had more to do with a kind of inadvertence and loss of boundaries: the possessors of large, aging and dimpled thighs displayed at the public beach, of overly rouged cheeks, of a voice shrill in laughter, or a sliding bra strap – a loose dingy bra strap especially [my emphasis] – were at once caught out by fat and blameworthy."
There is a thriving industry of bras and bra widgets designed specifically to create invisibility under particular kinds of clothes – for instance, strapless bras, super-low-cut plunge bras, 'convertible' designs whose straps can be reconfigured, and those clear plastic straps that fool nobody. Owning these items is a technique of compliant womanhood that acknowledges our culture's requirement of public propriety in women. Alternatively, the visibility of one's bra mimetically conveys a messy psyche or messy morality. Loose bra strap = loose woman! Dingy bra strap = dirty woman!

It has become far more acceptable to reveal one's bra than when Russo was writing in 1994. I could trace this to subcultural bra-wearing that re-coded 'sluttish' (in both its original sense of 'slovenly' and its patriarchal sense as 'sexually active') as 'insouciant' – for instance, in punk and Riot Grrrl music scenes – and the popularity of the burlesque and 'retro' aesthetic that has made it fashionable to glimpse lingerie in necklines or through transparent garments. Talk about mainstream: Dita von Teese has a lingerie line at Target!

But even this contemporary bra-exposure is concerned with propriety – the criteria are simply different. It's acceptable for bra straps to echo the straps of singlet tops, or boldly stripe across shoulders exposed by off-the-shoulder or racer-back cuts, but you don't want a chunky sports bra; you want a thin, plain strap, or a deliberately decorative one. Similarly, if the bridge of your bra is visible in your neckline, it should be a fancy one with ribbons or lace, and one that matches the aesthetic of your outer garment in style or colour.

Meeting these expectations while also meeting the criteria of 'support' and 'comfort' actually poses a major challenge to bra manufacturers and fitters. My body is upholstered in soft flesh, and the wide, spongy strap that looks like shit under my singlet top, or creeps into the frame of my boat-neck T-shirt, is the same one designed to stay put on my shoulder all day. The fancy lace that looks so sexy peeping from my neckline looks terrible rumpling the contours of my T-shirt.

Unfortunately, the bra industry deems phenomenology – that is, the wearer's feelings and experiences – to be a thoroughly inadequate method of determining bra fit. Instead, bra fitting is cognitive and quantitative – it's about measurement and problem-solving.

For instance, today I tried on a bra that I found really pretty, but it was too small. But the next cup size up in the same style was a fundamentally different garment. The straps were wider and made from a different fabric and colour; it had three clasps in the back rather than two; and it had corsetry-style boning inserted in the sides of the band. This shit makes sense to the bra manufacturer, which has made the industrial decision that these design elements are more 'supportive'. But it disrupts my expectations.

A successful bra fitter understands these dissonances. She is halfway between a counsellor and an engineer. She simultaneously scrutinises the wearer's body, exerting her expert knowledge on it, and offers change-room sympathy when the wearer feels vulnerable and frustrated because the bras she's trying on don't make her feel the way she wants to feel.

When she's good at her job, she can inspire feelings of gratitude and even liberation in her customer. That is, she has successfully influenced the bra wearer's perceptions and associations, subtly realigning them with bra manufacturers' size ranges.

While I was trying on some bras today, I overheard a bra fitter at work in the neighbouring cubicle, fitting a pregnant woman for her first maternity bra. Making matters difficult was that the customer claimed to wear a 16G, which you will immediately recognise as an outlier size.

It was fascinating to hear the fitter and customer talking, growing more and more apologetic as it became obvious that Myer didn't have anything to sell this lady.

"It fits well here, but not here"
"It fits fine now, but it will be too small once your milk comes in"
"I'm sorry, that one only goes up to an F-cup"
"Sorry it looks a bit old-fashioned, but that's the only one we have in a G"
"There's another good brand you can find in maternity boutiques – you could try XX in Australia On Collins…"

The bra fitter succeeded in creating sympathy with her customer, but she failed to align the customer's feelings about bras with the sizes available.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Take it easy

In garment construction, 'ease' (or easement) is the difference between garment measurements and body measurements. It determines how tightly the garment fits, and as the name implies, how easy it is to move in the garment.

