Mckenzie Porter on Women's Clothes


April 7 1962
Mckenzie Porter on Women's Clothes


April 7 1962


Mckenzie Porter on Women's Clothes

THIS YEAR CANADIAN WOMEN will pay five hundred million dollars into the coffers of a world-wide conspiracy, a conspiracy dedicated to one unswerving purpose, the purpose of driving men mad, yes mad, with desire. I cannot bring myself to write in milder terms of women’s complicity in the gigantic plot we call fashion. The core of this intrigue, the fashion industry, is an organization that employs a quarter of a million people in Canada — two million in the U. S. A.—and takes more money out of domestic budgets than any other institution save the grocer, the landlord and the mortgage holder.

Almost every Canadian woman between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five abets the fashion industry in a paradoxical manner. She is both its slave and its master. Her attitude toward its products is equally ambivalent. She puts on fashionable clothes with the sole idea of tempting men to tear them off.

If you think I’m exaggerating, glance through the fashion pages of newspapers and magazines for last January, the month in which the famous designers parade new styles for the following summer and fall. You will see that women's garments for 1962 are conspicuously voluptuous. So much so that I doubt whether men will be able to control themselves. Indeed I fear that the moment will come when men suddenly will arise and with a roar of brutish joy engulf the women in one great final Saturnalia.


Such a catastrophe would be appropriate since the designers, inspired by an upcoming Elizabeth Taylor movie, have decided to give women “the Cleopatra look,” a look of unashamed nakedness and lubricity, the kind of look demanded by the Romans when they were ransacking the banks of the Nile for orgiastic novelties.

Never before have designers admitted so brazenly that they live by a cycle of sartorial erotica, a phenomenon described by Protessor J. C. Flügel, a University of London psychologist, as “the shifting erogenous zone.” In other words the designers play upon the concupiscence of men by constantly adjusting women’s garments to emphasize different elements of anatomical appeal. The women, heartily approving the designers’ ideas, buy new dresses

long before the old ones are worn out. Thus the fashion intriguers keep the sewing machines of the garment makers humming satisfactorily.

In concentrating this year on the raiment of an Egyptian queen the designers have alighted, predictably, upon the navel, a birth-scar that has always enraptured the lickerish Levantine. Although there seems to be no danger yet of our wives having to bare their umbilici at parties, many evening gowns will be equipped with little gauze windows through which this attribute may at least be glimpsed by strangers.

In daytime the navel will be wholly untrammeled by modesty. Designers have resolved that slacks for home and resort wear will be worn with a skimpy halter and will hang so low from the iliac bones that the pelvis will almost be visible. Furthermore such slacks, which have been growing tighter about the buttocks for the past two years, will become tighter still. To intensify the skin-like encasement of the hips the designers have abandoned the side zipper and replaced it with a front zipper, like a man’s fly.

The emphasis on subnavel magnetism is expressed also in the retention in style of those brief, close-fitting skirts that have outlined the rump and exposed the knee for these past two years.

Whether the waistline should be used as an additional enticement is the subject of a designers' quarrel. Some, believing that a little must be left to the imagination, want to keep the waists of daytime dresses as they are—that is, covered under loose chemises, tops and blouses. Others want to see the waist accentuated. Experts say that if there is to be a waistline it will move either north or south of the natural position so that whatever happens men will still be in a fever of uncertainty as to where to clasp it.

As the designers drive women steadily toward the standards of the Folies Berbère they even order changes of physical dimensions so that the female body is adapted to the new styles rather than vice versa.

Gone now is the big-busted American milkmaid of yesteryear, gone is The Sweater Girl, and gone with them, no doubt, are the careers of such protrusive goddesses as Jayne Mansfield and Anita Ekberg. Fashion designers have shrunk the modish bosom so radically that one U. S. women’s magazine has been driven to illustrate its required proportions with a photo-

graph of the nude torso of its latest rave model, a supposed Italian noblewoman whose skinny rib cage and scooped-out abdomen bespeak a stoic resistance to spaghetti. Nevertheless, the designers still employ what remains of the bosom to tantalize. Their formal gowns for 1962 have asunder necklines, with a peek-a-boo effect at the top, an ingeniously invisible brassière. and a closure in a V at the region of their latest obsession — the umbilicus.


