Tuesday, February 26, 2008

From Kirtles to Kicking Butt

by Nancy Northcott

There's a reason Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, and every super-heroine since Wonder Woman wore catsuits or some variation thereof. Kicking butt in a kirtle would be pretty much impossible. The clothes, of course, suited the image of The Ideal Woman in their eras. In the Middle Ages, for example, Woman was supposed to be demure, devout, and dominated. This condition persisted until the late 20th century. In some parts of the world (and some regions of the United States), it's alive and thriving. This isn't a political blog, though. I suspect most of us, at least in the United States, get more than enough politics to suit us just by turning on the television. It's a fashion blog. Today we're going to look at the ways clothes reflected and do reflect the lives of the women wearing them.

The Middle Ages and the concept of courtly love certainly didn't include women slaying dragons. The woman shown here certainly couldn't. Her skirt would catch on fire, and that would be that. The man slew dragons, hags, and assorted other evil-doers. He, of course, wore the literal and figurative pants, sometimes armored. In fact, this woman would be hard pressed to clean her own kitchen. She'd be tripping on that skirt all the time. As for leading armies, forget it. Aside from the sheer physical power required to wield a lance or sword, not to mention the need for at least some maneuverability (though true medieval broadsword battles more closely resembled those in A Knight's Tale than those in my beloved Errol Flynn move, The Adventures of Robin Hood), there'd be all that fabric to manage.

The Middle Ages did, however, give us the first real-life action heroine, Joan of Arc. I discovered her via a Classics Illustrated comic book when I was in second grade (and if I still had it, I'd have a valuable contribution to the boy's tuition fund, but that's a subject for a different blog). Joan was cooler than any woman I'd ever seen. This was the age of TV moms who wore pearls in the kitchen and never seemed to wield a vacuum cleaner, only advice. My little comic book geek heart adored Joan. However, the men of her time, included my much-admired English, did not. They put Joan on trial, for heresy if I remember correctly, and part of their reasoning was that she wore men's clothes. This may be the only fatal fashion faux pas in history. At least Joan got sainthood, albeit posthumously, out of the deal.

From the Middle Ages, we move to the Renaissance, or supposed rebirth of learning and culture. For women, many of whom were well educated if they came from the upper classes or the nobility, the era offered more of the same. Except with better and more ornate fabrics. I have to admit I love the elaborate gowns of the Tudor period. The Henrys, I could do without, but their women were extremely well dressed. I'll probably have to see The Other Boleyn Girl just to look at the costumes. Wearing all this fabric did make a lot of sense, as did the cumbersome clothes of earlier periods. Whether you lived in a castle or a hut, your home wasn't draft-proof (hence the heavy tapestries hung on so many walls and sometimes over doors or windows). The Tudors presided over an exciting era, what with Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and Elizabeth I's sponsorship of explorers/privateers like Sir Francis Drake, but Elizabeth did most of her butt-kicking via surrogates.

Things didn't improve much for women in the active wardrobe department over the next several centuries. We had bum rolls, farthingales, hoops, corsets, bustles, and other assorted impedimenta designed to interfere with actual living. Granted, most of the fashion extremes were popular among--indeed, only possible for--the very wealthy, but they were held up as ideals of everyone. Around World War I, when things were starting to loosen up, the talented and imaginative Paul Poiret gave (or inflicted upon, depending on your viewpoint) women the hobble skirt, which narrowed at the bottom. After the war, things loosened up considerably, thanks to Chanel and the flappers, but narrow skirts alternated with full in haute couture for the rest of the century. Still popular, judging by Sunday's red carpet coverage at the Oscars, is the "mermaid dress," which fits tightly through the body and hips but flares at the knees. Thank goodness it's not as extreme as it used to be, but can you imagine Sidney Bristow of Alias taking somebody on in an outfit like that?

