Love & Torture

for The Nashville City Paper

Swing by the Belle Meade Plantation and get a gander at Strait-Laced and Loose Women, an exhibit of women’s undergarments from the last few centuries. The title is based on the idea that women were either ‘loose’ or ‘proper,’ according to how they wore their corsets. The tighter, the more prim, the looser, well, the looser.

Given how I feel about restrictive clothing (it would take a rip in the fabric of time to get me into a corset), I had to go see for myself. From an anthropological standpoint, what women have done for fashion amazes me. The period clothes, like set production for a Henry James movie, are placed on sewing dummies throughout the home’s regular tour, already well worth the $10 admission fee.

Women had few options in the 18th and 19th centuries. Landing a husband was their career, replete with ‘business attire,’ that of a forged teensy waist, a brimming decolletage and a poofy derriere. Life outside the bathtub wasn’t exactly freewheeling for these women. No casual Fridays, at least not before the marriage night and the new husband found out that falsies, whalebone and baling wire were responsible for that cute little hourglass figure.

The first dress I came upon was an ornate blue Colonial A-line from 1770. On a bust next to it was a harmless enough looking frilly chemise, but it harbored a horrible secret, a thing called a ‘busk.’ The busk was a piece of wood that immobilized the body, for good posture, from the chest to the lower abdomen, so the wearer had to open her knees and drop onto a settee like John Wayne lest she disembowel herself. Parties must have been interesting back then, not to mention casual sex. “Excuse me, could you hold my body splint for a second?” The dress, though, was lovely.

Next, I came upon a representation of the popular silhouette of the early 1800s, the tiny waist and the bell-shaped skirt. For a quarter of a decade, women simply piled petticoat upon petticoat upon petticoat— up to 14 for eveningwear—to get the desired effect. Dresses were considered fire hazards back then because flames were difficult to extinguish on hems one needed a broom with an extension to reach. And they were ungodly hot. I think it not a coincidence that the first spontaneous combustion was recorded during this period.

Some ease came at the middle of the 19th century with the invention of the much lighter cage crinoline, a rigid bell-shaped web of reinforcement that took the place of all the layers but had its own disadvantages—again the problematic sitting. If the wearer didn’t negotiate the back properly, the bell cage would fly straight up in front exposing a city of contraptions so complicated a schematic was needed to make it work.

The bell contour relaxed momentarily into a more realistic shape during the second half of the 19th century. But the corset, always a staple of the hourglass design, stayed on for a while. Health problems, such as difficulties in childbirth (like it wasn’t hard enough), breathing problems and the “displacement of internal organs” eventually brought people to their senses on the heels of a women’s health care movement.

In the meantime, however, along came the bustle, a fake shelf of a rump worn under the back of the skirt. Some were fabric and some were crate-like devices that wrapped around the already suffering waist. Apparently a blooming butt was somewhat attractive back then. Just my fate to live in an era of bony women being the beau ideal. What happened to “childbearing hips” being a good thing? Don’t we, as a society, want to reproduce?

The last bit of the tour included an exhibit of underwear for children. These items are nothing like the soft Carter Spankies of my youth. Like the Chinese, who thought binding a young girl’s feet would keep the feet small, 19th century mothers tied their daughters up like sausage casing at very young ages thinking the shape would become permanent. They had corsets for 3-year-olds! Little girls didn’t even get to make it to first grade to find out what a bummer life was going to be. Getting little Miriam into that business attire as soon as possible was key because a good body was essentially a type of dowry.

And sort of like putting on the iron mask and just walking into the tower, women originally sewed their own instruments of torture before they were mass manufactured. These days it’s a billion-dollar industry because underwear now has a dual mission. Not only must underwear help land a man (the Wonder Bra) but must help keep one as well (consider the bustier).

OK, so we would wear rhinestone picture frames around our heads if we thought it would attract the opposite sex, but please, messieurs, take some of the blame for the foolish peacock behavior. The whole nails, hair and underwear approach may be silly, but “let yourself go” for three days and, well, since I don’t want to seem bitter, I say let’s just do what we have to. Let’s tie our knees together so we have to walk like John Cleese. Let’s wear hats that look like hammerhead sharks and shoes the size of small boat docks. It’s all just plumage that will fade and droop. But at the end of the big mating game, can we assume that our internal organs will still be where they are supposed to be?

Is this too much to ask?


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