Monday, November 23, 2009

Fashion and Female Freedom

Camping in 1908 era: Some Eastern Townships young people. Probably from Richmond area. Marion at bottom holding fish (?). Her mom, Margaret, likely sewed her dress.

I saw the movie An Education last night, scripted by one of my favorite authors, Nick Hornby, who is famous for being a 'lad lit' writer, but who seems to understand the female experience. How to be Good, his book about a middle-aged married mother of two really hit home with me. (It's as if he had a camera in my bedroom!)

This movie, which is in a very European style, and beautifully-crafted, is about a 16 year old middle class English girl of substance and intellect choosing between being 'glamorous' or 'scholarly'.

This is a key theme of Tighsolas and my book Flo in the City, which I am writing on this blog.

It's central to women's experience, period.

The Nicholson women, born in the 1883, 86 and 1892 respectively, were met with a similar dilemma.

As "new women' in an exciting age of galloping change, they wanted it all. Love, fashion, fun, and intellectual stimulation. Especially Edith Nicholson.

Edith loved to go to 'lectures' - a popular pastime in 1910, as much as she loved going hat-shopping at trendy Ogilvy Department Store. But as a woman she couldn't go to these lectures alone - she had to find a like-minded friend, and this really bothered her. Women out alone in the evening, back then, were seen as floozies.

Single women didn't have much freedom in the 1910 era. Even when in their mid 20's they had to be escorted almost everywhere, except, maybe, to church.

But have things really changed that much in 100 years? Can a single woman go out alone in today's world?

By 1910 definitions, we are all floozies. And we have won equal rights. We can vote, too, if we want to.

But every time a woman (the younger, the whiter the better) goes missing anywhere in North America the news media gives it wall to wall coverage. The message: it's dangerous out there for women, especially middle class women.

And even if most of us don't have to wear a veil over our face in public, we do have to wear something else or face derision: make-up. In the Consumer Age, being frugal and looking frumpy constitutes scandalous behavior.

There's this reality show where two host fashionistas ambush dowdy-looking women on the street to give them a make-over, whether they want one or not.

If the woman resists, all the better, the hosts enlist the woman's friends in some kind of 'intervention' to convince her she needs their help.

Then the hosts give her $5.000 to go shopping.

A friend of mine simply loves this show. I found the episodes I watched rather distressing. One young woman, a teacher, was weeping when forced to give up her comfy clothes.

She didn't want to change her style.

But, like an inductee in a cult (the cult of consumerism?) she eventually came around.

"Now, you can get yourself a better class of man," one of the hosts told her. "She better find a better class of man," I thought. "She can't afford dressing like that on a teacher's salary."


Back in the 1910 era, Marion, Edith (and later Flo) all teachers, loved fashion and clothes. Like most middle-class women, they mostly made their own shirtwaists and princess skirts, or had mother Margaret, a talented seamstress, make them. They had no choice but to be frugal.

The Tighsolas letters are filled of talk of fashion.

Hats were especially big in that era, in both senses of the word.

D.W. Griffith, the pioneering American director, made a famous film about the issue called The New York Hat which starred Canadian Mary Pickford.

In the film, Pickford's character, a small town girl, sees a ten dollar hat in a store, and wants it. The local Minister, who has been left money in trust for her, buys the hat for her. This causes a real scandal! The townsfolk assume she is being 'kept' by the minister.

In 1909, Edith Nicholson, who is making a paltry $200 dollars a year as a teacher without diploma buys a hat, "a big black shape with velvet ribbon and feathers" at Ogilvy's for $7.50. Life imitating art.