Women in movie serials like The Perils of Pauline, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and The Hazards of Helen broke the mold with derring do, but that adventurous spirit didn't last. On television, Emma Peel was the first real action heroine. I still have a soft spot for Dame Diana Rigg because she was so dynamic. After Emma came the 1960s TV version of Batgirl, who had a few restrictions in the interest of being "ladylike." (Fewer restrictions prevailed in the comic book. The talented and agile actress who portrayed her, Yvonne Craig, just kicked people because the producers didn't think viewers would like to see a woman hitting people. Regardless of their methods, though, each of them frequently wore a catsuit. They had to if they wanted to move freely. Well, okay, maybe it didn't absolutely have to be a catsuit but they needed something less restrictive than a poodle skirt or a pencil skirt.

Then came Linda Hamilton as a super-buff Sarah Connor fighting to defend her son and Gillian Anderson as Special Agent Dana Scully and Catherine Bell as Col. Sarah McKenzie on JAG. For eleven years, Amanda Tapping has played Col. Samantha Carter of Stargate SG-1, frequently appearing in camouflage gear with automatic weapons. I have to admit to a certain bias in favor of Carter, who's the prototype for the heroines I'd like to have seen on television when I was growing up. With shows like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Heroes, and Stargate Atlantis on the air, the action heroine and her wardrobe seem safe for the near future.

What's the most ridiculous or cumbersome outfit you ever saw? Was there one you owned? And yes, bridesmaid dresses count.

Who's your favorite action heroine on TV, in movies, or in books?

By the way, vote for Trish! http://www.romantictimes.com/2008/02/american-title-vote-on-best-romantic.php


Helen said...

Is he mine


Helen said...

Yes how lucky is the GR today I am just about to go out. Hubby and I are going to see Rod Stewart in concert I am sure he is going to enjoy it he may be a bit hard of hearing tomorrow but it will come back.
Have Fun

Anna Campbell said...

Helen, he wants to come back to Oz! It's so obvious! Congratulations! Hey, have fun with old Roddy babe!

Nancy, what a fascinating post. I love historical costume - I can remember a Treasure annual when I was about eight which had a jumble of people in a street scene. There were women dressed in everything from about 1450 to 1610 there, but I didn't care. I just loved how gorgeous all those figured velvets and patterned silks were in the picture. I adore Emma Peel. She was just so incredibly cool. Occasionally they rerun the shows here very late at night and believe me, she's still cool even forty years later!

p226 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
p226 said...

If any of you do this, I apologize in advance. But when I see what I refer to as "steel herpes," it's a huge turnoff. Why people put metal in their faces (particularly the lips) in the name of fashion is beyond me. Just yesterday I was waiting for nearly 4 hours at the doc-in-a-box,and there was a BEAUTIFUL girl waiting. I mean, stunningly beautiful. Except for the steel herpes. Does that represent empowerment? Self mutilation? Baffling to me.

Favorite "action" heroine on TV or movies? That's easy. Beatrix Kiddo.

"You mus haf beeeg ratz you need Hitori Hanzo steel"

"The biggest."

Donna MacMeans said...

Nancy - loved the fashion blog. I'm a fan of historical attire. The clothes brought me to the late Victorian era. I find it amazing that for such a supposively repressed society, they exaggerated and flaunted the feminine form. They narrowed their waists to exaggerate the hourglass, just as some women today have silicone implants to do much of the same thing.

P226 - loved the steel herpes tag.

Helen - you must tell us about the Rod Stewart concert - can he still rock?

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

Helen, make the GR go for a little run, he had to go up and down my steps a few times with me yesterday and I thought I was going to have to carry him. Christine indulged him a lot and P226 didn't tell us where his training area was in WV so we just had to use the stairs a lot.

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

I know it must have been horrendous trying to move about in those clothes, but oh some of them were so beautiful. As a young woman I was always wearing a long skirt or dress. I always felt pretty when I was dressed that way. Now I only "dress" on the rare occasions I go out.
It was a thrill to watch Emma kick some butt though!
Once upon a time *sigh*

Caren Crane said...

