written on the body
In typical horrifying style, I’m just going to name all of my blog posts after works of literature. Thank you, Jeannette Winterson.
Over the weekend (this is now several weekends ago), I went to see Titian’s Danaë at the National Gallery. I wonder if Titian painted Danaë nude because he was worried about finding the right dress to deëmphasize her midsection or he didn’t have time to head to the mall to have her colors done. Maybe Danaë spent a long time worrying about not getting enough cardio, locked up in that bronze tower. Such a pretty face, they’d tell her. That is, if they ever got to see her. I hear Lady Godiva had the same problem, you know. That’s why she rode the horse nude: she couldn’t decide what to wear.
Let’s just say that I spend a long time thinking about discourses of the body. Is there a less obnoxious term for that? Afraid not, reader. Going into reading midcentury style guides, I was worried. Concerned, really. Have you ever tried to find a vintage pattern with a 40″ bust? What about a 40″ hip? Now, I read contemporary fashion magazines and so much of it seems to be about diminishing and deëmphasis, dressing so that your body can appear to conform to a long, lean, busty, hippy, firm, pretty-but-not-intimidating, sexy-but-not-whorish, smart-but-unimposing Western ideal, rather than align with your personality traits. If contemporary discourses are so troubling, what would I think about the famously direct Edith Head? Or Claire McCardell and Adele Margolis who, while trailblazers, were unavoidably products of their time?
Gretchen over at Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing wrote of being surprised about Irene Sharaff “body-snarking” Elizabeth Taylor. I disagree about body-snarking in that instance, and I didn’t walk into the texts expecting that, as Gretchen writes, “Hollywood [or dressmakers] had more realistic expectations of stars [people] in the 50s and 60s, when a more womanly figure was in fashion.” Mostly because I’m always disturbed by the idealization of the past, sure, but also the implication that women were more “womanly” in the era of distressing repression after the relative liberation of the 1940s.
Suffice it to say, I went in with some baggage. A lot of baggage. I was really pleasantly surprised, though. More background. (Don’t you love how this alleged review is basically me talking about me? Me, too.) When I first started writing this blog, I used to go back over my posts and add in a lot of I thinks and maybes, to cushion what I was saying. Now, I do the exact opposite, and go back through my writing to savagely cull all of that. Of course I think it, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing it, right? The point is, there’s a directness to these books that I just love, even if I was a bit taken aback by it, initially. No hemming and hawing and hand-wringing about pleasing and offending. Just the facts, ma’am. Por ejemplo:
I suggest the following, in the order I would choose if I were you. First: look at your figure. You know if you’re too fat. Consult your doctor and find out how much you can lose safely. He will be only too glad to help you and if you are really overweight he will disapprove from the standpoint of health. Your figure is adjustable—through diet and exercise. Instead of struggling from one size to another, you will save time and frustration by banishing potatoes. But be realistic. Reducing won’t guarantee a perfect figure if your bones aren’t arranged that way. Accept the fact that some alterations will be necessary and you will certainly save money if you can either do the alterations yourself or find a little dressmaker. (McCardell 28)
Okay. Now imagine Nina Garcia writing exactly those words. Specifically, “You know if you’re too fat.” She’d be pilloried. I read a lot of contemporary style guides through Scribd, and did a fair bit of flipping through others at the bookstore. The advice tends to lean more towards “Buy the right size for you.” I don’t recall a single one addressing modifying your body to fit your clothes, but all of them suggest modifying your clothes to suit your body. “Dress for the body you have now, not the one you have in your head,” they say. Actually, that last bit has been an enduring suggestion.