Dr. Edmund Bergler, the New' York psychiatrist. ascribes the rising carnal significance of fashion to an influential homosexual group among the males of the industry. “These men,” he says, “hate women, and take a special pleasure in making fools of them.” If this is true then no business offers so many opportunities as the fashion industry for mixing pleasure with profit.

At first glance this thriving traffic, with its posturing motley of designers, dressmakers, models, photographers, advertising men, women journalists, retailers and salesgirls, suggests a harlequinade, an everlasting romp that excels show business in all that is frivolous, frenetic, exotic and neurotic. But behind its mists of paint and powder, and under its seas of champagne and scent, lies a cunning scheme, a master plan to exploit one of man's most basic instincts — the longing for social eminence.

By keeping up with fashion, says Lawrence Langner, a New York historian of clothing, a woman “proclaims her social position, her husband's rank and her sexual attraction to men in general.” The husband, says Langner, rarely quibbles over the cost. His alluring, stylish wife is to him a status symbol, "a glittering advertisement of his own charm, wealth, affection and superiority.”

Human preoccupation with the vanity of clothing is deeply rooted. If he can get hold of it even a monkey will hang a strip of ribbon about his neck and immediately arouse the combative jealousy of his pals. Wolfgang Kohler, a zoologist, says: "The trotting about of apes with objects hanging around them not only looks funny but seems to give them naïve pleasure.”

Anthropologists say that when man first walked upright he was still a tropical creature and did not require


WOMEN'S CLOTHES continued from page 23

“A perpetual blush on the surface of humanity,” clothing serves both to hide shame and to tempt

clothing for warmth. But he found he needed something to protect his genitals from pnckly shrubs. So he invented a short apron of animal skin or bark. From that moment on concealment provoked curiosity. The pleasures that tended to follow curiosity prompted embellishment of the apron with attractive ornaments, of which, in western society, the Scotsman's sporran is the best surviving example.

Competition for the most appealing foims of ornament led to the elaboration of clothing for the sake of a better lovelib: and the correspondingly higher social status this entailed. As society became more complex the male elders introduced such sex taboos as marriage to protect themselves from loss of their womenfolk to younger men. Whereupon clothing assumed a contradictory function. It was at the same time a means of hiding shame and holding out temptation, or, in the words of Professor Flügel, “a perpetual blush on the surface of humanity.”

Later clothing was valued for its warmth, as it enabled man to move to coOder climates. It assumed meaning not only in the strife for sexual superiority but in the manifestation of general superiority. Hence the gorgeous attire of eastern chieftains and western kings. Its sexual appeal, however, never vanished, not even in the days of Cromwell's puritans. Then, even as now, the leaders of society set the style.

But it wasn't until the twenties, and the beginning of mass production, that the fashion industry enslaved ninety percent of western women.

Before World War One the woman was

considered impertinent who asked another for the name of her dressmaker. Then, in the days when everybody was singing "Yes. We Have No Bananas,” an Englishman named Captain Molyneux opened an expensive dress shop in Paris. Whenever a rich or famous woman bought a dress from him he tipped off the society gossip writers. His gowns were so good that the owners rarely denied their origin. And so the potent phrase "Yes, it’s a Molyneux,” began to be whispered in powder rooms.

Molyneux sewed the seam between the dressmaker and the journalist and ever, since women have looked to his successors for instructions on what to wear. Those garment makers who fail to copy the creations of the headlined designers end up in bankruptcy.

Yet the big designers merely pass on to the general public the styles of the custom-made dresses preferred by their clients, the leggy American heiresses, the curvaceous Italian contessas and the pink English peeresses who prowl up to their perfumed little shops behind poker-faced chauffeurs.

These rich and celebrated women, whose photographs constantly are appearing in the newspapers, really determine the mode. Lesser women, fearful of being deemed inferior, demand reproductions of their styles from the mass manufacturers. As soon as the mass of women is wearing a new style, however, the celebrated women find other styles to preserve their exclusiveness. So fashion becomes a vast game of follow-the-leader with the pace quickening every year.

No designer influences mass production

styles until he can boast of an international top-drawer clientele and so earn the adulation of the world’s arch snobs — the women fashion writers. Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s dressmaker, owes his fame to the publicity-producing patronage in the thirties of Princess Marina, now the Dowager Duchess of Kent. One of Christian Dior’s first potent customers was Fanny Heldy, the Paris opera singer and wife of the French financier Marcel Boussac. Yves St. Laurent, who worked originally for Dior, got to know' many elegant customers and stole some from his boss when he set up a shop of his own. Another Paris designer, Balenciaga, has as one of his customers Mrs. Loel Guinness, a millionairess who is rated the second best-dressed woman in the world. The rated best-dressed woman in the world, Mrs. John F. Kennedy, wife of the U. S. president, brought the New' York designer Oleg Cassini overnight fame.