Oh, Helen, the GR and Rod Stewart in the same day? Be still my heart! You may have to take a couple of days off after all the excitement. *g*

Nancy, I think the hobble skirt was the worst. Hoopskirts and farthingales were bad, but I actually owned a long skirt (long calf length) that was in the "hobble" style. It looked fabulous, but I could hardly walk! Those of you who know me know that I have quite a stride. Well, put me in a hobble skirt and there is trouble ALL DAY LONG. I recall wearing it to work at my retail clothing store job and having to climb ladders (in pumps, of course) to do displays.

This was, naturally, the 1980s. I was practically crippled, but so cute! ;-)

brownone said...

Congrats on the GR Helen! Hope he enjoys Rod too!

Bell bottoms...yuck!! I don't know who thought those up (or goucho pants for that matter).

I do love watching (and reading) historicals though because the clothes were so interesting. I'm reading "The Constant Princess" (and listening to it on CD) which is centered on Catherine of Aragon (Henry's first wife). It's great if you want to read about kick butt women. Her mother is Queen Isabell of Spain, who lead the crusades.

Joan said...

Ahhhh.....Joan of Arc. Kind of favor her myself :-)

But not so much for the clothes issue as the "not afraid to stand up for her beliefs" part. Maybe that's an inherent part to being a "Joan"....I know I've been symbolically burned at the stake for standing up for my beliefs.

I was thinking the other day that I rarely, RARELY wear skirts anymore. I have one made of that soft, flowing material that's so popular now. It comes to my knees and actually flows and swirls around my legs as I walk. Makes me feel very feminine.

And p226....I do NOT get the face jewelry...especially nose studs.

Claudia Dain said...

Current fashion "what the ---?" would have to be the baggy pants belted below the butt. Talk about a life altering fashion day! Can barely walk, have to pull your pants up to reach your pocket, the danger of flashing your butt to the whole wide world...I'd be exhausted by noon.

Piercings: can't look at them. Self-mutilation is what it looks like and I want to rush the person to the nearest psychiatrist.

Of course, when I wanted to get my ears pierced at 16, my dad said in horror, "Why don't you get your nose pierced while you're at it!"

He had no idea, did he?

Helen said...

The GR and I have just got home and we did some exercise jumping around because Rod still has it he still rocks maybe not as much as in the 70's but in my eyes he is still fantastic.

Nancy what a wonderful post the fashions from the past are just so beautiful although I often wonder how they moved around in some of them. I always loved the dresses with the hooped peticoats what I always called Cinderella dresses. Fashions I am not so keen on are bustles didn't like them much. Some of my favourite fashions are from the late 40's early 50's I liked the style and the hats loved them and whats more they looked comfortable.
I am with you p226 don't like the piercing either.
Favoutite character was probably Wonder Women and I liked the Bionic Woman as well.
The Gr and I need some rest now after all the rocking.
Have Fun

terrio said...

Congrats on the GR, Helen and lucky you getting to see Rod Stewart. He may be downright geriatric at this point but the man has charisma.

My brother has those steel herpes P226 mentioned. Can't wait to tell him that name for them. hehehe He's 19 and also wears chick jeans so all I can say is I'm looking forward to holding all of this over his head a decade from now.

The sheer size of some of the fashions through history amaze me. When two women could barely stand next to each other to have a conversation and forget about fitting through a doorway.

I grew up watching Wonder Woman and it kills me that woman still looks just as gorgeous. Now that's super powers right there.

Nancy said...

Helen, congratulations! I'm the concert was fun. Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Sommers was a favorite of mine, too. So was Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. I did find it frustrating as a kid, though, that WW had to be saved by the non-powered Steve Trevor so often in the comic book.

Terrio, I saw Lynda Carter on TV one morning not long ago. She does still look gorgeous, and she was incredibly gracious about the upcoming, not-her WW movie. I have a Grand Avenue cartoon on my file cabinet in which two kids discuss that movie and the boy insists Lynda's too old to be WW. In the last panel, though, he's thrilled that Harrison Ford has signed to be Indy again. So am I, but it just goes to show you how biased the standards of Hollywood are.

