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Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Lau­rel Glad­den

Any­one fa­mil­iar with David O. Selznick’s clas­sic Gone With the Wind will re­mem­ber Scar­lett O’Hara clutch­ing her bed­post while her maid, Mammy, tugs at the strings of her corset. Later, af­ter the birth of her daugh­ter, Scar­lett re­vives the tac­tic, try­ing in vain to fit into an old gown. She pouts when Mammy in­sists about her waist mea­sure­ment, “You ain’t never gonna be no 18 and a half inches again!” That’s a com­mon im­pres­sion of dress­ing in the Vic­to­rian era: women piled on layer af­ter layer with re­stric­tive gar­ments, adapt­ing their bodies to fit their clothes rather than the other way around, all in the name of fash­ion.

For this and other rea­sons, the Vic­to­rian era some­times gets a bad rap. The term “Vic­to­rian” it­self is of­ten con­sid­ered syn­ony­mous with prud­ish­ness and sex­ual re­pres­sion. Leg­end has it that dur­ing the reign of Queen Vic­to­ria, even pi­ano and ta­ble legs were deemed racy and had to be cov­ered with minia­ture pan­talets. The corset — one of the most con­tro­ver­sial gar­ments in the his­tory of fash­ion— was at the time con­sid­ered by some to be “good for the morals.” The prac­tice of tight­lac­ing— cinch­ing the corset to achieve an ex­ag­ger­at­edly small waist­line— was pop­u­lar and wide­spread, de­spite the fact that doc­tors of­ten de­cried it as be­ing detri­men­tal to women’s health, claim­ing it led to such con­di­tions as cur­va­ture of the spine, rib and or­gan dis­place­ment, hunch­back, me­lan­choly, hys­te­ria, and even can­cer.

Vic­to­rian women clearly did suf­fer for the sake of style, but so do many of us to­day, step-sis­ter­ing our feet into sky-high Mano­los and the like. “Dif­fer­ent things are at­trac­tive in dif­fer­ent eras,” says Sharon Guli, a Colorado-based ex­pert on cloth­ing of the Vic­to­rian era. “But women are women.” Even in the 1800s, she says, “They wanted curves in all the right places, and they had tricks of the trade to get them.”

In con­junc­tion with the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum/Palace of the Gov­er­nor’s Fash­ion­ing New Mex­ico exhibit, Guli presents “Vic­to­rian Dress­ing From the In­side Out,” a demon­stra­tion dur­ing which she re­veals the nu­mer­ous steps a Vic­to­rian woman en­dured to be­come “prop­erly and de­cently dressed.” For “a lady who lives in town and has enough means,” that would re­quire more than a dozen lay­ers and mul­ti­ple ac­ces­sories. But, Guli adds, the proper look al­ways re­quired the proper foun­da­tion. Just as a woman to­day might need a par­tic­u­lar bra or slip for a cer­tain out­fit, in Vic­to­rian-era dress­ing, “you can’t just put on the top layer without the proper un­der­pin­nings and think it’ll look right.”

Guli’s demon­stra­tion be­gins with her don­ning seven lay­ers of un­der­gar­ments, in­clud­ing draw­ers, chemise, pet­ti­coat, bus­tle, and, yes, the dreaded corset— that’s a far cry from the lacy noth­ings of Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret. As she dresses, she of­fers his­tor­i­cal anec­dotes and an­swers ques­tions about the cloth­ing of the pe­riod. Af­ter the demon­stra­tion, at­ten­dees can take a guided tour of Fash­ion­ing New Mex­ico with a “spe­cial fo­cus on un­der­wear through the decades.”

Guli, a long­time fan of the the­ater, first de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in Vic­to­rian dress­ing when she started at­tend­ing his­tor­i­cal reen­act­ments with a co-worker. “As I started get­ting more in­volved with that, I dis­cov­ered I couldn’t find [the vin­tage cloth­ing] I wanted, so I learned to sew his­tor­i­cal items for my­self.” She now makes many of the gar­ments she wears in her pre­sen­ta­tions. She fo­cuses mostly on Amer­i­can fash­ion of the era, and al­though she knows that styles on ei­ther side of the At­lantic dif­fered, she con­cen­trates on the sim­i­lar­i­ties.

Asked if she wishes a par­tic­u­lar piece of Vic­to­rian cloth­ing would make a come­back, Guli says she’d rather re­vive “the as­pect of el­e­gance” in gen­eral, not­ing that “you don’t get that nowa­days un­less you’re watch­ing the Gram­mies” or other awards shows. “Peo­ple ask me, ‘Don’t you wish you lived back then?’ I say ‘Ab­so­lutely not!’ Would I visit? Sure.” But when we reen­act the Vic­to­rian era, she in­sists, “We pull the glory, the glam­our, the charm” and not the hot, heavy, stiff re­al­ity.

What ex­actly did it mean to be “prop­erly and de­cently dressed” in the Vic­to­rian era? “Most women wore corsets— just like to­day most women wear bras.” She adds, “You don’t want to show up looking like a loose woman be­cause you for­got your corset,” im­ply­ing that a lack of tight­ness in a woman’s corset sug­gested a cer­tain lax­ity of morals. “Look at it this way. You might go to the gym and hang around the house in your sweats, but that’s not what you’re go­ing to wear out to din­ner. A lady wore what was proper and de­cent for the oc­ca­sion.”

But strict ad­her­ence to the pe­riod’s op­pres­sive styles may not have been com­pletely per­va­sive. “Yes, you did have women who had 18-inch waists,” ad­mits Guli. “Did every­one? No. I’ve seen plenty of pic­tures of women from that era with nor­mal waists and good pos­ture.” And some women may have laced their corsets more loosely de­pend­ing on the oc­ca­sion— for danc­ing or walk­ing, for ex­am­ple.

“I never per­son­ally as­so­ci­ated Vic­to­rian fash­ion with bondage and re­pres­sion,” Guli in­sists. “Yes, it was there. But think about the farmer’s wife in Wy­oming. What a strong woman she had to be! Was she sex­u­ally re­pressed? Not nec­es­sar­ily. And cow­girls— they were do­ing ev­ery­thing men did and were still fem­i­nine. I think that’s why they were such he­roes. They were Vic­to­rian women, too!”

Wait­ing to ex­hale: Vivien Leigh and Hat­tie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind

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