The degree to which high society women conspire with the famous designers to hold their lead on styles may be seen in the lines of a coat that is selling rapidly in Canadian department stores this spring. That coat is almost identical with a Cassini coat Mrs. Kennedy wore on her state visit to Ottawa last spring.

The 1962 styles shown by the name designers last January were a composite of new' silhouettes that had been favored by their rich clients in 1961. By revealing these styles to the press the designers abandoned them to mass production while, in the secrecy of their little salons, they were custom-making something different for the upper crust.

According to Larry Aldrich, president of the New York Dress Institute, an organization of fashion houses, the leading designers make only a modest profit out of custom clothing for rich women. “There

aren't enough rich women to go around,” he says. Nor, says Aldrich, do the leading designers make much money out of royalties on dresses copied from their original models by the mass producers. “It is difficult to exact royalties,” says Aldrich, “because it is almost impossible to protect a dress by patent." What happens is this: cashing in on the publicity given to their seasonal showings the designers make money out of royalties on scent, stockings and accessories which they permit manufacturers to brand with their name, and advertise widely. Nearly all the famous scents — Rochas. Schiaparelli. Chanel, belong and others—are produced in association with fashion houses.

The link between the name designer and the average woman is a corps of some three hundred European and North American women fashion writers. All year round these newshens badger the designers for

details of what the rich women are buying. Most of the time the designers fend off these inquiries with skillful equivocation and half-truths. Then, in January and June, they reveal all. They show what the rich have really bought.

The revelations are conducted w'ith pomp. In New York, Paris and London the showings are carefully arranged by organizations of designers so that the fashion writers will get a chance to see every member’s latest models. Each fashion writer is accredited by the fashion organization—in New York it is the New York Dress Institute — as carefully as war correspondents are accredited by army authorities. They arc expected to break the news of the new styles simultaneously so that the greatest publicity impact is achieved for the designers. Fashion writers who reveal new styles before certain deadlines find themselves without tickets for the next year’s showings and may have to look for new jobs.

Each city’s showings last about a week, with so many fashion houses on the list that the lesser of them must parade their models before the writers during an eight a.m. breakfast party. Luncheon, cocktail and dinner parties accompany other showings. Later there are theatre parties. As a result the fashion writers run around madly, change their clothes almost as frequently as the models, and sit up all night at their typewriters.

Throughout the showings the writers receive small gifts of accessories. ‘'And sometimes,” says one, "they show extremely bad taste by opening them in company and criticizing their quality.” The same writer adds: “About the only thing that is not provided for les girls is men.”

This round of hard work and festivity, without the soothing influence of men, imparts an element of hysteria to the press showings. “The writers are inclined to rush

for seats,” says one. “If they find their name on a seat with a poor view they ignore it, take a name-card from another seat, and steal that one. This leads to much bickering.” At the Yves St. Laurent show, in Paris, last January, one North American fashion writer, very conscious of the importance of her paper, found she had been given a back seat, scrambled in vain for a vacant front one, started shouting “I have been humiliated,” and had to be removed from the room and given sedatives.

In London, Norman Hartnell encourages an atmosphere of enigma and high intrigue during the days before his own show. He keeps the fashion waiters in a state of constant fear of being scooped by spreading rumors among them about his new styles. A few years ago he hired four detectives to stand outside his Mayfair store, installed burglar alarms, frosted his windows and shooed away with a mock expression of wrath the writers who were desperate to confirm those rumors. For days he moved around London like a fugitive, jumping from taxicab to taxicab as anxious fashion writers chased him for interviews. When at last he opened his show the fashion writers wrote joyously and fulsomely of his styles, partly out of sheer relief.

Fashion writers for the big women's magazines see the styles before the newspaper girls. On a promise to obey a deadline they attend previews held primarily for favored clients and those proprietors of exclusive retail shops who may be expected to buy original models. That is how the fashion magazines publish the new styles simultaneously with the newspapers.