Anna, I figured you'd like this. The Avengers doesn't get much rerun play around here, alas, maybe because so much of it is in black and white. The Treasure book sounds great. I wish I'd seen it.

p226 "steel herpes" is a great phrase. Piercings don't bother me, except I look at them and think how much that must've hurt. Who's Beatrix Kiddo?

Donna, I think the Victorian gowns are beautiful. That S-shaped lacing, though, looks painful to me.

Dianna, the GR needs regular exercise, so the steps sound good. He has to have some achievements to crow about.

Caren, I feel your pain. Those of us who're tall tend to have long strides, which just don't do well with snug skirts. And ladders--ouch!

Brownone, I think gauchos are hard to accessorize. Boots look good, but I have trouble conceiving of other looks with them. I knew people who wore bell-bottoms so wide, they tripped on them.

Joan, I love flowing skirts, too. They do wonders for my morale. Next time somebody goes after you, you should call your posse!

Claudia, I don't even have pierced ears because of the pain factor. As for the baggy/low belt look, I see a lot of it. I walked into a building one day last semester behind a boy whose belt was so low, I swear it must've been performing an amputation. And visible underwear . . . why?

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Yeah Helen! YOu got the bird! And WOW on the Rod Stewart concert. Let us know how it was an if the GR needs a...well, quieter day, tomorrow. Grins.

Nancy, this is such a fun post! I love all the costumes. Like you, I'm gonna have to see the Other Boleyn Girl. I didn't read the book - hey, I KNOW how this story ends and it AIN'T good. :> But, the draw of the costumes (and Eric Bana) make it a virtual must-see.

Whilst I feel I'm not quite at a proper weight to carry off a catsuit, I am so glad it's available. I cannot imagine trying to chase my kids, clean my house or anything remotely resembling shopping in anything other than jeans. Even in summer, in shorts or a skirt, we're sure lucky that the "impedimentia" as you so aptly put it, has finally waned!

But oh, the fabric, the embroidery...is it any wonder we love to see the fancy award dresses and stuff? :>

Nancy, I was SO LOL about the "visible underwear? Why?" Comment. SNORK! And P226, I nearly snorted coffee over the "Steel herpes" tag. I defend to the death their right to do it, but everytime I see an eyebrow piercing I think YEEEEOUCH! and the nose rings/jewelry. What I think about that ain't printable. I could talk about it with our nurse Banditas, but not w/ the general public. Snork.

Diana Rigg as Emma Peel has to be my first Shero. (prounounced She-ro as in feminine hero) I have all The Avengers on VHS. LOVE 'em. I like Beatrix Kiddo of Kill Bill fame, but wow, that movie was violent. Excellent action sequences though. MAN, I loved that part with the swords. I really liked the camp of the "new" Charlie's Angels as well. Great action sequences in that too, and Lucy Liu in the Bond flick. :>

MsHellion said...

What's the most cumbersome outfit I've ever seen? Basically any of my Halloween costumes.

I love Halloween; and I love costumes--and I love looking as vampy as possible. I kept making several different versions of Scottish lass outfits, each corset more elaborate and tighter than the last. I made this Elizabethan one, from a homemade pattern (lying about my waist so I'd look smaller--what an IDIOT), and used timber strapping as the corset boning.


My sister tugged on the strings like I was Scarlet O'Hara. The fat had to so somewhere, and my boobs looked great. I also looked hippy, but we're not going there. To add to this outfit, there was a wooden busk that went down the front, right between my breasts.

I went to my costume party, not breathing much the whole way, thinking, what a DUMB idea this was. Or actually lying about my waist was. (The costume rocked. My vanity did not.) I get to Party #1 and my ex-boyfriend approaches, and instead of saying, "Nice rack", he gives my chest a quizzical look and says, "Why do you have a block of wood between your breasts?"

My friend said, "In case we get cold later. We can rub her breasts together and start a fire."

