THE HEARTENING GENIUS AND HUMOUR OF OUT OF SHAPE: DEBUNKING MYTHS ABOUT FASHION AND FIT WRITTEN BY MEL CAMPBELL (Affirm Press)
When I visited to Japan, I was sure it would be so easy to find clothes that fit me. I listened to friends tell of terrible experiences they had, trying to find cute clothes that fit them. I was excited: I am small, after all. I took a practically empty suitcase to fill with a whole new wardrobe from Japan but ended up filled with escalating self-loathing from store to store, trying on item after item that looked great on the rack, but took on a weird and unflattering shape when put on my body. This should have been have fun! The pressure to come home with a whole new collection of clothes that fit and felt good, wasn’t helping. My fifth, sixth day in Tokyo, 8pm. I’m sitting on the steps leading to a huge UNIQLO and burst into stressed, ugly tears. It wasn’t until I started reading Mel Campbell’s Out Of Shape Debunking Myths About Fashion And Fit (Affirm Press, 2013) that I began to understand exactly where this very intense tearful outburst in the centre of Tokyo had come from. This book would have been a great deal better at comforting me as a teenager with scoliosis than the Bible, or being told I was being prayed for.
In Campbell’s introduction we’re told that much of the angst about size and fit comes from the idea that to be socially successful we need to constantly tend to and revise our appearance. She has ingeniously coined a term to explain this philosophy which is ‘orthovestia’ – created from the Latin words for ‘correct’ and ‘clothing’.
She explains that ‘orthovestia’ does not solve the problem of finding well fitting clothes, it simply fools us into thinking that when they don’t fit, it’s our fault. It makes us think we need expert help to guide and correct us. Campbell shows us that what seems like helpful advice is really social control and moral policing. Imagine if we could study this book, these concepts, in high school – I have this utopian vision of this book being read in social studies, or physical education. Excerpts could be handed out to youths, who are so vulnerable to feeling like utter garbage about their rapidly changing bodies because it is heartfelt and candid, as well as fascinating in the scope and breadth of information it covers. I found myself repeatedly rereading paragraphs and placing scraps of paper in pages that held particularly interesting nuggets of information and comfort. Though it’s difficult to choose, I’ll share five of my most loved nuggets of information gleaned from this literary hug and galvanizing pat on the back.
- TIGHT PANTS ARE FOR REBELS AND HEROES at least that’s what cool dudes in skinny jeans hope. Trousers or ‘pantaloons’ after the commedia dell’arte character Pantalone – were once literally revolutionary an emblem of the militant working class, sans-culottes (without knee breeches), who had acted as French revolution foot soldiers came to epitomise wholesome Republican masculinity. The decadent royalist effeminacy of breeches that were cut so slimly they almost resembled leggings, they were sometimes worn with a stirrup strap under the foot to assist in achieving the ‘classical’ tautness.
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s bobbed hair, jersey knit fabrics and man style blazers and trousers are said to have been inspired by the sartorial sensibilities of her lover and early financier, English polo player Arthur ‘boy’ Capel. The square, beveled lines of her No. 5 perfume recalled the shapes of his toiletry bottles and whiskey decanters. Chanel rejected the dainty froufrou femininity that prevailed in Edwardian fashion.
Like Chanel regency- era socialite George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell was a self made social climber in deliberate simple clothing. He was a middle class lad who became close to the prince regent, the future George IV. Brummell stood out from and fascinated the Georgian aristocracy with his fastidious hygiene and taste for unadorned, fitted dark coats, pale buckskin trousers, crisp white shirts, carefully knotted cravats and shiny boots that Brummell recommended champagne for polishing purposes. He did not actually have the wealth to back up his lifestyle and died in poverty in France 1840. Mel cambpell theorizes a reason for the incredibly tight dandies pants being the celebration of physical beauty.
This preoccupation with tight pants made me think of one of my favorite episodes of one of my favorite shows. It is with whimsy and humor in an episode of The Mighty Boosh that tight pant obsession is explored. In the episode where Vince is so desperate to perform lead singer duties with one of his favorite bands that he agrees to their stipulation. They give him a pair of incredibly skinny jeans that are so tight they would cause damage. Vince has to be able to fit into and wear them by the time the gig starts. It is funny but also a comment on how the fashion of the original Dandies is still quite popular here in the 21st century via the fashion of skinny British boys in indie bands.
