Friday, June 7, 2019

What's beneath the dress

It strikes me that all these portraits of women (well-to-do women, apparently, who could afford sumptuous gowns and having their portraits painted) have something in common. No matter how different the faces, they all seem to have the same body, with the same erect carriage and impossibly tiny waist. Some of the portraits seem purposely exaggerated, the equivalent of airbrushing or photoshop, as if tightlacing were some sort of Edwardian soft-core porn.

It's hard to believe that even wealthy women went about looking like this all day. Didn't they have - day dresses or something? Afternoon dresses? This is evening attire,  the stuff you pose in, sitting endlessly still, your skirts draped over some velvet divan, perhaps with a decorous little dog at your side.

More than most, these paintings have a static quality, almost "statuesque" (a strange term if ever there was one). Later on, portraits of fine women became sportier (one even depicts a smiling woman with a tennis racket). At this point, however, everyone mostly stood still or sat around. One woman (with the tiniest waist I've ever seen) plays a violin, kind of like the "talent" section of the Miss America pageant. I don't know why I say this, but I think in this case the violin was a prop.

And for reasons unknown, I think of this exquisite poem by my favorite poet, W. B. Yeats, only excerpted here because it's very, very long (but likely to be featured in a future post: I haven't done a literary analysis in ages!):

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.