At the bar, I was mistaken for a Step-Sister twice. (That barman didn't get a tip after that comment.) And the guy who did appreciate my chest hung all over me all night...but I basically had to be cut out of that corset. I think my ribs were bruised.

I went as Eve the next year.

MsHellion said...

And I want to give thanks to Kathryn Hepburn for making pants stylish! Thank you, Kate!

doglady said...

I knew he would head back to Oz. Congrats, Helen, and I bet he loved the concert!!

This was a terrific post, Nancy. The evolution of fashion has always fascinated me. I, too, am a great admirer of Joan of Arc. I love a woman with the courage of her convictions.

I am a big Emma Peel fan. Actually my favorite kick butt heroine in film right now is Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth I. Think of the times, all of the men who tried to manipulate her and yet, she was her father's daughter and she kicked their butts at great personal sacrifice. Love it.

I have to say some of the costume I wore on stage were a real pain to wear. Most period type costumes for operas were made of a heavy brocade - drapery material - so they would show up on stage. They were heavy and got heavier as the night went on. Add to that the hair that was usually sewn into mine and the makeup and it was a hot sweaty endeavor. When I was in college I did a concert version of Madame Butterfly and was fortunate enough to have two exchange students from Japan agree to clothe us correctly. Putting on the kimono correctly and the shoes (EEEK) really helped me get into character, but it greatly restricted my movement. It was a lot of fun.

Then there was the Alban Berg opera Lulu about a call girl and my costume consisted of lingerie and high heels. Almost froze to death AND had to worry about falling off the shoes AND sing! SHHEEEESH!

p226 said...

Who's Beatrix Kiddo?

Uma Thurman in Kill Bill :D

catslady said...

I was able to vote today :)

flchen1 said...

Congrats, Helen!

Such an interesting post, Nancy! I do think some of those historical outfits looked fabulous, but definitely weren't made for function! I think the worst was that whole foot-binding thing to make for teeny (thought to be more beautiful) feet--yuck! And ouch!!

Glad to be living now, even though these yoga pants aren't nearly as glamorous!

Christine Wells said...

Nancy, what a fantastic post! You know what? We women are amazingly silly about fashion. I mean why say yes to bustles? Somehow I don't think men really went for them, so it couldn't have been to make ourselves attractive to men. I think following the extremes of fashion has always been about how we look to other women, and we're just silly to put ourselves through all that torture.

Most restrictive garment I've worn is my wedding dress. It had a small train and we had to kneel at one point in the ceremony. The heel of my shoe got caught in the hem of the train when I went to stand up again. Argh! That could have been ugly, but my dh-to-be managed to free me so I could stand.

Love the kick-butt heroine. Diana Rigg, Buffy, Sidney from Alias (although Sidney's angst gets me down sometimes). Our own Cassondra;) Love 'em all!

Susan Seyfarth said...

I'm not much of a clothes horse but I did succumb to a tragically uncomfortable shoe a few years back.

See, I bought a pair of these wonderful trousers. You know the ones--they're long & tailored & you wear them over sky-high heels & they make your legs look a yard long? Okay, I'm 5-2. A yard of leg seemed novel & interesting.

So I bought the pants, then had to buy the shoes. Strappy black sandals with--kid you not--four inch heels. They looked AWESOME. I wore them (with red toenail polish) to the GH/Rita ceremony in Reno, & spent the entire evening seated & admiring them. Because when I tried to walk I was in exquisite pain.

Totally worth it.

Cassondra said...

Christine said:

Love the kick-butt heroine. Diana Rigg, Buffy, Sidney from Alias (although Sidney's angst gets me down sometimes). Our own Cassondra;) Love 'em all!

OMG!!!! I've been named alongside Sidney and Buffy???? No way do I rate that! But SMOOOOOOCH for saying so anyhow. Fortunately I haven't had to kick that much butt, other than some verbal butt, on my own. Boys are nice to have around for that, even if you CAN do it yourself. (grin) Besides, my dh is a WAY better shot than I am.

