Dress to Oppress

(Image credit: Wellcome Images)

Dear A.J., I’m in a friend’s wedding this fall, and she’s requested that all the bridesmaids wear Spanx. Do I have to? I hate the way they feel. -Sarah in Baltimore

Here's my advice, Sarah: Tell the lovely bride to cut out the crazy talk! If I’m reading it correctly, our Constitution guarantees the inalienable right to love handles. That said, if you do decide to honor and obey her wishes, take comfort in knowing that in the entire agonizing history of women’s fashion, Spanx is pretty benign.

Consider its 16th-century Spanish equivalent: an iron corset that squeezed the woman’s waist to the size of an Eggo waffle. In the centuries that followed, women slipped into something only slightly less excruciating: corsets made of whalebone, wood, and steel. Lacing up these duds required a brawny servant who stood behind the lady, often lodging a foot in her back for leverage!

Just in case that doesn’t sound constricting enough, you could always squeeze into a hobble skirt. This chic garment -fashionable in 1910s Paris- was so tight that wearers were reduced to shuffling along with tiny steps, in a sort of sexy penguin waddle. To perfect her gait, a lady could buy elastic restraints that fit below the knee.

If you’re looking for something roomier, then let me recommend a hoop skirt. At their most enormous, these wearable circus tents reached 16 feet in diameter, which made it really hard for your average aristocratic lady to properly twerk. Hoop dresses were also notorious perpetrators of wardrobe malfunctions. Their proclivity for bumping into things made them constant fire hazards. And if you didn’t sit in the prescribed manner, the steel frame could pop up into your face, exposing your drawers. On the other hand, hoop skirts could be occasional lifesavers. According to one tale, a lovelorn 19th-century Bristol woman tried to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, only to be saved when her hoopskirt acted like a parachute.

The skirts may not have been fun, but the rest of a lady’s wardrobe was no more pleasant. If you feel today’s high heels aren’t nearly high enough, you’ll be glad to hear about chopines, the two-foot-tall
stilts women in Renaissance Venice wore to palace balls. The chopine-shod lady often required a servant to help keep her balance. Of course, things were no more comfortable at the top. At Versailles, the wigs -made from a combination of human hair, wires, pomade, and louse eggs- got heavier and more unwieldy as women attempted to out do one another. Perhaps most cumbersome of all: Marie Antoinette’s wig shaped like a French battleship.

Then again, maybe I’m judging the past  too harshly. According to every historical record I can find, no one in Marie Antoinette’s court had to wear jeggings.


The article above, written by AJ Jacobs, is reprinted with permission from the September-October 2013 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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