Weeks before the publication date women's magazines prepare their fashion layouts. In recent years they’ve tended to send photographers and models to exotic

parts of the world in search of novel scenery. Last January one big U. S. magazine sent a glamorous team up Nemrud Dígh, a remote Turkish mountain, to picture girls in everything from swim-suits to evening gowns against a background of colossal ancient statuary. Understandably, the team was almost beaten up by a band of camel-riding nomads whose Moslem principles were outraged at the sight of so much female flesh.

The high-fashion models are the highest paid, making four or five times the income of the girls who pose with food, detergents, cars or corn cures. They earn between fifty and a hundred dollars an hour and mere than three hundred of them, in New York, have incomes of between ten and twenty thousand dollars a year.

The fashion photographers have few illusions about what sells clothes. “In fashion photos,” says Paul Rockett, a leading Canadian fashion photographer, “sex appeal is as necessary as film.”

By the time writers, models, photographers and editors have acquainted the average woman with the new styles the mass producers in big cities like New York, Toronto and Montreal are already turning out imitations. Lou Larry, a Toronto garment manufacturer, says: “We anticipate what the big designers are going to do and we are ready with our own interpretation of the trend. We get to know how the new styles will turn out by studying society page pictures of what the best-dressed w'omen are wearing, by talking to textile manufacturers who supply the big designers, by talking to buyers who attend the previews and through a sort of trade spy service of our own.”

They’re simply “fluffy duffy”

If a mass producer begins manufacturing a new line too early or too late, or bases the style on faulty information, he may go broke. Says Larry, “There are many bankruptcies in this business. If a man is cutting green velvet when he ought to be sewing white w'oollens he’s had it.”

Last September Lou Larry bought a quarter of a million dollars worth of white woollen material and red and blue braid trimmings. “I had heard from a good soirsie.’Lhe said, “that this spring some of the top designers would be featuring red, white and blue suits, if my source had been wrong I’d now be trying to sell that stuff at twenty cents on the dollar. As things are, the suits are checking out (selling) at a marvelous rate.”

Larry says that Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver women lead Canada in high fashion. The Prairie women, he says, require smart, but a little more practical style. “The Maritime women,” he says, “are relatively dowdy.”

Larry shows his garments informally at any time of the year to buyers from department stores and independent stores in a big room with wall-to-wall carpets. Immediately below is another big room that hums with sewing machines manned by two hundred garment workers.

On these occasions he uses for models pretty girls who double, in the absence of buyers, as stenographers and clerks. In January and July when the name designers are showing in New York, London and Paris. Larry shows too, to gatherings that include the local press. On these special occasions he hires sultry professional models. Then he swells with pride when he hears the press profess surprise at the similarity between his middle-priced garments and the costly original models of Chanel or Givenchy.

“I don’t pay anybody a penny in royalties,” he says, “I rely on observation and information to keep abreast of the times.” Every year the fashion retailers become

more chi chi as the masses acquire more luxuries and ape more assiduously the ways of the plutocracy. The leader of the movement tow'ard the exquisite is Mr. John who runs an exclusive hat, dress and suit shop in the well-heeled east fifties of New York. Mr. John looks a little like Napoleon and sometimes w’ears a Napoleon outfit to w’ork. He is apt to describe his wares as “fluffy duffy,” “hemmer schlemmer” and “absolutely contortionist.”

Recently, in elegant circulars to advertise a Victorian theme in fashions, Mr. John announced a new range of colors

thus: “A blush was a weapon dear to the heart of the Victorian charmer. And now it is Mr. John’s turn to blush (and what man wouldn’t), bringing you such passionately romantic colors as these . . . PRINCESS PINK — the maidenly blush of a young princess is a preciously clear pink seemingly reserved only for those of royal birth . . . TUDOR ROSE — young lovers please don’t pluck the deep velvety petals of this rose. It’s a symbol of royalty . . . IMPERIAL scarlet—How petite the young Queen looks as she inspects her guards, the sun melting helplessly against the full-

bodied scarlet of their uniforms! . . . Does such a whirl of romantic color put tantalizing ideas into your pretty head? It does? How' lovely!”

Mr. John is now moving into men’s wear and men’s toilet goods. He advertises his Man of Distinction Cravats as being “so elegant, so superb, so everlastingly beautiful,” and his Man of Distinction Cologne as "a bold Cologne with a traditional appeal to assist today’s conquering heroes.”

Is it any wonder, do you think, that the barbarian is howling without our walls?