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)
14000_14143_3_taylor

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.

Advertisement

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.

Anne Hollander is Slate's fashion columnist.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 9:19 PM The Phone Call Is Twenty Minutes of Pitch-Perfect, Wrenching Cinema
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.