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Thoughts While Walking the Dog
Memories of a Jewish Childhood
By Lynn Ruth Miller

The New Look

All women's dresses are variations of the eternal struggle between the desire to dress and undress.
Lin Yutang

Most teen-age boys I see today bear an uncomfortable resemblance to my uncle's Brazilian parrot. In contrast, the girls reflect a minimalism that could well be labeled," what you see is what you get." Their costume is so closely molded to their bodies that the flimsy bandeaux that circle their hips are easily mistaken for strips of bruised flesh, and their navels have become hospitality areas for flying insects.

The haute couture of the late forties was at the opposite end of this fashion scale. We believed romance thrived on mystery. Courtship became a guessing game that resulted in many surprises once those vows sealed the commitment.

Our casual wear was anything but casual. Our underwear consisted of an inflexible band across our chests that was fastened so tight it forced our ribs to meet. Its straps looped over our shoulders so firmly that they created a deep indentation between the neck, and shoulder. This garment was worn to create a voluptuous curve under our baggy cashmere sweaters. We wore a strand of pearls around our necks that allowed the male eye to drift down to the points of interest our underwear had created, and then continue their route up to our heavily lip-sticked faces. We called these sweaters Sloppy Joe's.

In contrast to the loose look above, our skirts were pencil-thin, and forced us to wear heavily boned girdles beneath them to keep our tummies flat enough to button them. We packed our flesh into these whalebone stockades so that our waists would measure no more than eighteen inches around, and our hips twenty-eight. The skirts were long, almost to our ankles, and had a split at the hem that allowed us to hobble up steps or run to catch the school bus. Our shoes were saddle oxfords or penny loafers a size too large to fit over double thick wool socks called wig-wams.

The boys at this time were finally emerging from the starched white shirt, and tie regime of their fathers, and branched out into soft collared sport shirts, cashmere sweaters, and dirty white buck shoes. Since I was a "nice girl" I cannot comment on the male underwear of the day, although I was aware that my father threw loose boxer shorts, and snuggly undershirts into our laundry hamper.

For more formal wear, the young men were back to starched collars, chafed necks, and imprisoned Adams apples, although jackets had narrowed, and the ties were thin, and conservatively patterned. Shirts blossomed into pink, blue, and pin stripes. The relaxed look was in for them but not for their partners. It was after all, a male dominated culture.

If we girls thought our daytime wear was torture, it was nothing compared to what fashion dictated for evening. We washed our hair in lethal shampoos to give it gloss, permed it with chemicals guaranteed to make the most hirsute among us bald at twenty, and set it in steel rollers before we retired so that our faces would be framed in a soft lustrous page-boy bob the next day. When we combed out our hair each morning, we sprayed it with lacquer so thick that our coiffure resembled rotten cotton candy, held back with a velvet band.

Our formal underwear was invented by a misogynist wise enough to remain nameless, and callous to the injury he was inflicting on the female form. We wore a device called the Merry Widow to give us an hourglass silhouette, and produce unbelievable cleavage even to the most poorly endowed. It took at least two muscular companions to close the undergarment, and once secured, any spare flesh on your body was forced up to your collarbone. Your face took on the color of a hanged victim directly after the noose was tightened. To counteract this reaction, you applied layers of foundation, and rouge to recreate an aura of health.

At the bottom of this whalebone devise were elastic garters to hold up our 30-denier nylon stockings. If, like me, you were thin, and underdeveloped, the result was that the pull of your stockings yanked the Merry Widow down to your knees, and you were forced to either go to the dance in an L shaped position or do something to keep the upper portion of the corset where it belonged. Most of us resorted to stuffing old pillowcases, torn sheets, rags, and bath sponges into that part of the garment. These were most effective but often emitted strange odors when our beaus pressed us to their manly chests. My dates used to shake their heads and say, "Something in the air reminds me of my mother's unwashed laundry mixed with Drano."

I always smiled up at them mysteriously, batted my carefully curled eyelashes, and murmured the words my mother had taught me, "Forget the air. Let's talk about YOU."

Once the Merry Widow was in operation, we slipped our feet into three-inch stiletto heels, and then dropped our ankle length strapless evening gowns over our lacquered heads. We put a little yellow ribbon around our necks or wore lavalieres that disappeared provocatively into the cleavage we had managed to achieve. When our dates came to the door to collect us (nice girls NEVER met their young men at the party) Mothers, and Daddies interrogated them extensively in case this one fell into the trap, and became a permanent member of the family.

Once the inquisition was over, we handed our escorts our little fur wraps made from the skins of soft, innocent lambs, and waited until he remembered to hold open the door for us. We had worked hard for this presentation, and we expected proper deference.

I have always enjoyed innovative costume. It has always been my theory that if you can't make them turn heads when you enter a room, why bother to leave the house? But I must admit it was a great relief to reach my dotage. At this point in my life, I would no more bare my navel than I would run into a flaming building, and I certainly have no intentions of binding my hips into anything more restricting than a pair of loose jeans with an elastic waist. I have little interest in creating an aura of mystery, and although my garb is very different from teen-age girls today, my philosophy is exactly the same: What you see is indeed what you get, and I add a warning: Contents settle with time.

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go
Jenny Joseph

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