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The Birth of “Strapless Evening Gown”

The following article is from The Annals of Improbable Research.

by Charles Seim
El Cerrito, California

[Editor’s note: This was written in February 2007, a few days after Charles Seim gave his first public lecture about Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown.]

I wrote “Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown” in my senior year in Civil Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. At the time I was the Associate Editor of the Cal Engineer, a monthly magazine produced by students in the College of Engineering.

The editor of the Cal Engineer had seen a short article in an engineering magazine from another university on the topic and he showed it to me, asking if I could write a better essay. I replied, “Sure I can!”

The Research
I spent many more hours developing the engineering (it is a legitimate analysis) and writing the article than I ever dreamed it would take; the writing of the article definitely cut into my homework time (engineering students at that time were given 4 to 5 hours of homework every night!).

When the Cal Engineer published my essay, that issue sold out immediately! The essay was the talk of the engineering campus, and every one seemed to appreciate and enjoy the article.

During the time I was writing, I kept wondering if the article was too risqué. By today’s standards, it is merely “lukewarm” and doesn’t even come close to being “risqué.” How times have changed in 55 years!

Technical drawings from a 1950 patent for a strapless evening gown.

A Stressed Analyst of a Strapless Evening Gown
Near the close of my senior year, I was feeling very cocky. I had made it all the way through my other exams and through all the homework, so (I thought) I must know every thing about Engineering! Besides, I had even written a successfully-received story about the lack of straps on a garment!

In the next to last meeting of my four-hour long, weekly Statics of Structures class, the professor told the class to be sure to bring slide rules to the last class because he was going to give us one last exam. I thought he was joking—give one more test on the last day of our last class as an undergraduate!

But I took my slide rule to that last class, just in case. My jaw dropped a foot when the professor walked into the room carrying a stack of papers that could only be—another test! So he hadn’t been joking, after all!

I was sitting by a window that overlooked the campanile (a phallic symbol standing at the center of the campus). The campanile had a large clock on each of its four faces and I could see one face very clearly from my perch on the second floor. (Image credit: Znode)

The professor passed out the test and stated in a very serious tone that he believed no Senior Engineering student should graduate from the Berkeley campus without a thorough understanding of the theory of the Statics of Structures—and he obviously meant exactly that!

I opened the test and found six problems, that the professor had assured the class were simple, on the fundamentals of statics. I could not figure out solutions to any of them! Damn the “Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown” and the study time I had wasted in writing that essay! I was struck by the irony that the first title I had given to the essay was “The Static Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown.”

I looked at the campanile clock—it was then 1:30 p.m. and I had three and a half hours to go! I frantically searched for one problem that I could at least start to solve. I was petrified with fear. Damn that strapless evening gown essay and damn me for wasting my study time on writing the evil thing! I thumbed through my test pages so many tines that the papers were crinkled!

Why can’t I find a starting point? Damn that strapless evening gown! The clock kept moving—2 p.m., 3 p.m.! Damn that gown! Because of that gown, I was going to flunk out of school in my last year! Almost every one else had finished and left. One hour and three students remained—at least I wasn’t the only student still there!

I turned the pages one more, desperate time, and then I saw it! I saw the start of a solution to one problem! I finished that page and turned to the next page; again, I saw another solution! I worked my slide rule back and forth. The clock said 3:30, but I was moving and my slide rule was going! I turned to the next page and another solution popped out, then another! At 4:45 pm, exhausted, and now blessing the Goddess of the Gown, I smugly handed my paper to my professor!

I now wish to convey my profound respect for this professor, widely known for his contributions to engineering, and who was an excellent teacher and a mentor to me; and I passed.

Recurrences of the Analysis
The essay was first published in the Cal Engineer in 1952 and then appeared in a 1963 as the title essay of a book of “Essays for a Scientific Age” published by Prentice Hall, Inc. It reappeared in 1969 in an Anchor Book Edition and again in 1987 by Prentice Hall, Inc., both in paperback editions.

From Busts to Bridges
Many good things have happened to me in the 55 intervening years. I was hired by Caltrans to work on the design and construction of several state-owned toll bridges. Later, I was invited to assume a position at T.Y. Lin International under the personal guidance of Prof. T.Y. Lin (or TY as he preferred to be addressed) who was my professor in several engineering courses at Berkeley.

I have worked on bridges throughout the United States and South America. For the last ten years, I have worked on a number of bridge projects in Asia.

Along the way, I bumped into many friends and engineers who have asked me about the Strapless Evening Gown essay; one even characterized it as the “The Gownless Evening Strap.”

I would like to be recognized for my work in bridge engineering but I am also pleased to be known as the author of the SAOASEG!


The article above is republished with permission from the March-April 2007 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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