Lessee--I guess some of my stage clothes were kinda dumb. Although, I usually tried to make them so I could move about easily. I had this one gold lame outfit--genie pants and spaghetti strap top with a big gold lame bow draping across one shoulder. It was pretty and sparkly under the lights but the first time I bent over to acknowledge the nice audience,I was REALLY glad I had long hair to hide the--uh--cleavage shot (or in my case, the LACK OF CLEAVAGE SHOT) for the guy with the camera right in front of me. Woops--forgot to plan for that. Never wore a lot of ultra tight stuff. Don't have a lot of boobs to shove anywhere, though the wonderbra does a fair job.

It's the high heels that get me. I grew up wearing really high heels and I love the way they look. And I could run in them then, but not now. By the time a week-long con is over, my feet are in PAIN. I notice Lara Croft does not wear stilettos to kick butt, and neither does Sigourney weaver wear Jimmy Choos to take out the aliens. Bright women those.

Okay tall people, it's not just you who are hamstrung by the narrow skirt. I've accidentally ripped the back seam of more than one narrow skirt with just my normal stride. We ARE shorter, but so are the skirts. (heavy sigh) but don't they look nice?

I've never had a mermaid dress, though I did try one on once, tried to turn and said, "NO WAY I CAN'T WALK IN THIS DRESS!!!"

The stupidest fashion trend ever has to be the pants belted near the knees.

I don't find facial piercings attractive, but maybe that's generational.

Cassondra said...

Oh, wait. I forgot about this, but I know what I did that was stupid and painful...I've used those tape-on bra thingies--and when I was a young woman and was in pageants, I used duct tape--in place of a bra for fashions that needed cleavage but left no place for a bra to be.

All together now...


Jane said...

My favorite heroine on tv is Scully from the "X-files." She was intelligent and beautiful and the perfect partner for Mulder. I'm also going to jump on the bandwagon and express my admiration for Emma Peel. I remember discovering "The Avengers" on BBC America. I thought Diana Rigg was breathtaking. I didn't like the show as much after she left.

Patricia Rice said...

Great post, Nancy! I'm just figuring out how to navigate around blogdom by clicking on comments. Very handy since I can't organize bookmarks.

Diana Rigg in Avengers. Pants for me every time.

And regarding the steel herpes (shudder), don't you think the form of dress women adhered to through the ages was also a form of self mutilation? Men might threaten women with burning at the stake, but men didn't sew those dresses. And men didn't ask women to add big bums or puffed sleeves and I doubt seriously they appreciated steel corsets. Women did it to themselves. How sad is that?

Gerri Russell said...

Great post, Nancy!

I love costuming, both past and present. Recently, I watched the movie, Elizabeth, and there are a couple of gowns in there that look so cumbersome I'm not sure how you could walk in them. But when Elizabeth becomes a "warrior" she dons men's armor instead of a body suit. Smart woman.

Aunty Cindy said...

Thanx for a thought-provoking post, Nancy!

Note to Helen: I was here last night but for some reason, Blogger REFUSED to take my comments. I suspect a cyber-conspiracy by the Oz girls to keep the GR! (grumbles & mutters)

Anyway, I will DEFINITELY be going to see "The Other Boleyn Girl" but it will be for one reason and one reason only and his initials are EB!!!

As for worst personal fashion disaster--hot pants. And I was young and skinny and cute then too. I SHUDDER to think what they would look like NOW!


jo robertson said...

Hehe, congrats, Helen!

Nancy, sorry I'm late to the party today. I'm absolutely amazed all all the -- STUFF -- you know. I'm so impressed.

Great blog. I love learning about all this stuff.

What I'm always curious about is what each generation wore underneath all those clothes. At my local RWA chapter we've had a costumer come several times. He always gives such interesting detail.

I must admit to a favorite for Sarah Connor. I love how she transformed from this timid, scared girl into a warrior. Really, I love that role!