Friday, 30 August 2013


The ‘New Feminine’ silhouette seems to spring back into the spotlight every other season. It is defined by the allegedly 'classic' female figure – small waist balanced out against a fuller bust and hips. Hourglass. Christian Dior’s 50s New Look. Curves. Whichever terms and associations it’s dressed up in, the shape underpinning it is the same. It is one that, according to various publications, will: “[cause] many eyes to pop”, “[set] pulses racing” and “be admired by men.” (All quotes are real, from sources remaining unnamed). Interesting that all three assertions claim the hourglass figure to be titillating. It’s a shape often allied with extreme femininity and/ or sexuality, all Mad Men or Marilyn Monroe.

The actual hourglass is a prevalent symbol in itself, with the sands slipping away representing time passing or running out. However, it is the distinctive outer shape of the hourglass that is held up as an ideal, including being associated with fertility (in the often quoted and much disputed attraction of a 0.7 hip-to-waist ratio) and physical attraction. But even if there is some kind of primal explanation, this fails to hold sway in contemporary society. Now it is an inevitable part of the commodification, media coverage and relentless judgment of the female body that one shape will be held up as being better than another. Pronouncements are made and pseudo-science rolled out. Conflicts are set up between skinny and curvy or thin and fat, as though there are only two slots that women fit into.

In these pictures my waist is smaller than usual, aided underneath the floral dress by a vintage Warner’s Original Merry Widow 'cinch bra' from the fifties. I initially thought it was a corset, but was corrected by some judicious research into lingerie terms and a closer look at the label. Retailing back then at $12.50, it was bought by my paternal grandma in America. It looks like this. Several of the original adverts can still be seen, such as this one in the Milwaukee Journal claiming: “It has become a part of every smart gal’s wardrobe… and with this year’s corseted look it’s a must!” Make of that what you will. Extraordinary though that some key words, several clicks and a link or two allowed me to place the hand-me-down item that sits in my wardrobe within its historical context.

Black nylon lace, with two rows of hooks and eyes like teeth, it was produced as part of a franchise for the film ‘The Merry Widow’ starring Lana Turner. First came a corset, based on one worn in the film, then the cinch bra (also named the strapless corselette by some). The whole explanation can be read here, but my favourite detail lies in Turner’s response to the Warner’s corset: I am telling you, the merry widow was designed by a man. A woman would never do that to another woman.”
This design may be slightly more forgiving, but it remains difficult to wear. I was hugely relieved when the back was unhooked and I was free of its grasp; enjoying the shape it gave me, but resenting the constrictions it placed on movement and comfort.

On a truthful level I can state that I am totally happy with my body as it is. And yet, it remains the case that I found a frisson of pleasure in manipulating my figure as I did here. The artifice of it appealed, as did the slightly changed appearance. Perhaps this is partly to do with my general love of moving between visual identities. But it is also an intriguing paradox. I am unsettled to admit that I found satisfaction in the semblance of a smaller waist, as this goes against my general beliefs about shape. Yet very occasionally, I wish that my figure were closer to the hourglass ideal – that my ribcage was more compact and my torso slimmer. That’s when I feel the weight of cultural conditioning sitting tight on my shoulders. Objectively easy to flap it away, harder to pull out the claws dug in a little too deep.

The dress worn here was handmade by one of my maternal great-grandmas in the 50s and was first worn on the blog four years ago in 2009, and then again in 2011. It now fits perfectly, with or without a corset beneath. The cummerbund belt was from a charity shop, as were the shoes. Vintage necklace belonged to another great grandmother. The only other addition was Chanel red lipstick.  


Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. One of the nicer things about putting on weight is finally fitting into something special. It was nice when I could finally wear my grandmother's dress without needing a belt to cinch in the waist.

Caitlin Rose said...

That's so interesting that you chose this dress! I juuuust stared rewatching mad men a couple days ago and now I'm dying to bring out all my old 1950s dress from a few seasons ago!


What fantastic dress, it looks fresh and vibrant, as if the print was made today!
I've always loved accentuating my waist since it's very small, but that also comes with other fitting issues, which is why I learnt to sew. Glad that you are happy with your body, you have a beautiful figure, you wear the dress wonderfully and very confident.

Closet Fashionista said...

You look amazing in that dress!
And it's so weird to think about ways women changed their figures in the past. I almost wish we lived back then instead of now where photoshop does that and makes it even more impossible to live up to expectations.

The Foolish Aesthete said...

