Feminine garb has bordered on ridiculous

Feminine garb has bordered on ridiculous By Bob Karolevitz The veiled women of the Middle East got me to thinking about feminine apparel � in a scientific way, of course.

The burqe, which hides the facial features of Muslim women, is hard for us to understand, but then � looking back in our history � the ladies of the West have worn some strange things, too. Take the torturous corset, for instance.

A hundred years or so ago, the gals pinched their mid-sections to health-destroying proportions in the name of fashion and the mistaken idea that the appearance of waspiness would lure the men folks. (No religious connotations were involved, of course.)

There were medical doctors who attacked the body-binder as a vicious evil, causing a rash of fainting, eye pains, flushing, apoplexy and "vapors" among tight-laced lasses. But it was hard for the medics to stem the tide of style.

Arguments to the contrary came from corset manufacturers and the whale industry which provided the stays before metal ones were introduced. Among other things, their sales pitches propounded that tummy-squeezing "excites amative desires." (The word sex was never used.)

In 1904 an English doctor tested corsets on monkeys � and the monkeys died. This was new ammunition for the physicians who argued that reducing a waist to 17 inches, when there should have been at least twice as much girth, was an invitation to disaster.

"Good Sense" corsets for sensible ladies and young misses � which permitted "full expansion of the lungs" � helped a bit, but they say it took an alliance between husbands and physicians to do away with the torso-cinches completely. Men got tired of being involved in the lacing ritual and then listening to their red-faced wives complain about the pain when they were strapped up � to use a husband's words � "like a bale of hay."

Then there was the bustle.

It didn't hurt much. It was just an extraneous protrudence which fitted under the dress and gave a false bulge to a woman's derriere. Again it was the fashion of the day and supposedly attractive to the men. It went out with the corset, thank goodness.

The desire for an hour-glass figure has not gone completely away, but at least the corset, which was supposed to provide an elegant look for the ladies, has been relegated to the historical past. It had reached a peak of ridiculousness almost as bad as the ancient Chinese custom of feet-shrinking.

Another phenomenon of the same general period had to do with the weird practice of adorning ladies' hats with real stuffed birds or bits and pieces of them. Nobody suffered but the birds.

Despite appeals by the Audubon Society and other ornithological groups, millions of tiny songsters were slaughtered for millinery purposes. Ostrich plumes were at their height of popularity, but fortunately the big birds could relinquish their feathers without giving up their lives as well. Not so the snowy egret!

The graceful heron, whose feathers were the most prized of all, became the victim of near-extinction as both professional and amateur hunters went after them. The U.S. Congress finally passed the first bird-feather law in 1913 to stop the profiteers and fashion-mad women from doing irreparable environmental harm.

Yes, there have been some odd garments and accouterments in feminine garb through the years. I take back everything I've ever said about Phyllis's jeans.

© 2001 Robert F. Karolevitz

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