Look but don't touch
Posted by Jessamyn on October 26, 1997 at 13:02:38:
In response to "Proper behavior" & low-cut gowns, written by Claudia on October 26, 1997 at 02:47:32
] I'm sure this must have been discussed somewhere, but what doesn't make sense to me is how there were so many strict rules during this time period regarding proper behavior between men and women, e.g., no letter writing, no touching except for dancing and helping a woman into a carriage, little or no kissing until marriage, and yet those gowns are so low cut. Something is wrong with this picture. That it is "fashion" doesn't quite cut it with me. I'm not quite sure how to reconcile these two contrasting ideas.
How much of one's body "must" be covered for decency is a totally arbitrary construct of society. Just because certain tribes in Africa wear practically no clothing and certain groups in the frozen north show practically no skin, one is no likelier than the other to be promiscuous. All that matters is a baseline of "decent" behavior, and any slight variation outside of that will seem either prudish or loose to fellow society members.
The Victorians were much fussier about keeping oneself covered up--all that nonsense about ankles--and also much fussier about what a woman could and couldn't do with a man--no long walks alone together, like in the Regency--and yet they bared pretty impressive decolletages for formal events.
Whole books have been written on the "shifting erogenous zone" in fashion, which just means that if fashion decides that something gets covered up, something else must be focused on. For example, Victorian women wore heaps of clothing, but they showcased their (clothed) waists and their (bare) arms and decolletage. Women in the twenties' skirts came up, baring their legs, so to avoid looking totally cheap they lost their waists and busoms in the bargain. As skirts started dropping again toward the '30s, backs became exposed. And so on.
Western society has always struggled between propriety and the need to advertise. Pretty women need to show off their features to potential husbands without giving away the shop. So we construct arbitrary rules about what they're allowed to show, and as long as everybody is following the same set of rules, the message isn't misunderstood. You're just attuned to a different set of rules.
BTW, men and women touched each other less than they do now if they're in a relationship, but what I find sad is that what we've traded that for is everyday touching. That is to say, people (men to men, men to women, and women to women) would take each other's arms when they were walking as a matter of course, and no one thought anything of it. It was just the polite thing to do, like shaking hands when you meet. Nowadays, you wouldn't dream of taking someone's arm unless you were in a romantic relationship with them. And if I walked down the street arm in arm with my close female friend, everybody would think we were gay.
We think we're so liberated!
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