Now and then, I post something from my drawer full of vintage hosiery pictures. If your next question is "Why do you have a drawer full of vintage hosiery pictures?" you should know that:

  • At some indefinable time during my alleged Formative Years, I developed a keen interest in the subject matter, which I have often handwaved away by pointing out that I was both short and introverted in those days, meaning that my cast-down eyes were inevitably focused on your skirt;
  • Back in the late 1990s, before eBay turned into Amazon for amateurs, it was possible to acquire many of these things for a buck or two apiece. Nowadays they ask $5-10.

Last week's posting of a 1954 advertisement for Phoenix brand stockings brought this comment from Roger Green, who is about my age and usually a couple of steps ahead of me in terms of cultural phenomena:

Is it just me, or was stuff sexier in the '50s and '60s, with the suggestion of titillation, rather than the more overt stuff from the last 20 or 30 years?

I wasn't quite sure how to answer that. I have long argued, in my capacity as one of the hated Baby Boomers, that "almost anyone of any age beyond twenty-five or so believes somewhere in his heart of hearts that everything that's been inflicted on us by the music industry since he got out of college truly and deeply sucks." To test yourself, ask yourself this question: "Is Eric Clapton relevant today?" For that matter, don't just ask yourself. Ask everyone on the block. The first person who says "Who?" will provide all the answer you need.

Still, that's music, which operates under a different dynamic. Fashion, I suggest, has changed its fundamental purpose in the last half-century or so. Back in the Not Necessarily Good But Still Old Days, a woman routinely selected an outfit with the idea of drawing the attention of someone whose attention she wanted to draw. Today, she's just as likely to be picking an outfit with the idea of drawing the attention of people she wouldn't date were she the last woman on earth.

There is, of course, some slop built into this metric. In 1964, "I Wish I Knew What Dress to Wear," a lovely little B-side by the now-forgotten Ginny Arnell, whose big hit "Dumb Head" would never get airplay today, details the thought processes of a teenage girl who wishes to make her ex-boyfriend think twice about that new hussy he's been squiring around town. Ginny, however, is not vicious, particularly; she figures she's been presented with a fait accompli, and the least she can do is to return the favor.

Perhaps more to the point, Ginny will be feigning a smile. Some time in the late 1960s, models quit smiling altogether: the standard runway expression today is a blend of boredom and irritation. John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, explains why:

"Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest if you do, you will become less enviable... It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.

The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.

In a society whose entire political system is built on envy see, well, almost anything about the "one-percenters" the reassurance that one is Truly Special climbs to the highest priority, and other considerations are secondary, or lower.

The ultimate extension of this, I suppose, is to send the clothes down the runway without a model at all. (Target actually tried this once, using some spiffy FX.) Or perhaps it's the other way round: Abercrombie & Fitch garnered some publicity, not all of it favorable, over their catalog, in which the pretty young people who wore their clothes were not, in some cases, actually wearing those clothes.

But these phenomena, coupled with the upcoming 25th Anniversary of Adobe Photoshop, have made for an environment in which everyone seeks to be Ozymandias 2.0: "Look on these threads, ye mighty, and despair!" By the time of the Nixon administration, "Bring Us Together" had descended into self-parody; today, everything is Group A versus Group B, with occasional appearances by Groups C through Z inclusive. This does nothing for anyone's sex life, except in the purely masturbatory sense but then, that's the inevitable result of bad behavior by both men and women. Maybe I'm better off for having stayed more or less on the sidelines all these years. Besides, I'll never lack for reading material.

The Vent

  16 March 2014

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 Copyright © 2014 by Charles G. Hill