The ‘New Feminine’ silhouette seems to spring back into the spotlight every other season. It is defined by the allegedly 'classic' female figure – small waist balanced out against a fuller bust and hips. Hourglass. Christian Dior’s 50s New Look. Curves. Whichever terms and associations it’s dressed up in, the shape underpinning it is the same. It is one that, according to various publications, will: “[cause] many eyes to pop”, “[set] pulses racing” and “be admired by men.” (All quotes are real, from sources remaining unnamed). Interesting that all three assertions claim the hourglass figure to be titillating. It’s a shape often allied with extreme femininity and/ or sexuality, all Mad Men or Marilyn Monroe.
The actual hourglass is a prevalent symbol in itself, with the sands slipping away representing time passing or running out. However, it is the distinctive outer shape of the hourglass that is held up as an ideal, including being associated with fertility (in the often quoted and much disputed attraction of a 0.7 hip-to-waist ratio) and physical attraction. But even if there is some kind of primal explanation, this fails to hold sway in contemporary society. Now it is an inevitable part of the commodification, media coverage and relentless judgment of the female body that one shape will be held up as being better than another. Pronouncements are made and pseudo-science rolled out. Conflicts are set up between skinny and curvy or thin and fat, as though there are only two slots that women fit into.
In these pictures my waist is smaller than usual, aided underneath the floral dress by a vintage Warner’s Original Merry Widow 'cinch bra' from the fifties. I initially thought it was a corset, but was corrected by some judicious research into lingerie terms and a closer look at the label. Retailing back then at $12.50, it was bought by my paternal grandma in America. It looks like this. Several of the original adverts can still be seen, such as this one in the Milwaukee Journal claiming: “It has become a part of every smart gal’s wardrobe… and with this year’s corseted look it’s a must!” Make of that what you will. Extraordinary though that some key words, several clicks and a link or two allowed me to place the hand-me-down item that sits in my wardrobe within its historical context.
Black nylon lace, with two rows of hooks and eyes like teeth, it was produced as part of a franchise for the film ‘The Merry Widow’ starring Lana Turner. First came a corset, based on one worn in the film, then the cinch bra (also named the strapless corselette by some). The whole explanation can be read here, but my favourite detail lies in Turner’s response to the Warner’s corset: “I am telling you, the merry widow was designed by a man. A woman would never do that to another woman.”
This design may be slightly more forgiving, but it remains difficult to wear. I was hugely relieved when the back was unhooked and I was free of its grasp; enjoying the shape it gave me, but resenting the constrictions it placed on movement and comfort.
On a truthful level I can state that I am totally happy with my body as it is. And yet, it remains the case that I found a frisson of pleasure in manipulating my figure as I did here. The artifice of it appealed, as did the slightly changed appearance. Perhaps this is partly to do with my general love of moving between visual identities. But it is also an intriguing paradox. I am unsettled to admit that I found satisfaction in the semblance of a smaller waist, as this goes against my general beliefs about shape. Yet very occasionally, I wish that my figure were closer to the hourglass ideal – that my ribcage was more compact and my torso slimmer. That’s when I feel the weight of cultural conditioning sitting tight on my shoulders. Objectively easy to flap it away, harder to pull out the claws dug in a little too deep.
The dress worn here was handmade by one of my maternal great-grandmas in the 50s and was first worn on the blog four years ago in 2009, and then again in 2011. It now fits perfectly, with or without a corset beneath. The cummerbund belt was from a charity shop, as were the shoes. Vintage necklace belonged to another great grandmother. The only other addition was Chanel red lipstick.