Monday, June 12, 2017

A Fashion Lineage: Frills and Flowers, Past and Present

I meant for this post to be a simple, little one, with no fashion history, no vintage photos, and no research. But I couldn't help myself! I went a bit nuts finding old photos to illustrate some of the history behind my new dress. The search is fun and therapeutic for me, if also a bit exhausting. I'm still battling with my insurance company and a brief of obsession with 40s/70s ruffles and flowers was just the distraction I needed. 

So. So this post is about a modern outfit that is strongly influenced both by the 1940s and the 1970s. There's also a dash or two of commentary about racism along the way, because I couldn't write about 1940s tropical style without racism rearing its ugly little head. 

But it will all start with a fabulous, vintage demi-parure (i.e. a partial set of matching jewelry) because, in all truth, I bought the dress to match the brooch and earrings, not the other way around.

Here they are. Aren't they great? A friend of mine tagged me when they came up for sale on Facebook and, naturally, I snapped them up. After all, they were only $40 (Canadian). Based on their style, I'm pretty sure they're from the 1940s. Another hint that they're from the 40s is the fact that the earrings have screw-backs, which were pretty much entirely replaced by clipons by the 1950s.

Here's the brooch, which I've simply clipped to a barrette so I could wear it in my hair.

And here are the matching earrings. Screw-backs are actually totally annoying and I only buy them if the price is right and/or the earrings are so wonderful, I'm willing to put up with the nuisance. Clipons hurt more but they require less fuss, which is probably why vintage screw-backs are usually even cheaper than vintage clipons. Most women really don't want to bother with either any more, so the prices are right. 

Besides, if I want great vintage, and I do, they can't be avoided. There were several decades when women seldom pierced their ears. I gather it was considered a bit... slutty? or something. 

Of course, you know my feelings about judging women's sexuality: I'm opposed to it, entirely. So I'll tell you, straight up, that part of why I like this demi-parure is because I think irises look like vaginas - glorious, happy, healthy vaginas. 

To this day, my most read Sublime Mercies post is The Violated Vagina, a post which uses images of irises and orchids to illustrate how pedophiles repeatedly raping me left me feeling about my own female anatomy. It breaks my heart that this post resonates so much with so many of women that scores of them read it every day. But, if there's a need for such straight talk, I'm glad I wrote it. 

The fact that so many women are reading it, and passing it on to others made me even more determined to wear iris imagery with pride. Beau and I both wore irises at our wedding, mine in my hair, his on his lapel. 

So, when I saw this Addition Elle dress on sale, covered in irises ...

... and knew how well it would match my new, vintage demi-parure ...

Dress: Addition Elle, Shoes: Ecco; Brooch, earrings, sunglasses, and pinkie ring: vintage
... I got it! 

As soon as it arrived, and I saw how busy it was in both its print and its design, I knew I wanted to wear the brooch in my hair. That was the only way it wouldn't get lost in all those ruffles and flowers.

Plus, it was just such a 1940s thing to do.

The dress has a 1940s feel to it, so it all seemed an easy and natural choice.

There were many ways to wear a flower in your hair in the 1940s. Most involved a side part and/or some asymmetry. 

A very young Angela Lansbury
And many involved a weird, curly updo. 

With my hair, I can create a curly updo in my sleep. 

Gene Tierney
I wasn't trying for exact verisimilitude

Though that would be fun too... but it would also require more work and skill than interests me most days.

I was just influenced by these older styles, not ruled by them.  

Betty Grable
I mean, really, I'd look a bit costumey if I went all out, wouldn't I? I don't mind that sometimes, but not all the time. 

When I think of hairstyles like this, I think of two people: Esther Williams ... 

... and Billie Holiday. This, my friends, is the face of PTSD

I know it well. 

Billie Holiday and I have some things in common. She was repeatedly sexually abused as a child and sent to a school full of abuse. Many of her biographies say that she was a "teen prostitute," starting from 13 or 14. I beg to differ. There is no such thing as a child prostitute. Billie Holiday was a sexually exploited child, repeatedly raped by grown men. They paid, so most of the world would never think of it as rape, but rape it was, for her and for me. She was a slave and so was I. 

And she became a heroin addict.

I hope those flowers in her hair helped her feel better.

Those of us who survive, find our small ways to feel better. In fact, that's how we survive

Tra la la. Now let's move on to the dress itself.

Linda Darnell
Tropical prints had a small vogue in the 1940s (which continued with more strength through the Tiki craze of the 50s and 60s).

Loretta Young
They were generally of a dubious, generalized, "ethnic" origin ...

... and were often used to impart a vaguely "foreign," quality of the "exotic" other. 

Were they Polynesian, Chinese, Mexican ... 

Hawaiian? It didn't really matter to the white Americans wearing them.

??, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, and Bob Hope
They were just foreign and exotic and that was good enough for them to feel adventurous ... 

