The appeal of a whalebone corset and a bustle

If manners maketh men, then clothes go a long way towards making women

Sue Arnold
Saturday 23 November 2002 01:00

With any luck Phoebe Filo or Stella McCartney or some other big cheese with clout in the fashion business will watch either one of the two new period dramas starting on television this weekend – preferably Daniel Deronda, there are too many serfs and soldiers in Dr Zhivago to satisfy the rigours of haute couture – and overnight will reinvent the bustle. I yearn to return to the age of elegance, which I place somewhere between Nyree Dawn Porter in The Forsyte Saga and Julie Christie in The Go Between.

Life for women seemed so much easier to manage somehow, so much steadier when viewed from the comparative safety of a whalebone corset and a bustle. Liberated woman that I am, I never subscribed to the faction that demonstrated its contempt for male domination by removing its bra and consigning it to the flames. I remember one particular women's lib rally where, egged on by Germaine Greer or Erica Jung, we did just that. Afterwards, freed from our male chauvinist shackles, we capered round the bonfire and then marched shoulder to shoulder with our sisters along Whitehall to deliver some petition about equal opportunities.

Even now it remains a painful memory. When you're used to wearing a size 34DD (I was a busty young woman) capering and marching without one is murder. At the risk of sounding like a po-faced amalgam of Lady Longford, Mary Whitehouse and Mother Theresa, I'm convinced that our increasingly uncivil behaviour is directly connected to the way we dress.

Take yesterday in the supermarket. Had the woman behind me at the checkout been wearing a floor-length crepe de chine bustled skirt, tightly corseted bodice and tulle hat laden with feathers, artificial fruit and flowers instead of a T-shirt and baggy jeans, I doubt she would have rounded as she did on the man behind her and shouted: "For Christ's sake, watch what you're doing. You've just bashed me with your effing trolley.''

If manners maketh men, then clothes go a long way towards making women. I know what you're going to say. In this mythical age of elegance I'm talking about, only the privileged class, the rich toffs and aristocrats could afford to wear fancy clobber. As a distinctly underprivileged refugee I would have had to make do with bits of old sacking and a length of string. Maybe so, but I'd have aspired to whalebone and bustles just as teenage girls aspiring to Donna Karan and Vivienne Westwood buy cheap imitations from market stalls.

Few people would disagree that the most elegant modern attire for women is the Indian sari, which not only looks beautiful but makes the wearer no matter what her size or shape walk like a princess. Long skirts give women dignity trousers and miniskirts don't, it's as simple as that, and as soon as we get back to Edwardian formality the better we shall all be.

Coming home on the bus this afternoon I sat behind a crowd of schoolgirls who were heavily into the Gothic grunge look. Black T-shirts, black trousers, black hair, black eyes, black nail varnish and metal studs everywhere. They were all shouting either at each other or into their mobiles except for one with mousy hair. She sat slightly apart, shoulders hunched, staring out of the window while she picked at her nose stud which looked infected.

When they all got up to go I saw that she was wearing a badge on the front of her shirt which said "Bitch in training.'' I wonder what George Elliott, a liberated woman with ideas well ahead of her time and a penchant for wearing trousers, would have made of that.

I shall probably end up watching Dr Zhivago because I'm a sucker for Russian romantics. I also like the idea of being swathed from head to foot in sable like Lara, who didn't give a damn about political correctness. Good for her. A friend who lives in Moscow told me that when she was jogging round Gorky Park the other day, she saw a line of convicts dragging their balls and chains. Some were moaning pitifully. None of her fellow joggers took the slightest interest. Manacled prisoners seem to be commonplace sights even in communist-free Russia.

It was only when she rounded the corner and saw the cameras that she realised they were part of the Barber of Siberia film set. Maybe the Gothic grunge brigade have taken their fashion statements from the convict lobby. Chacun à son gout.

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