Dear Rosalind, you look as timeless as your hourglass look. It seems women enjoyed a brief interlude of unlacing their corsets in the '20s, reveling in androgyny, before being clapped in bindings again by the New Look.

That said, I grew up adoring this ultra-feminine silhouette. When I was 16, I was so thrilled to have a party dress designed for an older friend's debutante ball. I specifically asked for a corset, or at least strong boning in the torso (the dress practically stood upright by itself). It was topped by a silk band skimming the shoulders and finished off by a full tutu skirt. It was straight out of a 1950s film, ready for its song and dance act. I guess I couldn't blame a man for designing that.

My 86-yr old friend, Virginia, during her days as a model in the '50s had so many photographs in this New Look ideal. Plus some lingerie ads like the ones you've posted of the Merry Widow!

Though we jest about corsets being designed by men, a friend was just telling me about research she was doing on Chinese foot binding (she's Caucasian but was somehow interested). Apparently, an Emperor or nobleman first encountered a lady's small, arched foot in a dance. Like a ballerina's point. From then on, he ordered all the noble ladies at court to be bound. Through time, the technique was "perfected" and they found the optimal time to bind was in childhood. Her descriptions of broken feet and little girls doing their walking exercises in excruciating pain made me clap my ears shut.

Before I make anyone else cringe, I better read the rest of your posts! Hope you've had a wonderful summer. -- J xx

amateur idler said...

I appreciated this post immensely. Some bloggers refuse to admit to anything but fearless satisfaction in themselves. I love that you defined that weird place I know I often find myself in where I can like my body and also wish things were different at the same time. I do have that classic "feminine" figure, and I passionately wanted Audrey Hepburn angularity for years. I still do sometimes.
I totally understand the slightly perverse pleasure of manipulating one's figure, but I'll never understand why I like doing it!

Willow said...

I've often desired more of an hourglass figure, for both the look and so that I could wear dresses from the 50's (also, a little padding for when I fall on my bum would be nice, my mum often calls me "bottomly challenged"). But when having a 27" waist, 33" bust and 34" hips it can make my choices of clothes from the 50's very limited. But despite this, I'm still happy with my body the way it is and wouldn't have it any other way.

I squirm at the thought of the S-bend shapewear from the early 1900's and the corsetry that was worn in the past - I'm very glad to not have been born in those times. I even avoid underwire bras.

You have a beautiful figure (both with and without the corset).
Lovely, dramatic photos and glorious dress. I'm coveting it, it's absolutely gorgeous (as are you).

Anupriya DG said...

Wow...your grandma actually hand stitched this pretty dress!!! <3

On another note, I think every woman should be comfortable & happy with their own body, whatever shape that may be. But yes, the hourglass silhouette still remains like an extremely coveted dream for most! :)

P.S.: Your hair looks GORGEOUS, honey!

Lydia said...

I read a survey once that said the hourglass figure is the least common figure for women to have, with straight, apple, and pear shapes prevailing. I have an hourglass, and while I definitely enjoy my shape and the fact that gained weight is distributed evenly, very few brands make clothing that actually fit this shape! Most things are too tight in the bust and hips and too baggy in the waist!

Vix said...

I thought that dress was contemporary - the pattern is so bold and fabulous!
I can't abide restrictive underwear, I rarely wear a bra. A work colleague once told me I got so much male attention because my waist/hip ration was apparently the male ideal as it indicated fertility. Probably why I perfect empire-line clothing! xxx

Perdita said...

The idea in the media that hourglass is more 'natural' irks me ... Just as some women are tall and slim (and when they are idealised, others resort to fad diets or worse), some women have an hourglass figure - and as you mention, waspies, push up bras etc' are sold to anyone without a small waist and large chest. I happen to have that figure, and hate it being insinuated (as it often is by well meaning folk) that I'm somehow a 'real woman' - is my value therefore in my thigh fat? Are flat chested women less 'real'? Do people think that a body type where at the top of my healthy bmi I have a 27 inch waist (I'm very short btw) is realistic for taller, or larger framed women and will remove body image issues!? And mainly ... As you say ... There's then the 'sexy' side. Because if you wear the 'wrong' outfit, you can fall foul of society calling it 'slutty'.

I like my figure and just dress how I like. But comments and media nonsense does irk me sometimes.

Sacramento Amate said...

My dear Rosalind, I adore you whatever you wear, but this dress and the perfect setting bring tears of joy to the eyes of my soul.

