Out of the Past

Fashion and its victims.
Jan. 20 1999 3:30 AM

Out of the Past

The movies and the way we wore.

(Continued from Page 1)

T he modes of any period can easily be made to look stupid. Even in its own day, fashion needs a lot of enhancement to make it look great. Whereas fashion photography--in the '50s as always--aimed to arouse active lust for new goods, the clothes in '50s movies were so thoroughly surreal as to look quite unfit for normal wear, even if they were waitresses' uniforms or girl-next-door dresses. Movie garb was automatically read as part of the tradition that stretched back to silent Hollywood days, with everything made specially for the stars and uniquely worn by them. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the designers fit Elizabeth Taylor into a form-fitting, made-to-measure, boned-and-stayed, built-in-bra sort of slip, unobtainable by anybody else, an inspired collaboration between Taylor's unbelievable body and the costume department. Real '50s slips had no relation to it at all. They were like the ones in The Last Picture Show, with wrinkles around the middle and unreliable straps that slid around on the shoulders, uneasily contending with the bra straps. In the '50s, nobody wanted the movies to show all that except for the Italian ones, where the sexiest women all wore ill-fitting slips and had hairy armpits, too. That was really foreign.


But equally strange was Doris Day, whose many movie outfits were conceived as musical-comedy costumes--bright, smooth, and jaunty, every blue and yellow clear and true, every neat hat perfectly matching, and every outline eternally crisp--even if she was supposed to be working in an office or teaching in a journalism school. Nobody ever wanted to emulate this effect; it was hers alone.

Today we cede our vision of '50s female fashion to the movie version, as if that were the real mirror of the decade--everything blatantly cleansed of error, willfully idealized into unreality, odorless, effortless, affectless. Those excruciatingly clean-cut and perfectly clad cinematic female bodies can seem to suggest a world unwilling to acknowledge the existence of adultery, homosexuality, racial strife, female lust and rage, political and cultural revolution, family dysfunction, or messy passion of any kind, not to mention irreparable loss, unbearable pain, and death.

In fact, many '50s movies were about all these things and more, the most intractable aspects of human life. But they were always careful to suggest that none of that could affect the time-honored conventions for the cinematic female wardrobe. Those conventions had an important meaning at the time. They stood for the notion that private life was private.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 9:03 AM My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. And Then I Found Myself With Someone Like Dad.
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.