Short Skirts
Nothing Happens in a Vacuum

September 9, 1999

Page 2

The influence of sports attire on style is probably the first place to look. The virtues of exercise were widely recognized in the latter quarter of the 19th century, and were an important part of the educational programs offered by the increasingly popular womens colleges (there was even a growing number of coed colleges, such as UC Berkeley). Between 1850 and 1870 womens athletic clothing became shorter and looser, but was worn only in the privacy of the segregated gymnasium. The garments allowed freedom of movement and were designed with loose fitting waistlines. Gradually, voluminous bloomers and loose-fitting middy blouses were replaced with baggy shorts under skirts, and eventually skirt and blouse were combined into a one-piece garment with an elastic waistband.

The sport of lawn tennis was introduced among the wealthy in 1889. Golf also grew popular as a middle and upper class entertainment. By 1896, bicycling was wildly popular and the sharp increase in womens public physical performance was one of the sports more striking features; more adventurous women followed the Parisian fashion of bloomers, shortened skirts worn over knickerbockers, divided skirts, and even Syrian trousers that reached the ankle.

If you were to look at the short, waistless skirt and sleeveless blouse of the flapper (2) as athletic clothing gone public, you would not be too far off the mark.

For idealized images of the flapper look, consult the 1920s editions of George McManus Bringing Up Father comic strip, which portray the hapless Jiggs and his fashionable wife and college-aged daughters. The contemporary cartoons of John Held, Jr. provide an archetype of the collegiate look.

It is interesting to note that, in direct proportion as her role in society expanded, womans hats, hair, clothing, purses and jewelry shrank, until the cylindrical volume consumed by a well dressed woman was no more than that which was occupied by a similarly well-dressed man.

In 1895, the Gillette safety razor was invented. Until then, men reaped their beards with long, exceedingly sharp blades and, as you might expect, cut themselves to flinders with some regularity. So grave was the risk that the task was ordinarily entrusted to professionals, and the amateur shaver usually restricted himself to once weekly on Saturday night, giving himself adequate time to clot before church. The elderly and infirm did not shave at all. It is unnecessary to point out that women shaved neither their legs nor their underarms with cutthroat razors. The very contemplation of such a thing is enough to give you the heeby-jeebies.

Just as with most other technological innovations, the safety razor did not catch on immediately. Six years elapsed before Gillette developed a successful process for producing blades, invented in 1901 by his partner, William Nickerson. The first safety razor, with 20 blades, cost five dollars, and a 12-pack of blades alone sold for a dollar. This was, in fact, pretty damned expensive: in 1900 the annual wage for a working man was around six hundred dollars. In 1903, 51 razors and 168 blades crossed the counter. The company grew steadily but slowly until 1917, when the mobilized military ordered 3.5 million razors and 36 million blades.(3) When my grandfather (1890-1971) was in a French hospital in 1918, he was given his first Gillette safety razor by an Army nurse. It was made out of solid brass, and he used it all his life and bequeathed it to my brother, who uses it daily. Well made, you might say.

The popular song, 'I Want a Clean-Shaven Man" (circa 1918) provides inferential evidence that men were shaving themselves with greater regularity, and less risk, with the safety razor. Although the manufacture of straight razors continued, its days were numbered.

Among women, from ancient times cosmetic hair removal was done by plucking, waxing, and by acids and alkalis in preparations similar to those used today for the same purposes.(4) Though this was done in post-classical times by high-class prostitutes, as near as I can determine, ordinary American and European women did not commonly remove the hair from their bodies before the invention of the safety razor.

Why now, of all times, did women begin shaving their underarms and legs? Simply put, they were able to do so, and so they did. They had not been able to do so before, with any degree of comfort or safety. The female leg (and, indeed, the whole female body excepting the head) has been depicted in Western art, for thousands of years, as hairless and smooth. This artistic ideal could now be fully and easily realized. The ability to shave led, by the early 1920s, to a positive orgy of depilation. Legs, forearms, underarms and foreheads were shaved; eyebrows plucked out and painted on again in a different spot (giving women a look of permanent surprise) and the hair, once uncut and bound in complicated ways, was (also for the first time in human history) bobbed short into athletic "boy cuts". We may remember the adage "When a woman changes her hairstyle, its something else she wants to change". This cutting the hair short prefigured the song "I'm going to wash that man right out of my hair", symbolizing the breaking free from male political domination. When a woman cuts her hair, shes also cutting ties, usually to a man or men. For any unfashionable laggards, the cloche hat absolutely enforced short hair. Again, we may look to the model of the athlete for the appeal of short, carefree hairstyles.

A 1919 Ladies Home Journal advertisement for "Odoronto", an underarm deodorant toilet water for women, begins: "Within the Curve of a Womans Arm: A frank discussion of a subject too often avoided." And continues:

"A womans arm! Poets have sung of its grace; artists have painted its beauty. It should be the daintiest, sweetest thing in the world. And yet, unfortunately, it isnt, always. There's an old offender in this quest for perfect daintiness--an offender of which we ourselves my be ever so unconscious, but which is just as truly present. . . . You may offend without knowing it."