2. THE BERLEI SERVEY AKA THE NATIONAL CENSUS OF WOMENS MEASUREMENTS surveyed 6000 women aged 15 to 65 Australia wide over the summer of 1926-1927. It remains the basis of Australian women’s apparel sizing to this day. Brothers Frederick and Authur Burley adopted scientifically precise fit and public showmanship as core company values. Doctor Grace Fairley Boelke was employed by the brothers as Berlei’s medical director to ensure its corsets were ‘anatomically correct’, and urged willowy flappers to ‘corset for the future’ in order to prevent irreparable damage to ‘muscles and vital organs’. Berlei’s 1920s marketing reflected pop cultures prevailing worship of youthful sporty silhouettes; the implied athleticism of its wrap-on ‘Dance Girdle’ was continued in the 1924 promotional musical revue, titled Youth Triumph
- IN 2004 JANET JACKSON had one of her breasts revealed by Justin Timberlake on national television and it caused a huge sensation. What was meant to happen was that Timberlake would remove the topmost layer of material covering a red lace bra. What ended up happening was that Timberlake accidentally removed both layers of fabric and thus her breast and nipple was shown to the world for mere seconds. The term ‘wardrobe malfunction’ was never illustrated to well. The reaction to this and other celebrity gossip may make you think that celebrity gossip has gotten more mean spirited. However in eighteenth century England, cruel caricatures of the rich and fashionable were similar to todays fashion blogs.
The cartoonist Isaac Cruikshank (1764-1811) was not a fan of the light, diaphanous drapery of empire silhouettes of women’s fashion in the 1790s. In his1794 cartoon ‘The Rage , Or Shepards I Have Lost My Waist’, a woman in a fashionable empire-waisted gown is watched by a shorter fatter lady- who wears the same fashions to much less flattering effect- as she appears to declaim a comic poem about the absurdity of the prevailing silhouette. ‘A woman’s only top and tail/the body’s banished God knows where.’
Cruickshank died of alcohol poisoning at 55 after winning a drinking competition. His two sons followed in his footsteps and became cartoonists. Robert inherited his father’s obsession with wardrobe malfunctions. He scornfully depicted fashionably dressed young men – dandies, or ‘exquisites’ as they were mockingly called – as either scrawny and effeminate or grotesquely fat with thick, shiny lips, with faces always half hidden by preposterously high winged collars and swathed cravats.
The Cruickshank family did not at all agree with the idea that Iris Apfel would discuss over 100 years later. Apfel the now 94 year-old style icon who has recently had a documentary made about her life. In the documentary she has said that it is more important to be happy than dressed appropriately. I think Iris would love Mel Campbell’s book. Somebody should send the woman a copy.
- ‘FIT’ BEGAN TO MEAN ‘BEAUTIFUL’ AND ‘SEXY’ IN THE 1890’S, AS THE WESTERN world nestled into creature comforts. Charismatic exercise impresarios exploited the widespread anxieties that urban affluence would start an epidemic of feeble masculinity and hysterical femininity.
Born Fredrich Wilhelm Muller in what is now Russia, Prussian circus strongman Eugen Sandow made his debut on the London music hall stage in 1889. Sandow set out to epitomize ideal manhood. He studied classical Greek and Roman sculptures and trained his own physique to the same proportions. He published Sandow’s System Of Physical Training followed by Strength And How To Obtain It in 1897.
- MEETING SANDOW AT THE 1893 WORLD’S COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION IN CHOCAGO made a big impression on Bernarr Macfadden, a wiry little man from Missouri, who would become future physical culture publishing magnate. Macfadden’s personal motto was , ‘weakness is a crime – don’t be a criminal.’
He maintained a punishing health regime that included week long fasts and obsessive exercising. The man showed signs of straight up eating disorder coupled with a warped understanding of his own body. He died of a urinary blockage. He refused medical attention and attempted to treat the ailment by fasting. Macfadden did not agree with crafty shortcuts to a woman making herself beautiful. He did not believe in make up and hair products. Only diet and exercise were, he thought, believed to make woman look good. And if she looked bad, she could only blame herself. Another of his charming mottos was ‘Health is beauty. Ugliness is sin.’
As far as I can understand it, Mister Macfadden is one of the original dude bros that helped launch them all. I will think of him every time I read a horrible comment under a feminist piece of writing and go to stalk the commenter. It seems that there is a common profile photo style to these guys. They can be found posing topless showing their gym junkie physique.
The greatest gift a book can bestow to its reader is the expanding of understanding and knowledge about the world we live in and the many nuanced places we can hold within it. This book is not some silly book about fashion and the ways in which we can make ourselves more pleasing to the eyes. It is deconstruction of the why we feel perpetually bad about our bodies. This book does not fix anything but, it provides ways in which to think our selves out of the self esteem quagmire that is clothes shopping and finding the perfect fit. Less Macfaddens and more intelligent and witty writers like Mel Campbell please.