Reading these days Peter Bailey’s excellent Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (1998), I was particularly surprised by his chapter on “The Victorian barmaid as cultural prototype.” First, I loved Bailey’s knack of brilliantly describing layers of thriving Victorian city life that are missing in the Victorian fiction I teach (despite Dickens!). Also, because what he narrates is part of a so-far incomplete ‘history of looking,’ which apparently Roland Barthes demanded (Bailey claims), and that today seems more urgent than ever. I refer here to the issue of my previous post: the problem of women’s sexualized public (self)-representation.

Bailey’s thesis is that the English barmaid of the newly refurbished Victorian pubs of the 1880s and 1890s belongs in the same category as the sexualized female body on display of the actresses, particularly those of the London music hall and the new musical comedy of the period. He argues that unlike the tavern girl serving tables and, thus, always the object of much unwanted groping and propositioning, the bar placed the barmaid firmly off-limits while emphasizing her theatrical display, as if on a stage (the area behind the bar became her own spectacular territory).

Bailey explains in all detail how barmaids were selected for their beauty and, to a certain extent, elegance (or poise), which means that often gentlemen’s daughters were employed as such. He notes that, logically, their position behind the bar emphasized the upper part of their bodies, with the area from the waist downwards becoming practically irrelevant (also because of the heavy multilayered Victorian skirts). Thus, the barmaids’ sexualized display depended on the shape of their torso, arms, neck and face, with hands playing, it seems, a major erotic part as targets of fleeting touch for male clients. Note that barmaids had a strict dress code and wore black dresses which covered their bodies from the neck to the feet. Even so, drinkers, whether gentlemen or otherwise, found these women unequivocally alluring. There is, by the way, no suggestion in Bailey’s essay that they were empowered by this public display; he very unambiguously explains that barmaids were exploited by their male employers (who decided to display them in this erotic way) and, in addition, overworked. The quick turnover of pretty faces was another constant.

The Victorian extension of the stage to the pub is interesting because unlike what happened with actresses and female dancers it did not use the excuse of the artistic performance for blatantly erotic bodily display. It was a purely commercial strategy to sell beverage.

The shock of seeing actresses on the English stage for the first time during the Restoration period (a habit that Charles II imported from France, where he had been exiled) had, logically, worn out by the time Victoria was crowned in 1837. Yet we tend to forget than from the 1830s onwards, when Romantic ballet was introduced in France with La Sylphide, ballerina’s skirts were progressively shortened to reveal a surprising amount of flesh according to Victorian standards. The revealing tutu showing Marie Taglioni’s pretty ankles in that pioneering ballet must have seemed extremely erotic to 1832 audiences, and I mean here the long, gauzy skirt, not the stiff variety that shows the full leg. Indeed, there are doubts about the etymology of the odd word ‘tutu’. A popular theory is that the gentlemen fond of fondling ballerinas’ bottoms, as they could easily do in the foyer of the Paris Opera, jokingly referred to the skirt by their colloquial name for the dancers’ derrière. Today, of course, a ballerina in a tutu appears to be a delicately chaste figure, very different from your average pole dancer cum stripper.

This leads me back to the English barmaid and to a mind-boggling puzzle: if fully clothed women were found to be alluring just because they could be ogled at behind a bar, there was perhaps no need to start the progressive stripping game that leads to the ridiculous Playboy bunny waitress in the mid-20th century and to her topless equivalent not much later. This makes me think of a male character in Colin McInnes’ never sufficiently appreciated novel Absolute Beginners (1959), nicknamed the Fabulous Hoplite, who poses for porn photos always with all his clothes on. Certainly, men have always managed to be sexy while fully dressed in unwieldy fashions, from your dark business suit to the more colourful (also baggier) outfits of current urban styles.

What is it then with women and un/dressing? And where does it stop? I always joke with my students that if a Victorian lady walked into our classroom she would be surprised by a) seeing a woman teaching a university class, b) everyone’s state of undress, including mine. Victorian underwear covered infinitely much more skin than our flimsy, tiny summer outfits. What is funny is how there is always margin to be scandalized no matter how far we go. Coco Chanel, who introduced in the 1920s the short skirt below the knee so favoured by the flappers of her time, found Mary Quant’s 1960s mini-skirt disgraceful. For the last few years, the reigning garment among young girls is the hot pant, which makes the mini-skirt seem positively the pinnacle of elegance… It is very nice to be free of Victorian corsets but where does the public undressing of the female body stop? And I’m not even considering the practice of top less exposure on beaches. Will it be ever extended to other public spaces… like a classroom??!!

Here’s something very obvious: women’s freedom of behaviour and movement has been greatly increased by getting rid of restrictive garments; yet, whereas much has changed regarding which parts of female bodies can be displayed in public, women’s bodies remain heavily sexualized, much more so than men’s. Victorian bourgeois men decided to abandon the flamboyant dress style of the idle aristocratic men and conceal their bodies beneath the dark fabric of the uniform business suit. Women were for a while in the 1980s tempted by the masculinised power suit with big shoulder pads but even office wear is now far more varied for women than for men. What remains tricky is how much you can display of your womanly body before crossing the thin line dividing personal freedom from the others’ freedom to ogle at you. This is because the rules are shifting all the time: a Victorian lady would not show her ankles, whereas we think nothing of showing our legs from hip to toe. Hot pants seem also useless to cover the low parts of bottoms.

Women decide how much of their body they wish to display in public, which explains why, despite the insistence of haute couture designers in the last twenty years, transparent tops worn without a bra are hardly ever seen (or are they?). There are also occasions in which wearing one of them with a bra may seem appropriate (a private romantic dinner?), while others times and places may never be right (a lecture on Victorian Literature…). The problem of the sexualized public display is that it invents its own occasions and pretends it is part of ‘normal’ life. Yes, I’m talking about red-carpet events.

As we all know, these events are a publicity stunt designed to sell products and careers, usually connected with film, television or popular music; and, of course, the fashions and cosmetics on display. That the funny phrase ‘wardrobe malfunction’ has become so commonly used in the press covering red-carpet events shows that something is malfunctioning and it might not be the wardrobe. Last week, for instance, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s perplexing new face, displayed at the ‘FIFA Best’ gala to honour distinguished football players, showed that anti-ageing plastic surgery also often malfunctions.

I am well aware that sexual abuse is not connected with the dress code in a direct way, as women have been abused no matter what they wear. The point I have been making in my last two posts is that even we women are confused about how our freedom to dress as we want intersects with the (patriarchal) imposition to look sexy and play the part. One may wear a mini-skirt for comfort one day and for seduction another, depending on the situation and this is how we use our freedom. The problem is that not all men understand that freedom and still go by old dress codes suggesting that women who show their ankles are ‘asking for it’.

How do we break out of this complicated situation? It seems that there is bound to be always a time lag between what women decide and what men learn to respect and accept, which makes clarifying each step taken towards freedom particularly important. I know that the quaint phrase ‘dress with modesty’ sounds very silly at a time when pre-teen boys are already consuming great amounts of on-line pornography and forcing their demands for sexual gratification onto girls their age. Yet, perhaps taking a step back and dressing for elegance or comfort rather than sexiness might be more liberating for women. And educating girls to say ‘no’ long before matters threaten to get out of hand.

And, yes, educating the dinosaurs lagging behind into the new times. If they can be educated at all, which I doubt. And I mean of all ages, pre-teen to ninety-nine, for history advances but prehistoric monsters still cling to our times.

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