Instruments of bondage? An advertising poster designed by Hans Schleger for the Charnaux Patent Corset Co. Ltd, c.1936, on display at the V&A in “Undressed: A Brief History Of Underwear” (Courtesy of the Hans Schleger Estate)
I have not noticed a fashion page so far in the pages of Standpoint, so I would like, as a woman whose mother taught her the importance of a perfectly matching accessary, to rectify that. I have been travelling by Tube from Lancaster Gate to Southwark each day and it has been an eye-opener. The journey is short, two stops to Bond Street, then the marvellous Jubilee Line in four jumps to Southwark station. I have enjoyed the voyeurism of it all. The entire carriage is plugged in to earphones and tapping on their phones and the rest are reading free newspapers showing Pixie Geldof’s party chums sticking out their tongues. Eighty per cent of them, myself included, wear black puffa coats, wrinkly leggings and resemble sinister caterpillars. Women with gothic make-up and platinum extensions apply layers of ochre brushwork via self-lighting mirrors.
The curved windows make for wonderful Hall of Mirrors entertainment for me. If I’m standing, which I usually am, I rise up and down on my heels so that men with bald heads appear to have one elongated trunk of a head and people with backpacks have no head and four legs. I’m easily amused.
Sometimes a young man will give up his seat for me, which gives me mixed emotions. They are generally foreign, often Canadian — they just see the grey hair and up they bound. I always respond by looking astonished and flirtatious at the same time — I’m an actress, I can do these things — then sink gratefully into the uncut moquette. Often English people stare at me in a rather hostile way as if to say: “What’s she doing on the Tube? Can’t she afford an Uber?” Mostly, though, I am unrecognised and free to stare at the rows of ripped jeans and killer heels opposite me.
Ripped jeans. Knees poking out roundly, rumps exposed and Shredded Wheat thighs. Can there be a better example of designers’ utter contempt for their clientele? It isn’t cynical enough that the proletarian man’s trousers have been usurped by the upwardly mobile, but the cheapness of the item must be disguised by changing the cut each year, forcing the gullible buyer to pay two week’s wages to conform. “Boot cut can’t be seen this year — are you nuts, sooo 2015!”; “Low-slung like rappers? You won’t get in the door, man”; “High-waisted is the only wearable cut this season.”
Wide-cut, skinny, flared, Gaucho, embroidered — can’t you hear them? — the hose-hipped people with the D.H. Lawrence beards whining at the little Korean ladies in the dismal workshops: “Oh My Gaaad — what’s left to do? Dammit dude, I’ve run out of ideas — slash frigging holes in ’em for all I care, I’m going for a toffee vodka.’’
Visit any Chinese exhibition and empathise with the ladies wearing shoes for bound feet — women who had to walk on the knuckles of their toes for their whole lives. You might think, after third-wave feminism, we are too civilised to be so barbaric to women now. Think again. More women are toppling off their Choos than are toppling off the pistes — and yes, they usually are piste but the message is the same. Women are meant to hobble. It throws the body forward and strains the calves, which is sexier for men to look at and keeps us in our place — on the floor. And this we buy into, as a species, by the by, and buy and buy and buy. Oh, and while we’re down there getting up, let’s talk handbags, shall we?
This is an item men don’t carry. They have an inside pocket which is integral to their jacket of choice. Not so the object of desire. She must have a large ornate sack weighing in at four bags of sugar and often containing a chihuaha or two, at a gentle designer cost of £2,000-£8,000. Thus she will blithely distort her own shoulder, jeopardise her current account and, at the same time, advertise the name of the designer who forced it upon her, in several colours.
If the “must have” bag is stolen, the owner’s entire life vanishes at a sweep. Alternatively, she can indulge in a clutch or pochette bag of her design choice which nevertheless comes in at the same price, due to the intricate brain work done in designing such cutting edges on such a tiny surface. Who would fall for that? Er . . . we would.
Which brings me to corsetry — Spanx and such, rubberised instruments of bondage and repression designed to turn us into the shape of a 15-year-old rent boy. Hipless is hip, knees are rickety as a colt, breasts are flat and exposed like a kid on a beach — like Tadzio, the boy-child in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. There is nothing left for a girl to expose save her pubic mound and that can’t be far off now. Visit the V&A and take a look at the way our shape has been manipulated over the centuries. Boned corsets curtailed our freedom for centuries until the Sixties when, finally, blissfully, hippiedom decreed we could let it all hang out. The great achievement of the decade was that loose, flabby people suddenly got laid!
Gradually, though, the stretchy tightness of the new fabrics, the bandaging and bondaging of the female form into a lumpless tube, and the need to show off the flat stomach of the gym-honed mama has brought back the lure of the all-in-one corset to flatten the spread of flesh into a homogenous blob. This is especially popular on the red carpet. Yes, girls, we’re back on the floor.
One last thought and then I’m through. The people who decree that we submit to this tyrannical regime look different from us, the gullible clientele. The front row of a catwalk has to have Gwyneth and Alexa and Keira because the people backstage look like Donatella Versace, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld. A style guru looks like Iris Apfel. A fashion writer has hair like Suzy Menkes. A woman editor is as expressionless an avatar as Anna Wintour.
Take a stand, Standpointers, next season when the dictates are dictated. Vote with your debit cards. Sling out your designer allegiances and support your local seamstress, pop-up boutique, market trader, vintage house and student just out of design school. Trust your own sharp, bright eye, not a jaded and cynical one to tell you whether pink is hot or slingbacks are slung out. Be like me — go underground!