... and just a little... saucy. 

Sometimes they dispensed with the tropical floral prints altogether and just threw a plant on a woman, getting right to the point: these vaguely foreign women were perceived sexual women, far more sexual than any good, clean, white American woman. 

It was racist as hell.

Throw some tropical flowers on her ...

... toss her into a natural setting, and, hey presto, you had your sex object who might, just might, be more open to actually having sex than the women of middle America. 

Hazel Scott
May I again say how horribly racist this was? So it's not surprising that most "brown" (read, anyone not white) female stars were put in this role...

Lena Horne
... a lot

Dorothy Lamour
But, let's face it, there weren't a lot of brown stars in the 1940s, so it was even more common for white women to be "browned up" as foreign (as if brown women couldn't be American!) and then made uber-sexual, to go with white men's racist notions of brown-skinned women. 

That's Dorothy Lamour lounging half naked in brown makeup.

This is what she really looked like. She had a bit of Spanish heritage. That was enough to typecast her in Hollywood.

Here's the white Linda Darnell.

Here's Linda Darnell as a Mexican.

Here she is, darker skinned, as a Spanish woman. (Note the ruffles. We'll come back to that later.)

And here she is, God help us all, as an "Indian"!

They even did it to Myrna Loy for a while. 

She became... um, God knows what white version of some unknown ethnicity this is supposed to be. Is the dress vaguely Egyptian maybe?

And this? Spanish?

And this?!?! The frizzy wig, the ambiguous floral print, the lack of coverage; haven't we seen this somewhere before? 

What an insult to women of colour everywhere! 

I know this is hard to believe, but if I'd been in the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s, they probably would even have tried to typecast me - pale as milk me - as an "exotic", dark-skined other!

You see, even with my lily white skin, my brown eyes, dark brows, slightly pronounced features, and auburn/brunette hair, would have been too "ethnic" to be just "plain American," or, as Beau's mother calls white people, "normal". 

In short, I look too Jewish. The irony, of course, is that many of the power players in Hollywood were Jews! MGM stands for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; you can't find two more Jewish names.

What a world. 

When you think about all this, you can see why I'm so angry when I think about what they did to Rita Hayworth (and others), who was Mexican (and, not, of course, originally names Rita Hayworth). With a talented, beautiful woman like Rita Hayworth, why did they have to de-ethnicize her ...

... and then brown up Dorothy Lamour to look, let's face it, just like Rita Hayworth before they subjected her to all that painful electrolysis and, I'm assuming, plastic surgery and skin whitener?

And, then, it gets better. They sometimes re-ethnicized her, complete with irises, tropical prints... 

... and, of course, ruffles. 

Ruffles were another sure sign of the foreign and exotic, not exclusively, of course, but often.

They too had a fairly universal association with brown women ...

... and became a kind of shorthand for the other.

They were part of some traditional garb, as Frida Kahlo demonstrated in her proud reclamation of traditional Mexican clothing.

Frida Kahlo and her doctor, with her painting of the two of them
I've written about both the exoticization of "Latino" ruffles ...

... and my strong connection to Frida Kahlo before, so I won't belabour either point.

Instead, let's move on to the 1970s.

Me and a younger friend on our way to a birthday party in 1980. She's wearing my ruffled blouse and skirt. I loved that skirt!
I've always loved pretty, "girly" clothing, including ruffles.

The little girl me would have loved this dress.

This should come as no surprise. Ruffles were everywhere in the 1970s. 

Peasant dresses were full of them ...

... and are clearly echoed in this season's warm weather styles. 

Disco dresses were often covered in frilly ruffles.

Check this one out. It looks like it's made from a pattern ... 

... almost identical to my dress. Note the sleeves! They're the same! I think that's so much fun.

In the 70s, there were lots of feminine summer dresses...

... that were a lot like mine.

Wrap dresses, including ruffled wrap dresses, were all the rage ...

Mine's a faux wrap dress ...

... bearing a strong kinship to this frothy number worn by Olivia Newton-John. 


Never forget that people's interest in vintage and retro looks are nothing new. Here, Donna Summer is clearly going for a retro look reminiscent of the 40s looks I showed you earlier. 

There is absolutely no disputing that these Ossie Clark confections ...

... are the direct descendants of these ones from the 1940s. 

As is this Ossie Clark dress ...

... which, in turn, obviously influenced whoever designed my dress (regardless of whether they knew it or not).

Bianca Jagger
A look like this ...

... is the clear descendant of this ...

... and this. And Angela Lansbury's hair style here ...

... clearly influenced me, on a casual weekend in 2017.  

That's how fashion, and all art, actually works. As we look toward the future, we are drawing from the past, even when we don't know it.

But I like knowing it. It's fun. 

And it makes me feel like I'm a part of something bigger than just myself.

Shall we try to predict what past fashions will make a comeback next?