Let’s hear from Adele Margolis now:
If you’re size 16 [contemporary US size 10-12] or over, you’re out of luck. Some stores don’t even stock anything over a 14. Clothing buyers and store managers tell us that the best-selling sizes across the country today are the 10’s and 12’s. The largest voices and the best buys are in these smaller sizes. . . . If twenty pounds is an out-of-the-question weight loss for one who has lived enough years to consider her evening cocktail and a gourmet meal among the finer things in life, then at least one can think thin and try for ten. In the ensuing struggle, it’s a comfort to know that it is better to fit the clothes you would like to wear than to make the clothes fit what you are—especially if what you are is anything less than great. (Margolis 1-2)
Especially if what you are is anything less than great. Okay. Take a knee, grab some water, we’re over 1000 words in, and haven’t even addressed Edith Head, yet.
Okay, so there are perhaps, maybe, I think, kind of different ways of expressing these sentiments. The old man that lives within me—the one frustrated by grade inflation, the everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality, and a stifling dedication to hollow, superficial niceness—is refreshed by Margolis and McCardell’s shit-or-get-off-the-pot approach. (My will to run a family-friendly blog is flagging.) They’re basically like really nice aunts, or something, who think that what they’re telling you is for the best. I say this as someone with a cadre of aunts (and uncles, and parents, and grandparents, and elderly neighbors, and middle-aged neighbors, and maintenance people who work at school) who are far too fixated on my weight for my taste, and from whom “You know if you’re too fat” would be a reserved and tactful observation.
I’ve developed pretty thick skin, as well as a distaste for contemporary veiled body criticism. Would you rather flip through magazine editorials that school you in the dark arts of figure flattery, delivering alleged compliments about “your tiny waist! Squee!” while simultaneously telling you how to conceal your hideous, grotesque, offensive-to-all saddlebags? What is the appreciable difference between that and the two quotes I’ve given you? (Disclosure: While I’d love to tell you that I am Captain Body Confidence and Positivity, I most certainly am not. I gained two inches on each calf after a four-ish months of spinning upwards of 6x/week, and am horrified by both my calves and my response to their sudden increase in size. I am now hoping that Jesus, Mary, and Tracy Anderson will give me the “tiny dancer’s body” that is apparently my birthright as a contemporary woman. I’m not switching up my exercise regimen because of my health or personal interest. (I sob softly into my olives every time I hear a Lana Del Rey exercise remix at the grocery store, thinking of tap backs of days past. “Summertime Sadness,” indeed.) I’m doing it because I want to buy cute riding boots, and to not have to peel my trousers off of my calves. Point being, I am not immune to this line of reasoning, but I understand why it’s problematic.)
All that preamble to say, after thinking about it, I’m not sure I find what McCardell and Margolis are saying too offensive, actually. I wish I could quote the entire books for you, but it seems to boil down to, “Listen: If you don’t fall within this portion of the size range, then you could make efforts to slim yourself down to the region. You’ll still have to make alterations, but the retail purchasing life is easier if you are within this specified band. If you don’t, you’ll have to work harder to find or alter things that will allow you to project the image that you want to the people that you want.” Eh. Fair enough. Dressing, it seems, is not about necessarily thinking about what you like, but rather what you want to say with what you wear. There is a bit of a performative element to it, and while we could dress to reflect our conceptions of self, to ourselves, there are other voices in the room, and those voices are products of our culture at large. Edith Head writes in the introduction of How to Dress for Success,
The way you dress—or package yourself—is the one thing over which you have absolute control. You can’t change the size of your feet, the shape of your legs, the color of your eyes or the texture of your hair—but you can change the way you look ads easily as an actress does each times she plays a new role.
When you know what you want out of life—the areas of success you desire—then it is easy to dress “in character” to create the most exciting, pleasing, attractive appearance for your audience. . . .
Women come in a vast variety of recognizable basic types: the cute type, the majestic type, the dainty type, the boyish type, the clinging-vine type, the outdoor-girl type, the sexy type and many others. Decide right now which basic type you are. Ask yourself how big a part your clothes have played in making you that type. Would you rather be a different type? Would you prefer being chic to cute, looking dramatic to looking majestic, appearing more feminine, less mousey more striking? What you wear, more than any other factor, can improve the type you are or change your type completely.