And goes on in this vein for three columns. The illustration is of a young woman raising her bare and silken arms to embrace a tall, formally-dressed man, the picture captioned: "There isn't a girl who can't have the irresistible, appealing loveliness of perfect daintiness."

Perhaps inherited from our English ancestors, but certainly solidly in place by the time my own Scotch-Irish-English-Welsh-Canadian-American great grandmother (1861-1956) was born was a positive horror of "smelling". Poor people and members of inferior races, as though by design and to be purposefully annoying, sweated and "smelled", while gentlemen and ladies did neither. Now, if there's one place on the human body that captures sweaty smells and holds them, it's dat ol' debbil hairy underarm. Get rid of the hair and you also get rid of most of the smell. It would be a while yet before advertising dared address itself to the other part of a womans body that smells, but by the 1960s that bastion, too, would fall, and Western women could at last attain the pinnacle of my great grandmother's desire, of having no natural smell at all. Dogs can't track em.

The conspicuous use of fabric (as well as other clothing material, such as fur, leather and metal) has been the major element of fashion for many thousands of years.(5) The more expensive, the better. Silk stockings, long a treasured symbol of wealth, were worn before the 20th century more by men than by women. The male ankle so adorned could be shown to considerable advantage, and was for centuries displayed from the knee down in white silk or cotton. A well filled-out calf was a thing of pride, and the taunt "Spindle-Shanks" (applied as you will recall to that miserable wretch, Ichabod Crane) was so feared, that oakum was sometimes stuffed into the inadequately filled stocking, much as certain other parts of the body are artificially enhanced today.

With the advent of professional teams in the 1870s and 1880s, baseball uniforms became more colorful and, according to some accounts, more revealing. Reporting on the Red Stockings-Eagles match in 1869, the San Francisco Chronicle commented that "It is easy to see why they adopted the Red Stockings style of dress which shows their calves in all their magnitude and rotundity. Everyone of them has a large and well-turned leg and everyone of them knows how to use it." -- Men and Women: Dressing the Part, Edited by Claudia Brush Kidwell and Valerie Steele, Smithsonian Institution, 1989, page 104

Both men's and women's stockings were thick and opaque, and around the turn of the century, usually made of some dark color such as blue or black.(6) The lighter and more sheer the silk, the more expensive it became, but, alas, even the most costly, beautiful sheer silk is not enhanced by mashed-down hair showing through beneath it.

The safety razor enabled women to shave their legs, thereby making the sheer silk stocking a delightful and expensive companion to the now glabrous limb. But what fun is there in wearing something beautiful and costly if no one can possibly see it? Hemlines began to creep, then rocket, upwards. The stocking, and incidentally, the leg, was now on display. Hose was often rolled down at the knee, ( ". . . rolled down hose, turned up nose, has anybody seen my gal?") because a really expensive sheer stocking is nearly invisible, and could be made obvious only by bunching it up.

The combination of smooth legs and hairless underarms with short skirts and waistless, sleeveless, figure-disguising fashion provides the appearance of a pre-pubescent girl, rather than a grown woman. Little girls wore short skirts, were smooth-bodied and figureless; grown women put their long hair up, wore long dresses and had breasts and hips. Why this Peter Pan (7) desire never to grow up? Indeed, the grown-woman dress of 1925 looks like nothing so much as a scaled-up version of little-girl clothing of 1900; breastless, hipless, low-waisted.(8) A simple answer may be that their mothers had done quite enough growing up, thankyou very much--what with throwing off the shackles of masuline oppression and gaining a measure of independence in the workplace, not to mention attaining a real political presence--and flappers were tired of all that noisy rhetoric. Flappers just want to have fun.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution (c. 1750), women's fashions have been and will continue to be dictated by a cycle of acquisition and consolidation of political and social power, followed by a period of complacence. In times of political activism, the waistline has essentially disappeared. During the period of consolidation, one or another feminine characteristic is emphasized--bust in Empire (1804-1815), legs in 1920s flapper, legs again in mid 1960s and early '70s--but the waist is still neglected.

During the following period of complacence, feminine characteristics are exaggerated, reaching their most extreme statement immediately prior to the renewal of the struggle. (Think of 1890's bustles and corsets vs. the cylindrical war-time suffragette costume; the complacent 1950's emphasis on the bust, waist and hips vs. the activist 1960's figure-hiding chemise.)

From the high middle ages on, the bust has received great attention, while the feminine leg was totally hidden. Women's costume thus emphasized her role as nurturer, and by this means de-emphasized her sexuality. With the flapper style, women were themselves de-emphasizing their role as nurturer and drawing attention as dramatically as possible to their own emerging sexuality, their essential woman-ness, hiding or erasing secondary sexual characteristics while for the first time in fashion history emphasizing the leg, the avenue to their primary sexual characteristic.

Every extreme fashion trend breeds its own reaction, and by the mid 1930s, long, curly, unbound hair was the fashionable ideal, and the waist and figure had returned to womens clothing (though the leg did not ever again disappear), but among English and American women legs and underarms remained as smooth as marble.

Nothing happens in isolation. Everything comes from a lot of somethings and turns into a lot of something elses that we usually do not expect, and we have to scrabble around wildly trying to figure out how to deal with it. That's our job. Fun, isn't it?


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Nothing Happens in a Vacuum

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