Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Victorian Corset: it hurts so GOOD!

Why is this woman trapped inside a corset? And why does she look so happy to be there?

In researching the fascinating, slightly kinky topic of the Victorian corset, I came across this amazing quote from one of my favorite actresses.

"Winona Ryder has credited her tight corsets with fueling her performance in The Age of Innocence by allowing her to channel her character's emotional turmoil. The actress insists her restrictive costume allowed her to give an authentic performance as a socialite engaged to a lawyer, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, in the 1993 period drama.

And despite feeling uncomfortable throughout the entire shoot, Ryder admits she is grateful for the painful garments. She tells Britain's Total Film magazine, "The corsets are a tremendous help to the performance, because you're playing a repressed person and you can feel the pain that they endured. My waist had to be 19 inches and they had to measure me every day. I would be on the floor and they would pull the strings until it was 19 inches."

"Daniel would wear his clothes home, he was very in character and I was like, 'You have no idea the pain I'm in right now!' But if I did it again I would want it the same way because it made my performance."

Ah yes, the corset: that curious object of female repression, ruthlessly squeezing a woman's body (no matter what size or shape) into a tiny hard cone, with bosoms thrust upwards and balanced on top like two ripe cantaloupes. In other words, corsets were as much for men as they were for women.

Or was it the other way around?

I adore Victorian costumery  - for that is how I see it, "dresses" being an inadequate term for the sumptuous, 50-pound confections that fit women's waists like a second (and imprisoning) skin. Even more than that, I love the ads, often full of whimsy like this almost unbelievable example for Ball's Corsets.

"Revolution in Corsets," it proclaims, depicting a squeezed-in Amazonian figure holding a sword and staff, her foot planted firmly on what is presumably that old-style thing that nobody wears any more. Meanwhile a herd of frightened women stampedes away in the distance. The Ball's Revolutionary Corset has triumped again!

And just look at the results. This is Miss Lettice Fairfax, and aside from the fact that she was named after a garden vegetable, I know nothing about her. Though frills at the shoulder and massive skirts provided an illusion of contrast, corsets took at least 3 inches off the natural waist, converting women's bodies into the perfect clothes-horse for gowns that must have been unbearably cumbersome and stifling to wear.

In fact, I have read that the ideal size for a woman's waist was the same measurement in inches as her neck.

Nothing is more revealing of attitudes towards corsets than these hokey, strangely beautiful ads.  They speak so clearly of those bizarre times, when a torturing undergarment passed without comment because it was so standard. No doubt no one really perceived the irony of a corset being called Harness. Not only that: this was an electric corset (electric items being a fad then, supposedly conveying some sort of tingly, healthful vitality to the patient), making one wonder if it didn't serve the same purpose as the modern vibrator.  Did it plug in? Did it have batteries? One wonders.

Some of my favorite shots display early celebrities such as a very young and girlish Ethel Barrymore (and these days, the hallowed name of Barrymore is only asociated with Drew, one of the most unattractive young women I've ever seen). In all her photos, her huge dark eyes look sad, her regal costumes displaying her like roast beef on a platter or a hugely oversized wedding bouquet.

Modern actresses probably dread wearing these things: they make the wasp-waisted gowns grip the torso like a very tight glove and provide a sort of crucial undergirding for the weight and volume of the skirt. But the little torture chambers can be surprisingly addictive. A British actress named Karin Cartlidge, starring in a TV version of The Cherry Orchard, told the London Times, "These bloody corsets do a lot for repression: I nearly fainted in one. I find them quite sexy; actually, it's a funny sort of thing. They hold you in like a cold iron hand round your heart, therefore all your emotions just seethe away underneath it. It's like being in a sort of prison and it's quite exciting, there's something erotic about it."

Indeed. I won't get into the sites that celebrate the corset as fetish-wear.  You know how to find them. Unless you're attending a Renaissance fair or working as a barmaid at Heidelberg Days, women don't endure these things any more except as fetish-wear. Most of these sites are extremely creepy. Some particularly slavish devotees "tightlace" day and night, though I don't know why anyone would do that to themselves.

Victorian porn could be very subtle. I wonder how many men found satisfaction (of a sort) in looking at these almost subliminally-erotic ads. Just thinking about what was under a woman's dress must have been completely unacceptable, which is probably why naughty French post cards were so popular. But did the proper Victorian woman somehow identify with the daring sauciness of the Valeine ad, or the soft-focus intimacy of the Royal Worcester?

Helena Bonham-Carter is still the ruling queen of the period costume. In A Room with a View, she smolders. With her masses of chestnut hair piled precariously on top of  her head like those water-jugs in the Middle East and her waist reduced to a thread, she swishes around in these dresses as if to the manor born. It must be tiring to pull a wagonload of suffocatingly heavy drapery around with you all day, but somehow she manages it.

