Figure-tively Speaking

Earl Carroll was a club owner in the thirties and forties.  His theaters were in New York (long gone) and in Los Angeles (in the hands of the City of Los Angeles Historic Preservation Board).  Over the entrances of both venues was a proclamation of neon insolence:  'Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world.'

This was a time for conspicious clubbing.  It was a time to wear your tightest and brightest, to wear flashing smiles and face flashing camera bulbs.  Hair was short, shingled and lacquered; and shone with brilliantine.

It was no surprise that Carroll's revues were called 'Vanities'.

But the name of the show wasn't important, because the people came to see the girls.  The surreal and statuesque costumes from the previous decade were considered clumsy and prehistoric.  Who knows how many pounds of feathers, layers of painted taffeta or yards of sequined silk were packed away into trunks?  No matter – people wanted to see bodies.  And Carroll found them.

He prided himself on how perfectly matched his girls were.  Before she was accepted, a willing girl had to be subjected to over twenty measurements.  Notes were also taken on her voice, hair, eyes – the things that defeated the measuring tape.  And considered last of all was 'personality'. 

Carroll's girls were slim, with a hint of feminine softness, allowing the faintest shadow of a ribcage to show through.  These revolutionary silhouettes were unheard of in their mothers' day.

Their mothers allowed whalebones and iron rods to compress their spines into an unnatural s-curve.  This painful re-shaping forced the lady to walk bosom-first; presenting it like a calling card.  Corsets fitted cuirrass-like – so that, bent and laced, a lady's walk was stiff and hobbled.  She could take her seat only after making a half-turn that curled her long skirts around her ankles.  Then, when all danger of tangling, tearing and toppling was avoided, she could safely lower herself down.  She had successfully presented an ideal of feminity without showing an inch of skin.

And what of their mothers?  And the mothers before them?  In the early 19th century, women – men as well – padded their clothing to create an illusion of a dimunitive waist. 

Earlier, the use of cosmetic endowments was seen as not only immoral but illegal.  Just as the waist was being tortured, the use of bum-rolls, bustle frills and hip panniers made the admirer forget its torment and to focus on its exquisite tininess.  In 1770 a bill was passed into English law, forbidding any woman "to impose upon, seduce, or betray into Matrimony any of His Majesty's subjects by means of scent, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, or bostered hips."  I say, let the buyer beware.

It is ironic that during these decades when the female body was pressed, packed, bent and twisted in ways that made Nature frown at her fair creation's treatment, society preferred that ths body was fleshy and full.  Arms and knees wrapped in cellulite were adorable and 'dimpled'.  The figures that 150 years later paraded accross stages in divine unison were considered unfashionable, even unhealthy. 

Very ironic.  I say, if it is indeed true – that the centuries run in a sort of loop, repeating over and over again, just waiting for us to jump on – when it is time for me to come back again, I would like to do so as a milkmaid from 1785.  I would churn away happily, knowing that I lived in a world where roundness was admired, and where a lady would never think of showing off her bone structure.

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11 responses to “Figure-tively Speaking

  1. A joy to read, as ever.

  2. Very well written. My sentiments exactly! You write so beautifully and your photos are so well-chosen too.

  3. I wouldn't doubt those measurements were used for *precisely* fitting costumes of great artistry… I have an early 1840's book of manners which vehemently disdains the damage and torture of corsets. How times change–that back then going without a corset would be seen as unthinkable and "loose" moraled. Just what people of a certain gen might think about women today who do wear them. Risque with. Risque without.Great post, Aubrey!

  4. i have a few relics like a large matchbook from the earl carroll vanities show. Also a few cigarette cards from this era as well! This post was really fun to read, Thanks.

  5. I'm glad I missed the era of corsets!

  6. Great post. You're right about centuries running in loops, and I suspect the era of corseted roundness is about to make a comeback. Can't wait!!

  7. Singing Horse: Half the fun is researching the illustrations!
    JP: Doctors and health experts found the use of the corset deplorable, but when it was a choice between comfort and looking tinier than your competitor on the dance floor, well, common sense – once again – loses.
    Lavender: My hallway is hung with photos of lovely ladies, dating from the teens to the thirties. I call it my 'Hall of Women'.
    Red Pen: There was a dancer, Polaire, whose waist was reputed to measure 13" – 15". Poor child!
    purplesque: I think it makes charming sense, myself.

  8. Fabulous post. I can't stand the sight of rib cage personally, so I'll be happy if things ever go back to fleshiness being normal.Ah reminds me of the days I attempted modeling; once I was told my hip bones stuck out too much by my agency, and if there was a way to correct it by losing more weight,Me: "but this is BONE! The only way to slim it down would be to get some kind of surgical belt sander and shave it down!"Agent (giddy and serious): Ooooh, is that a real procedure now? Can you do that for us?

  9. May the curves of the Rubenesque milkmaid come back into fashion!

  10. Oooh lovely post.Here, a few years ago they published "lewd photos", from their earliest days. The police found them in their archives – confiscated glass plates… when cleaning. They had confiscated the pictures back in the beginning of last century (not sure about the date) They were SO amazing. Most of the women were not naked in any modern sense of the word… and the pictures were all very arty. But one girl was naked seen from the back, standing on her toes looking through a hole in the fence between the boys and girls section of the outdoor swimming-place… (that building's still standing btw) and her body was completely deformed by the corset she must have worn normally. It was SO weird to see in a photo. Somehow I always imagined these girls would expand to normal proportions when undressed…. but apparently not. As a biologist, I see the changing body fashions in the light of "mate choice". Something a lot of people work to figure out. Some things make a fair amount of sense. Social status is immensely important in human mate choice. So, for instance, in rural societies pale skin is associated with higher social status (as you get sun burnt when you work the fields but can stay pale if you're not working). This means that a person who is fair skinned from birth (independent of their actual social status) is considered more attractive. After industrialization this was turned upside down, because now the pale people were poor factory workers. So it was only the privileged who could afford to loaf around in the sun… and tans suddenly became attractive. You see a similar change with respect to fatness. In countries where hunger is common, fat is beautiful. In countries where poor people eat junk food but don't go starving… skinny is attractive.

  11. The ridiculous and the sublime meet in these three images, which are knotted together in your learned and inviting prose. Viva la bella figura!

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