japonisme: colette's breast

20 April 2008

colette's breast

The 'modern' corset is attributed to Catherine de Médicis, wife of King Henri II of France. She enforced a ban on thick waists at court attendance during the 1550s and had a questionable effect on women for the next 350 years. 1

''Ten years ago, so many department stores wouldn't even consider carrying larger sizes because they didn't want larger-size

women in their stores,'' said Kurt Barnard, the president of Barnard Retail Trend Report. 2

In order to survive, female movie stars had to be constantly wary of excess fat. "Eternal vigilance in the diet is the price of liberty from the ogre, obesity," declared Corliss Palmer, the winner of Motion Picture Magazine's Fame and Fortune Contest for 1920.

Throughout the 1920s, fan magazines were liberally sprinkled with dramatic tales of stars' battles with weight as well as their "helpful advice" for readers who might wish to reduce.

When "Bar- bara" made her first hit, she was a slim young gift.... When the money came rolling in, "Barbara" became a victim of luxury. She grew plump and prosperous; naturally, because she was carefree and happy. But the public didn't like it. Her "fans" complained; the exhibitors
kicked; the critics laughed at her. "Barbara's" admirers wanted to see her slim and big-eyed. "Barbara," alas, looked too healthy for a "vamp."

Yet all reducing articles, even those that highlighted particularly painful or foolhardy methods of weight loss, operated under the tacit assumption that no one, regular folks included, would wish to "let herself/himself go." 3

so despite the fact that madeleine vionnet, when a fat woman walked into her shop, would ask her to turn around and go, many a woman, obese by today's standards, was considered a paragon of beauty, a muse and inspiration.

lillian russell, misia sert, loie fuller and others had more paintings done of them than any other women of the time. they were on more maga- zine covers, and they were names in dedications in every- thing from music to novels.

colette satirized the whole "flapper situation" in a number of her non-fiction essays:

Colette makes us laugh at the fact that fashion affects not only clothes, but bodies; style fashions the body and hence the self. Breasts were to be dieted into oblivion for last season, Now we witness the return of the repressed in, what is more, a fashion industry bonanza: if you do not have any breasts left, we can do something about it.

Designed in rubber and painted a delightful skin colour, you may find them lifeless: why not try this little tulle number, with an accommodating hole for the nipple? Moreover, for women who failed to fashion their bodies for last year, there is also a solution: any breast can be changed, filled out if it is too flat, rounded and lifted if it is pendulous, the whole body encased in a rubber tube to give you no more hip than a 'bouteille à vin du Rhin.'

There are fashions in bodies: a woman's body is infinitely 'malleable' — if you are required to be a sausage, then a sausage you will be. We are taught by Colette to see that dress reaches very deep into the flesh, that style fashions the body and hence the self.

Rubber tubing and the extraordinary inventiveness of corsetry ensured that where diet and patent medicines failed, the female form could still be disciplined into the tubular shape required by the waistless tunic. But where 'too fat' required constraint and compression, 'too thin' was simply reinterpreted.

No longer referring to a woman ageing before her time, the 'thin' body becomes 'slim', acquiring an erect posture and youthful vitality; it is captured as it were eternally at the threshold of sexual maturity before the deposit of womanly fats on the hips and the breasts. 4

(i hope this makes some sense to you. it's a long essay, with all of colette's words in untranslated french -- too complex for the online translators or for my old rusty skills. but to tell the truth, i didn't perfectly understand the english, either. in any case, it becomes clear that colette was hip to the game: when imitation -- even of the bodies of the women of japan -- goes below the surface to effect self-esteem, it becomes just another power game. women, yet again, are pawns in that game of fame. no wonder clara bow looks so sad.)

'colette's breast' is from
sisters of salome.

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8 Comments:

Blogger here today, gone tomorrow said...

Fascinating. I adore Colette; very glad to see her featured here. Love the wanderings of your intellect.

21 April, 2008 15:25  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

thanks htgt-- i love that you always "get it."

21 April, 2008 16:09  
Blogger Dominic Bugatto said...

Great post & insight as usual. Love the last two pics esp.

21 April, 2008 19:03  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

thanks, dominic. they're striking, aren't they?

21 April, 2008 21:44  
Blogger Liza Cowan said...

Brava! And great pix. I have some great corset trade cards from the 19th cent. that I will scan and send to you.

Collette rocks.

22 April, 2008 16:57  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh that's cool--thanks liza!

22 April, 2008 17:04  
Anonymous lasourceauxbois said...

This is a long but absolutely fascinating post. In fact, the more you read it the more you want it to go on ever and ever. The ideas developed make so much sense. As you can gather from some of my posts, I have an adoration for Colette and her writings. Hey, she was not slim at all, probably smellt garlic a lot (though she had two baths a day -- she used to eat garlic everyday), had an awful way to pronounce the "r" as she was from the Burgundy region, but still men and women were completely under her spell!!!!

30 April, 2008 14:34  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh! these bits of information are so interesting, and make them all seem more human.

i put in a request at the library for a translation of some of colette's essays, so i hope that i will be able to add some more.

thank you!

30 April, 2008 15:35  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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