And when she lets her masses of hair down, even in a granny-flanny, she still smolders.

Women had to do everything imprisoned in these things, even ride horses (and sidesaddle! It was somehow considered obscene for women to straddle anything, which makes one wonder about those Victorian families with ten or twelve children.) There were maternity corsets then which must have been agony to wear, and corsets for little girls, just to get them good and used to being squeezed until you couldn't properly breathe. Past the age of ten, normal respiration was left behind with all the other trappings of girlhood.

But over and over again, in researching this strange artifact from a very strange time, I found comments from actresses who had endured wearing these things, then had somehow fallen in love with them.

Emma Williams, star of the British series Bleak House, claims, "You get quite strict about your corset - it's like, 'Come on, tighter, tighter.' I had this gorgeous dress for a wedding scene, but it was ridiculously small. I nearly fainted, my corset was so tight. I wore it for eight hours, breathing really slowly so I wouldn't fall over. I'm sure I cracked a rib that day. . .  I had original Victorian corsets, so they were really heavy. I spent half the day crouching down to take the weight off my back. But you do get addicted to them. I might start wearing one round the house, doing the cleaning in rubber gloves and a corset. I'm a classy girl, me."

CODA: I just found these two incredible corset ads while looking for something else. They reflect two common features, or perhaps obsessions, of Victorian corset advertising: little scantily-dressed cherubs fluttering around and acting strangely, and "health corsets" that were no doubt meant to counter the anti-tightlacing "dress reform" movement of the late 19th century. Though corsets were probably about as healthy as tanning beds, they were pitched just as effectively. The ads often included doctors' endorsements (shades of Lucky Strike!), as if that settled the whole thing.

I have no idea what sort of voyeurism is being practised in this ad. I guess the fact that they're photographing the corset, not the woman in it, lets them get away with this overwhelmingly fetish-y shot. (And why is the corset being used as a planter?) This ad is for Warner Bros. Coraline: not, presumably, the movie studio, which didn't exist then - though I think we still see Warners undergarments of a different sort. Bras and things. Next time you think your bra is digging into you and it's torture, think on this and repent.

Ball's advertisements are without a doubt the best. This one boasts a "coiled wire spring elastic section", which today sounds like medieval torture but which then promised increased comfort and flexibility (i.e. you could take at least half a full breath). The caption reads, "Cupid whispers 'Ball's corsets are the best, wear none other.' And so say the medical fraternity."


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
    It took me years to write, will you take a look

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why fuck up your face?

It's not just Renee Zellweger.

Actors do this to themselves, which for some reason is supposed to make it OK, or at least "more OK": "well, MEN do it too, you know!" "Oh. Yeah." End of discussion.

For, you see, if men do it too, it is now OKAY to mutilate your face. It has been justified. Go home now.

This bizarre beforeandafter belongs to Mickey Rourke, an actor I never much liked anyway, but he must have gone to Acapulco for his surgery. It just looks bad. He has that bizarre OMG look, that instant recognition that something awful has been done to his face. He does not look "young"; he merely looks weird.

This one is really sad. I've never been a Kenny Rogers fan (except for that "know when to hold them, know when to fold them" thing - who doesn't like that?), but this was just desperate, and shocking. He really pulled a Zellweger here, and went from a rugged silver-fox-type cow-dude to a sort of mincing hairdresser with a Bugs Bunny smile, a brow-lift and a weave. He doesn't look like ANYBODY, let alone Kenny Rogers. Renee at least looks - well, if not attractive, then at least doll-like in her new guise. She looks kind of like Renee Zellweger's distant cousin (who has had a lot of work done).  As for Kenny, I wonder how he sees out of those things?. Maybe he can start a new career as a Kenny Rogers impersonator. That is, if anyone believes him.

Ah, um, her, uh, ugh. Barry Manilow.

Burt Reynolds, who no longer needs to buy a Halloween costume. He can go as Burt Reynolds and scare little children. Note how he never shows up in movies any more: I guess directors want their actors to look like they're alive.

It's slitty-eyes syndrome again. Women's eyes are pulled up slantwise (which is funny, because meanwhile Asian women are busy erasing every trace of their heritage from their faces), but for some reasons dudes' eyes are pulled sideways so aggressively that they can barely see. In this case, it looks as if his eyelids were simply removed.

Is there a "worst case" in this macabre house of wax? Yes, there is, and you're looking at it. Even on the left, he's had significant work done, especially around the eyes. But that wasn't enough. These guys never leave well enough alone, do they? They always go back for more. His eyes are now closer together than the Royal Family's, and have that disturbingly sunken look that makes me wonder if men aren't supposed to have eyes after a certain age. Cheek implants, chin implants, God knows what sort of other implants. When this monstrous freak walks out onto the stage in Vegas, the crowds scream with recognition, even though they don't have a clue who he is. But they've paid for Wayne Newton, so this must BE Wayne Newton.

