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Changing feminine fashions

by Bev Cameron

Oh, the delicious sensations of rolling down a grassy slope, of climbing trees, or lying on my back with my legs in the air wriggling my toes. Such is the freedom of being a young girl in the 1940's. It does not occur to me now that this is a precious condition of childhood which one day, I shall lose.

When my sister and I reach Primary School, we have to wear uniforms. We are told to walk quietly and to keep in line when on school outings. We are not to play rough games with boys in the boys' playground. The socialising process that will shape our questioning young female psyches into those of compliant, accepting adult women is gradual. We don't really notice it. I am still eager to be grown up like Mother and to have romantic fantasies about that. She wears pretty pink satin bras which are cone shaped so when she has them on her figure looks like Betty Grable's or Lana Turner's. I like to wear them on my head like pilots' goggles and then I pretend I'm Biggles on an amazing adventure in my aeroplane.

biggles braIt is only when we reach high school in the early 1950's that the rules really begin to tighten up. Our burgeoning female bodies now have to be restrained, breasts in bras and bottoms in elastic step-ins, hot and uncomfortable horrors that will only stay in place when attached to our heavy black lisle stockings by means of suspenders. If those suspenders are not carefully attached to exactly the right spot on our stocking tops, the stockings pull around our legs causing unsightly wrinkles and twisted back leg seams. The effect, Mother says, is not appealing. We look like the girls at Ronald Searle's notorious St. Trinian's.

Our High School years in the early fifties are also bringing the excitement of mixed social events. Thus, to essentialconstraints of bra and step-in, I now add high-heeled shoes on one end and permanently waved hair on the other. That means not only having to mince rather than stride, but also to attend to the messy business of having my hair permed every three months and endless washing and setting of curls using a headful of prickly plastic rollers. All this discomfort is supposed to be in the interests of enhancing female allure! But the prospect or approaching adulthood is rather exciting so I ignore the pain.

corsetWhen attending a formal dance, especially if I choose to wear a fashionable strapless gown, I have to don an undergarment known as a "Merry Widow". These items of elasticised bodily imprisonment are made of pretty lace hiding strong flexible steel ribs. They encase my body from just above the hip to just over the breasts. Their purpose is to hold my breasts firmly in place during even the most energetic dance. However, sometimes after a particularly strenuous tango or La Bomba, I notice that my strapless gown has been pulled sideways so that the front of the dress lurks somewhere under my armpit, revealing the hardworking Merry Widow for all to see and throwing to the four winds any hope I may have had of presenting an air of sophisticated elegance. The only resort remaining in this embarrassing situation is to tug discreetly until the wayward dress resumes its proper location, hoping desperately that no-one is looking.

In the early 1960's, after bearing two children, many of my already non-athletic muscles lose the plot entirely. It is obvious that I need to be trussed up even more firmly if I am to present to the world a trim contour which has any hope of matching the flat stomachs paraded by models and movie stars. I move into long-line corsets with flexible steel inserted in the wide waistband. That certainly ensures that I stand up straight, for to slouch induces internal pain immediately.

However, though I don't realise it right away, help is at hand. It's the late 1960's and some exciting things are happening for women. A sign of this excitement is the beautiful English model, Jean Shrimpton who both shocks and delights us Australians when she wears British fashions on Randwick Racecourse. She wears no hat. Her hair is long and free. Her dresses are sleeveless and so short that her knees are exposed. The advent of panti-hose which obviate the need for both stockings and suspenders to hold them up allows many more substantially built women to follow her example although with sometimes unfortunate effects.

But these are merely the external signs of something much more significant for women. The contraceptive pill is now available and women are experimenting with unheard of sexual freedoms. That sexual freedom has only added fuel to the already burning fire of second Wave Feminism. This philosophy has been brought to birth by women writers such as French Simone de Beauvoir, American Betty Friedan and our own Germaine Greer. As a consequence, Women's Libbers, that is some Womens Libbers, dispense immediately with high heeled shoes, corsets and step-ins and let their hair grow long. It is said, though I'm not sure it is true, that some have even burnt their bras as a symbol of rejection of female oppression. Some of the more exuberant women dispense with clothing altogether at the famous Woodstock "make love not war" anti-Vietnam war gathering in Woodstock, America, and here at Nimbin. But even the more sedate women are wearing flowing caftans, exotic shirts and comfortable pants. It is more than liberation; it is revolution.

Now it's 2005, many years since those first heady days of new freedom for women. In today's post-modern, post-Christian society, Feminism is almost a dirty word. Among many younger women there is an almost reactionary return to obsession with body shape and conformity to prevailing fashion, no matter how bizarre.

But those women who are sufficiently self-confident to give only a passing glance in the direction of the mostly male-dominated fashion industry can rejoice. For them the general acceptance of loose fitting garments, straight, short hair-styles and low heeled shoes means corsets, perms and high heeled shoes have become nothing more than symbols of the oppressive and inequitable bad old days.

But I still won't go anywhere without my bra.

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