There are two kinds of ease – 'wearing ease', which is the amount of ease you need to be comfortable in your clothes; and 'design ease', which is the creation of looseness as an aesthetic choice. According to this chart, wearing ease is generally 6.4 cm (2 1/2") in the bust, 2.5 cm (1") in the waist and 7.6 cm (3") in the hip.

Ease could also be part of various clothing brands' marketing strategies – for instance, sportswear and casual wear might allow more ease than a brand marketed as fashion-forward, whose customers will accept a certain restriction of movement as the trade-off for achieving a very fitted look. I still need to do more research to discover whether different manufacturers have different ideas of wearing ease.

I'll also need to figure out if ease is factored into online size charts, because online shoppers are entitled to expect that if they measure their bodies to decide which size to buy, they should get a good fit.

Online vintage dealer Maggie Wilds consulted her colleagues at the Vintage Fashion Guild on how much ease to allow when purchasing clothes. Nicole Jenkins of Circa Vintage Clothing recommended an ease of between one and two inches at the waist, with less for smaller sizes and more for larger. Anne Marie Cook of Vintage Baubles recommends that since most movements – walking, sitting, bending – are through the hips, ease is more important there.

Ease, like other size and fit issues, changes over time; for instance, a 1947 Simplicity sewing guide suggests, "About 4 inches larger than bust measurement is usual allowance." My chapter discussing shifts in ideal silhouettes over time will have to address this.

Ease is also a factor in vintage clothes, because these fabrics often don't behave in the same ways we expect of contemporary fabrics. Christina Hendricks' costumes on Mad Men have very little ease – look at how this dress pulls when she lifts her arm. They're also very tailored – look at all the vertical darts on the back of this dress – and made from woven, rather than knitted, fabric – although Joan does wear sweaters, and in season four of the show she begins to wear more jersey and other knitted fabrics.

The vintage dealers consulted by Wilds suggest that fabric is a key factor in ease. Amber of The Vintage Vortex said: “I think if I were wearing a much older item than 1950s I would want more ease for myself as thread and fabric deterioration would be a factor … I think that the age of the garment should also play a part in determining ease.” Meanwhile, Jody of Couture Allure Vintage Fashion added that it's easy to stress the seams of taffetas, satins, and loosely woven fabrics and pull the fabric along vertical seams.

I was thinking about Joan because on Friday night I went to the launch of Australian Modern magazine and decided to wear a dress I altered back in 2010 to wear to a Mad Men costume party. The dress is in a crepe fabric; I bought it from Savers in a very large size, and basically put it on inside-out, pinned it until it was tight enough to recall Joan's costumes, then took it in along the line of pins.

When doing this I allowed more ease through the waist and hips, because I'm self-conscious about this part of my body and wanted the dress to flatter me. But I made it very tight around the bust and turned the skirt from a straight shift to a tapered pencil silhouette.

The consequences of this are that I find it very difficult to walk quickly in the dress, and I have to turn sideways to walk up stairs. Wiggling my hips as I walk really does help me move better. Also, I can't wear it for an entire day or evening, because it quickly becomes uncomfortably tight across my ribs.

Hendricks told UK Glamour magazine that the costumes influence Joan's distinctive wiggly walk: "I think I was just trying to get across the room in that tight dress."

Now I know what she means! But another provocative thought regarding ease is that perhaps we, the contemporary wearers of 'old-fashioned' styles of clothing, have very little idea how to be comfortable in these clothes. We interpret the tightness, the physical discomfort, as markers of authenticity, because we have a teleological idea of history in which things always get better with time. For instance, we think of 19th-century corsets as cruel and oppressive, but what if the historical wearer of a properly fitted corset interpreted that garment's tightness as safe, civilised, 'put-together'?