But soft! What light from yonder window breaks? What former Shakespearian actor is this, what good Canadian boy, what Governer-General-Award recipient? This is the man who made a deal with the devil not to age. It has little or nothing to do with his face. He looks like a person. His face does not look messed-with at all. He has gained weight, but carries it so well it makes YOU want to gain weight too (well, not quite). He still sits a horse remarkably well at - Jesus, he's 83! He is 83 goddamn years old, and this past summer he was the Grand Marshall at the Calgary Stampede. The white hat looked pretty swell on him, too.

You don't look at Shatner's face and think. "Work done." You don't look at Shatner's face and think, "Ewwww." You don't look at Shatner's face and think, "83". You think "65-ish, ruddy, virtually unlined, outdoorsman, in good shape. Healthy." His voice, his energy, his endless new projects (always a few going on at the same time) are so astonishing that we don't even see them any more.

Shatner went through several phases: his young manhood, which makes me want to kvell:

(and I don't know why exactly, but I want to jump on top of this young god with the 100% self-assurance)

. . . his Star-Trekkian phase, in which he was older and more conventionally handsome;

. . . his little-bit-obvious-hairpiece stage, soon to be replaced by transplants or something else more natural. . .

. . . but NEVER did he go through a  "monster" stage like Kenny and Wayne and Mickey and all those other poor sods who were so afraid of the monstrosity of ageing that they ruined their faces.
He won't because "something" happened, he found the secret, the way to slow ageing down so much that it is barely perceptible. A deal with the devil? I've written about this before. The older he gets, the more ruddy-faced, the more of those Priceline ads he does, the more I love the guy. I love him because he is 83. I love him because he is fucking fantastic. I love him because he is the real deal.

Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
    It took me years to write, will you take a look

Just walk away, Renee: Ms. Zellweger's radical transformation

Now comes all the commentary, the kerfuffle, and if she needed to call attention to herself, this did it. Strangely, she will not admit to plastic surgery but claims she's just taking better care of herself and is more "relaxed".

What's really sad is the need to deny you've had any "work" done. It's all due to a "healthier lifestyle". But the healthiest lifestyle in the world wouldn't change you into a different person.

These strenuous denials are a veil over desperation, and this is not something Renee created herself. She wants to work, but paradoxically, I don't think her "new look" is going to land her parts. No one is going to know who the hell she is.

Nobody else has said this, because everyone is so busy saying, "Duhhh. . . does she look different?" There are screams and squawks from all over the planet because this is a "trending" story that has knocked terrorism out of the ballpark.. Half of them are horrified exclamations along the lines of "What has she done to herself?"; the other half are more like, "She looks fabulous! I like her so much better now. Leave the girl alone! She can do what she wants with her face." I've also heard "She looks different? Not to me she doesn't. It's just her makeup. She looks exactly the same."

Just so. But this just isn't Renee. What would it be like, I wonder, if every time you looked in the mirror you saw a different person? It's like those old film noir movies where the gangster has plastic surgery to change his identity. One scene always involves the doctor cutting the bandage and winding it around, and around, and around (showing the hood's vision gradually getting brighter and brighter) until, voici et voila, the new face.

Plastic surgery existed back then, because John Dillinger had it done in a vain attempt to disguise his identity from the police. I don't see how they could have botched it any worse than they do now. In fact, though this is an issue I won't get into now, there is a TV show called Botched that deals with remedial boob/nose/cheek/jowl jobs, in which the doctors have to make do with what is left of normal tissue. Usually the results are still artificial, but somewhat less Frankensteinian than before that fatal "holiday" to Mexico or the Phillipines.

Just in time for Halloween. . . the Invisible Man. I can't help but think of the old Renee, mischievous as always, crouching down and  hiding behind the new one. But still invisible.

Whole movies have been made on this theme, such as Ash Wednesday, in which the stunning Liz Taylor pretends to be (gasp, shock, horror) old, or at least old-looking. In the movie, she's maybe 40. Most of the sexpots we see around now, such as Sofia Vergara, are about that age. 

I was going to make a few gifs of her movie transformation, but was so gobsmacked by the YouTube video that I posted it whole. It's 14 minutes long and if you can get through the whole thing, you're a better man than I am. Gunga Din.

We used to ask ourselves: what reputable plastic surgeon would ever surgically alter someone so much that they didn't even look like themselves? That was back when there were standards, and "would never" still held together as a stand-in for integrity. Now people transform themselves into Barbies and Kens, Michael Jacksons, Angelinas, etc. (remember that Octomom character? Whatever happened to her, anyway?) Pay up front, and you'll have any "look" you want. Slicing and dicing seems particularly popular, especially if you resort to Third World procedures. And a lot of people do. Then again, lots of people go to Thailand to have sex with little children, and no one stands in their way.


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
    It took me years to write, will you take a look