Movie directors and glamour photographers have always believed there's something sexy about a woman being crammed into a corset. If you glance at the entry for Gone with the Wind on the Internet Movie Database, the first picture that pops up is the famous shot of Hattie McDaniel trying to tighten the stays that will close the corset of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and thus squeeze her body into shape for the gown she's about to wear. Scarlett looks understandably pained, but as a belle of the 1860s, she's suffering for beauty.
Are we looking here at a Western equivalent of Chinese women binding their feet for the sake of elegance? Is there an element of sadism involved? Does it have anything to do with 21st-century women across the world submitting to dangerous surgery in order to look slightly better and also slightly ridiculous?
A photo that shows Gina Lollobrigida getting laced into her corset for Beat the Devil, a 1953 film by John Huston, appears near the end of An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality (University of California Press), by Jill Fields, an assistant professor of history at California State University. Apparently, the author wanted to leave us with that image. Captioning the picture, she notes that, as recently as the 1950s, the corset was once again fashionable.
So, what was fashionable and painful in the 1860s was also fashionable and painful 90-odd years later. How that came about is among many themes Fields develops as she works her way through the history of modern female underwear. An Intimate Affair, while occasionally thickened by postmodern theorizing, and seasoned with a dash of feminist conspiracy-mongering, nevertheless reports with care and liveliness on the bizarre moments in history that define how women present themselves.
The corset that made Scarlett grimace lasted into the 20th century before disappearing. It was killed off, apparently, because a somewhat looser moral code made the public armouring of women less necessary. People recognized that it was unhealthy, and Edwardian feminists suspected that it was foisted on women by the same men who denied them the vote.
The hero who finally eliminated it, at least for a time, was Paul Poiret (1879-1944), a couturier and fabric designer whose work still looks good in a show, Poiret: King of Fashion, currently at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Poiret, as people said, "liberated" women in 1908 by showing elegant, draped clothes that reflected bodies with some degree of reality. (He also developed the boyish flapper style that dominated the 1920s.)
Another Paris designer, also a king in his own time, brought the corset back in 1947. Christian ("My dream is to save women from nature") Dior introduced the New Look in 1947, redefining fashion for the post-war era.
Fields calls it the "Return of the Repressed." Dior's version of freedom from wartime restrictions on the use of cloth was a step backward. The New Look, aside from its much longer skirts, demanded "specialized corsetry that constricted the waist, abdomen, and hips." Dior designs of the 1940s and early 1950s all had one thing in common: They required the wearer to have (or pretend to have) the waist of a 15-year-old. He even built a layer of boned foundations inside some of his garments; there was no escaping. Fields, a student of industry as well as aesthetics, tells us that the supporters of the New Look included the textile and corset industries. Corset profits surged.
In North America, the disappearance of female legs and the reappearance of cinched waists aroused opposition. Dior received bundles of hostile mail and, in Chicago and Dallas, people actually picketed events honouring him. He was unrelenting. "The new lengths represent a freedom from restriction, a natural result that cannot be stopped."
Claire McCardell, an American designer, appeared to some people like an anti-Dior because her typical dress was simply draped, with no seamed waistline, much less a corset; it was to be worn with a self-adjusting belt. In 1955, a magazine article called McCardell "The Gal Who Defied Dior." The author was Betty Friedan, who would become a star with the appearance of The Feminine Mystique eight years later.
Meanwhile, the Warner Brothers Corset Company came down on Dior's side with its Merry Widow, timed in 1952 to coincide with the release of a film with the same name, a remake of an ancient story in which Lana Turner at one point wore a long white corset with high heels. Corsets slipped back into the shadows a few years later, not to be revived until Madonna wore Jean-Paul Gaultier's version as outerwear during her 1990 tour.
Fields often relies on mass culture as a marker in fashion, and never more so than in the case of Lana Turner, who provides the opening of the chapter on brassieres. Mervyn LeRoy gave Turner her first good part in They Won't Forget (1937), about a man charged with rape. Turner, 16 years old, was the adolescent he was supposed to have attacked. Having found her, LeRoy used her obvious sexuality to convey the message of raging desire that the Production Code wouldn't let him state openly.
He knew that audiences, watching Turner in a sweater, would grasp his meaning. But when she first saw the film -- with an audience -- she was horrified at the picture of the girl on the screen: "She wore a tight sweater and her breasts bounced as she walked. She had to look like a girl men would want to rape. But she certainly did not seem to be me. Mother and I crept out of the theatre and stumbled into a cab. I was ashamed to face people." This was the beginning of Lana Turner as the Sweater Girl.
Jill Fields treats all this with the seriousness befitting a history professor. Comedy emerges frequently, however, in her deadpan citing of name brands. For padded brassieres she mentions the Gay Deceivers, the Cuties and the Flatterettes, the last featured in the Sears catalogues. Then there was the company that offered, instead of B-cup, C-cup, etc., a more imaginatively named collection, ranging from the "rosebuds" to the "surgicals," each of them "Perfect as Nature Itself," all presented under a name that was a small masterpiece of diacritical invention: Nue-De.