It is of first importance that the look you long for be compatible with your success goal. Does it fit into the picture of you moving rapidly toward the role you eventually want to play? (Head ix-xi)
Why the long quote? Well, there are several important ideas here. The first being about packaging and projection. While I’m not terribly keen on the implications of the notion that most women conform to easily recognizable archetypes, I freely admit to filing people under certain categories based not just on what they wear, but why they seem to be wearing it. The best thing about McCardell and Head is that their recommendations for dress are not about you. Well, at least, they’re not necessarily about your aesthetic preferences within a vacuum. Both seem to understand that clothing isn’t solely about self-expression, but function. Function in a literal sense, with McCardell’s monastic dress and down-with-girdles attitude, but also in a very figurative sense. When you put on clothes, you are essentially advertising a version of yourself to the world. This is a major difference between books like McCardell’s and Head’s, and exercises like Wardrobe Architect or some of the contemporary style guides I ran across. The second Wardrobe Architect worksheet asked a lot about one’s personal feelings about not wearing the right thing, or what you feel when when wearing a good-to-you outfit. McCardell and Head are very much about understanding what you’re wearing refracted through others’ sensibilities and lenses of experience.
I can’t find the page where McCardell says that wearing your ladybug pin for tea with your Aunt Linda, who famously detests whimsy, is misgauging your audience. It’s not Linda’s problem, but yours. I feel most like me when I’m wearing a full, below-the-knee skirt, a fitted top (dress bodice or blouse), and a cardigan. You know what, though? I really don’t like the way I’m treated a lot of the time. I hate that people talk to me with a bit of a baby voice, and look surprised when I tell them my major and school. What’s the answer, then? Dress like the awesome Janet Yellen? The fictional and fabulous Diane Lockhart? Actually, kinda.
Function, for McCardell and Head (we’ve abandoned Margolis, as I read her sewing book), is really about goal-oriented dressing. Who do you want to be and for whom do you have to perform? Naturally, I also worry about what that means, for you as a person. If you wear the mask for long enough, does your face grow to fit it? This is where I think McCardell especially nails it. She’s not suggesting macro changes, or looking like a lost little girl wearing her mummy’s clothes. You’re not a paper doll wearing your doctor/wife/mother/volunteer/bohemian outfit, but rather understanding how to take the baseline you—with your interests, comforts, and capabilities considered—and reconcile it with, then adapt it to, others’ conceptions of the person you want to be. I took this theology class that got very hippie dippie and talked about sites of meeting and encounter. For me, the body, through what we wear but who we are, acts as a site of encounter. It is where self and culture meet—not just for you, but for people who look at you. There’s something to be said about that moment of silent judgement and assessment.
This is running long (you think?), and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of either book’s advice. Must stop making navel-gazing digressions.
I really want to address Professor Przybyszewski’s book The Lost Art of Dress at some point (don’t hold your breath), as I listened to an interview with her on the Diane Rehm Show just when I was first writing this post. (Six whole weeks ago, reader. I know.) Basically, she thinks that we’ve become a nation of slobs and that no one cares about dressing anymore, and working on a college campus drives that home for her. Well, I’ll leave you with a story. I went to CVS during finals week a few semesters ago, after midnight. There was a guy from school walking in ahead of me, wearing the dude-bro uniform—shower shoes, too-loose plaid shorts, and a t-shirt that could have used an iron. On the way in, a man had asked us for money for food, but I don’t carry cash, and am always a big fat disappointment in those situations. Bro bought two packs of blond Oreos and a Gatorade. “Typical,” I thought, because I am a judgmental shrew and was going through a [school]-loathing period (and I am jealous of the average 19-year-old male metabolism, big time). On the way out, Bro gave a pack of Oreos to the man who wanted money for food. “They’re golden,” he said. And that’s that.