Last weekend we took a quick trip to Nashville to see "The Golden Age of Couture: 1947-1957", a show on loan from London's Victoria and Albert Museum to the Frist Museum. There we saw some wonderful examples of the post-World War II "New Look" famously introduced by Christian Dior: voluminous skirts, padded hips, wasp-waists and pointed bosoms.
This highly-engineered silhouette was giddily adopted at that time by the fashion world and the world in general. Witness your family photos from that generation or the movies of that era starring actresses from Marilyn Monroe to Doris Day.
General wisdom explains that the New Look was fashion's reaction to the privations of the war just then ended: the rationing of fabrics, the restrictions on ornamentation, the overall lack of availability and the social consensus that had required everyone to abandon any sort of wardrobe frivolity for The Duration.
What the general wisdom doesn't explain is why the ladies of that decade were willing to force their bodies into the "shapers" the New Look silhouette required. After all, designers such as Poiret and Chanel had just spent the the early years of the 20th century freeing women from their stays and corsets. But just as some athletes believe"no pain, no gain", most mid-century women appear to have thought "no pain, plain Jane". Surely no 21st-century woman would subscribe to such an outmoded idea?
Next, standing next to several fashionably dressed young women we watched a vintage film clip showing a model being tightly cinched into the requisite undergarments of the day. We all winced at what we saw and exchanged such remarks as "She must have had her lower ribs removed", "How could anyone breathe wearing that?", "Can you believe those women put extra padding on their hips?", and "Those look like instruments of torture".
We all smiled smugly at each other, looking back on these fashion victims of the '50's with the superiority of hindsight. Then one of the women tugged at the hem of her abbreviated skirt, a second one adjusted her decolletage to better frame her multicolored tattoo, a third stowed her cellphone conveniently in the front of her blouse secured under her bra strap, and all three tottered away balancing precariously on their sky-high, "killer" stilettos.