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.

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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.

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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.