Sacramento Amate said...

My dear Rosalind, I adore you whatever you wear, but this dress and the perfect setting bring tears of joy to the eyes of my soul.

Helen Le Caplain said...

What a beautiful dress - it looks practically new as the colour and pattern are so striking. :(

OrigamiGirl said...

I do love how many family heirloom dresses and other pieces you own. It's fabulous that you clearly come from a family who have always cared about clothes, to have preserved them for so long. I think hoarding is under-appreciated. :) When you hold onto things they can become so precious.

The thing about the pressure for an hourglass figure that always frustrates me is the magazines/men act like you can have really wide hips and a big boobs and not have any stomach fat. They push for ideals that are near impossible. Despite having really wide hips which I love I am never going to be thin at the same time and I spend way too much of life fretting about that. Feminist and all you still can't escape the pressure.


pretty :)

Rebecca Ann said...

Rosalind, that is so neat you have items from your great grandmothers. I have a few pieces of clothing and jewelry from my grandmother who was a young woman in the 1950s and it sure does mean a lot. I agree that it is a shame that society wants us all to fit into one mold in regards to body type/shape. Your thoughts sure did make me think. Thanks for your down to earth honesty. :)


Jess said...

I guess dressing up is all about assuming different identities and is liberating in that sense. We can try on corsets but are lucky in that we're not forced to wear them! Have you read 'Be Awesome' by Hadley Freeman? She talks a lot about the media's contradictory messages on the 'ideal' woman's shape.

Emalina said...

It feels all the more resonant that you are discussing the use of corsets wearing your great grandmothers' beautiful clothes. At least nowadays we have more choice in what we wear: we can choose to be angular one day, curvy the next, without the same uncompromising adherence to rigid norms that our great grannies had to contend with.
An ideal hip to waist ratio may be seen to symbolise fertility, but sadly in the real world it's not always the case, that much I know.

Jean at said...

What struck me first was the eye makeup, which you didn't mention, and your lovely hair. Then it was the gorgeous poses with your face up-turned, so pretty. I thought perhaps you'd lost a little weight. Ah, but then you mentioned the corset, and I understood. The tyranny you talk about, weight/body image/proportions etc, still echo in my post-menopausal brain, unfortunately.

I remember reading Colette's Cherie (or maybe it was in Le Fin de Cherie) many years ago and being struck by the scene where Cherie comes back to visit his beloved Lea, but she's given up her corsets. He's horrified to see her as an "old woman", but she's been liberated and is secure in her comfortable, uncorseted self.

I recently bought a corselet, thinking it would be fun to wear with some fuller skirts, giving me the hint of a waist that I never really had anyway. It was unbearable, especially in this southern heat. I think that I'm with Lea, at this point.

For you, however? I would say have fun, think of it as costuming, for that's what it really is. It's like picking up a dialect for your character. Some characters are more fun to portray than others, and there's always time to wipe off the grease paint and loosen your stays. XXXOOO

Vanessa, Take only Memories said...

First of all: Wonderful photos. The hourglass looks great on you.
I love Turner's quote that a woman would never do that to another woman. I personally don't dress for men. My boyfriend (of 6 years) couldn't care less about what I wear which can be annoying but also liberating. Everything I wear, I wear for myself.
Sometimes I get a bit dressed up for my girlfriends. But that's just fun :)
It a difficult topic because I don't like that women were and are still are seen as objects of desire but at the same time it can be fun to be desired...

Thrifted Shift said...

Thanks for your revealing comments on the merry widow. It's good to be reminded that there's often much more going on under the surface than meets the eye, especially in fashion.

Anonymous said...

Your body confidence shows in the way you pose and experiment with your body. In a society where the majority of us (men included) wish to change the way they look, through weight-loss, body modification or similar, it's refreshing to know that you're happy with yourself at an age when many of your contemporaries are struggling with self image.

Katiebuchanan said...

That dress is so pretty! I love it :)

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Melanie said...

Beautiful dress, beautiful photos, and I enjoy the history.
Body manipulation through clothing is interesting. I like that you kind of liked it. Cinch bra is a term I didn't know. I like the word waspie to describe a waist cincher. It's funny how fashion nips and tucks us to an ideal. I like the flapper era where board straight was the thing. It's also interesting that an era celebrating relative female emancipation was linked to an androgynous feminine form. Would that happen on such a scale today?

Gabrielle said...

I love your photos! You are wonderful model! :)

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