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.