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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In the movies, the past is indeed a foreign country; they dress differently there. The clothes on women, particularly, create foreignness in different ways. Depending on what era the movie is set in, clothes can conjure a unfamiliarity that is soothingly adorable or uneasily alien. Twenty years back, and the gaze is nostalgic. But go 45 years back, and the fashions cross into a mist that renders them faintly dangerous--they are feared because their truth has finally been let go. Instead of indulgence, 40-year-old fashion seems to need taming. How else to explain the way movies use ridicule and easy clichés when re-creating the clothes of the 1950s?

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You can see how it works in the recent movie Pleasantville, in which a pair of modern teens are transported back 45 years--not into real life, but into a black-and-white Ozzie and Harriet-style TV sitcom. The movie's conceit is that sitcom conventions of that time--no color, no sex, no bathrooms--delimit the characters' reality. The extrademanding female underwear and extrasilly big skirts also confirm our sense of the foreignness then, when painful situations could be resolutely ignored and awkward facts kept under wraps while in company. The women's clothes in Pleasantville, with all their ridiculous exaggerations, show us a country now alien indeed. They remind us that there was a time when the line between the personal and the public was impassable.

Pleasantville suggests that '50s fashions for women have now come to mean what female Victorian clothing used to mean in the 1920s--not just clothes in a different style, but a metaphor, a compendium of ridiculous and unnatural devices invented to dishonor female life and liberty. The actual clothes of the '50s are now almost half a century gone, most of them vanished. We only see them in old films, old television, and old magazines, just the way 1880s fashions were understood, 40 years later in the 1920s, from ancient fashion plates and daguerreotypes.

The transition from the 1880s to the 1920s was severe. By the second half of the 1920s, female fashion and female life had been totally transformed. Women had adopted short hair and short skirts; they wore the easy-fitting sweaters and dresses appropriate for modern female citizens, who by that time had acquired effective means of contraception, gainful employment, and the vote. Too young to remember the ordinary clothes of the previous era, they regarded huge bustles, sweeping trains, lofty coiffures, and tightly laced waists with a ferocious derision born of dread.

Now, at the end of the 1990s, with the evidence drawn mainly from old movies and old sitcoms, '50s fashion is similarly ripe for reductive contempt. Those big, pointy breasts; useless hats; and lampshade skirts look so creepy on the screen--and hardly a woman now alive can remember what the great range of real clothing was like at the time.

Yet this phenomenon mysteriously rights itself the further we recede in time. Go back 50 more years, and all our social perceptions become romantically transformed. Clothes in historical movies can show the really distant past as a friendly foreign land, perhaps even a lot like the here and now. All Ancient Historical Drag is morally and visually neutral, apt for inventive play with the styles of a century back, or five centuries, or 20. Victorian fashion, for example, wholly redeemed, is often treated with great respect in movies such as The Portrait of a Lady. The high hair and big bustles have been assimilated to all the other harmless customs of antiquity; they've become the equivalent of Egyptian breastplates and Elizabethan padding.

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H istorical films are usually kind to the olden days, updating the principal women's clothes so the actresses look attractive by modern standards. Two recent releases deal with the Elizabethan age--Elizabeth, the bloody tale of the Virgin Queen's rise, and Shakespeare in Love, a romp through Elizabethan theater. The first shows late 16th century fashion looking ridiculous only on the aging queen herself, as if no other woman at the time ever wore a rigid farthingale and stuffed sleeves, a tightly frizzed wig and a bushel of pearls, or painted her face with white paste. The young court ladies in Elizabeth appear in their natural hair and skin, wearing modern-looking Renaissancey garments that run to becomingly mobile and flowing silk dresses with smoothly boned bodices. Shakespeare in Love has authentic Elizabethan dress for everybody, but there's a good deal of extra emphasis on the way the period corsets flatten the breasts and strictly encase the ribs--and on how thrilling it is when the corsets come off. In '50s movies set in Elizabethan times, of course, everybody wore big, molded, and pointy breasts with their Renaissancey garb--no flattening was permitted and certainly no exposure.

Even though corseted bodies are authentically Elizabethan, they are used so freely in both these films because they're modish once more. Modern designers such as Christian Lacroix and John Galliano--and especially Jean-Paul Gaultier--overthrew '60s ideology to reinstate the corset, using them as sexy accents in the early '90s. Such recent use has decisively transformed the standard 20th century emblem of female oppression back into the erotic device it always was. Corseting has stopped looking dishonorable and started looking chic again, both as a feature of recent ball gowns and wedding gowns and as a costume component that can give a modern frisson to movies set in ancient days.

The '50s aren't quite ancient yet, but they're getting more so. By contrast to the condescension of Pleasantville, genuine tenderness for the time could be seen in The Last Picture Show, a 1971 film about real life in 1951. Nostalgia could still be evoked after only 20 years, and many remembered when. The movie was beautifully restrained and accurate with respect to clothing--the peasant blouses, the swinging skirts, the smooth, side-parted hair, the garter belts and capacious underpants from a time before spandex were all deliciously heartbreaking, never exaggerated for laughs. The film's evocation of the style of the time was marred only by insufficient attention to movement. The young jeans-wearing actresses of the '70s failed to walk in the correct '50s style while wearing long narrow skirts. (The secret: Knees together, and don't try to stride.)

Today, in the '90s, right on schedule, fashions of the '70s are being given a nostalgic, sympathetically accurate whirl in such movies as Hilary and Jackie and The Ice Storm. A genial gaze is being cast on them just as flared trousers, square-toed shoes, and long male hair are once again looking normal in the real-life fashion universe. In another 20 years, no doubt, '70s fashion will be in for its share of cinematic contempt (once the square toes are truly gone) just as the '50s finally achieve true antiquity.

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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.

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.

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