Handkerchiefs, Ribbon, and Necessity

November is well under way and here in Missouri that means we’ve experienced our first cold snap and snow accumulation event, which we never get this early, except that this is the third year in a row it’s happened. And last week I wrote about how the menfolk are participating in their annual celebration of manliness by growing out their stubble for “No Shave November.”

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Ouch! Image courtesy of Pixabay

This week, for balance, I want to take a moment to recognize the genius of women, particularly one woman—Mary Phelps Jacob. In 1910, at the age of nineteen, Mary was living the American debutante lifestyle, preparing to attend yet another high society ball. Like she’d surely done many times before, she put on her stiff whalebone corset and sucked in while her maid cinched it tight before struggling into her fancy dress.

Then she examined herself in the mirror and didn’t like the way her look all came together. Or maybe it was just that she realized she couldn’t really breathe. Somewhat rashly, she asked her maid to bring her two pocket handkerchiefs, some ribbon, and a sewing kit.

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So much better than a corset. By Mary Phelps Jacob – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That night Mary traded her corset for her homemade hanky contraption and was the easiest, breeziest belle at the ball. Many significantly less comfortable women took notice and, gasping for air, wanted to know her secret. It didn’t take Mary long to realize she was on to something big.

On November 3, 1914, Mary Phelps Jacobs, who would eventually become known as Caresse Crosby, received the first patent for the modern bra. Women everywhere abandoned their restrictive corsets and celebrated with a collective and blissfully deep sigh.

Jacobs wasn’t the first or only person to tackle the terrible problem of women’s undergarments, but I love her story the most because I can just picture it—the moment when comfort and practicality won over fashion.

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I bet she’s not wearing a corset, either. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

I imagine it was a lot like that moment you kick off the ridiculous high heels at the wedding reception so you can actually dance or later when you trade the confining cocktail dress for your trusty old yoga pants. If there are any bewhiskered menfolk still reading at this point, I suspect this feeling is also similar to loosening your necktie.

The story of Mary Phelps Jacob is great because it’s kind of universal. And because as we head through the month of November when we stop shaving, and here in the US, we don our stretchy turkey pants and prepare to tuck in for the long, cold winter ahead, it’s nice to pause and remember that sometimes it’s the necessity of comfort that is the mother of the greatest inventions.

The Greatest Shoe-Buying Orgy in History

On June 17th, 1943, the New York Times printed an editorial speculating that the United States found itself on the verge of the “the greatest shoe buying orgy in the history of the nation.” This was about four months into the U.S. Office of Price Administration’s institution of shoe rations.

The OPA, the same people who brought the US rations on sugar and gasoline and an outright (albeit short-lived) ban on sliced bread, called for shoe rations because rubber and leather were in short supply during World War II. In their great wisdom, they suggested members of the American public could get by with no more than three new pairs of shoes per year. Also, these shoes would only come in four colors—black, white, dark brown, and light brown, and under no circumstances were shoes to be multicolored. Because war.

shoe rations
By Charles Henry Alston, 1907-1977, Artist (NARA record: 3569253) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There were some exceptions. Police officers and others who relied heavily on a sturdy pair of shoes to complete their essential tasks were excused from the rationing, and allowances were made for orthopedic shoes and in cases of lost or damaged footwear due to theft or fire. But families with fast-growing little feet had to make due by creatively distributing their ration cards from adult family members to the youngsters.

There were some other restrictions as well, including the prohibition of boots taller than ten inches, all golf spikes, and shoes with heels higher than two-and five-eighths inches, which had the added bonus of greatly increasing American foot comfort.

The shoe rationing was a logical move by the OPA, and one that the American public handled fairly well, even through a further restriction down to two pairs per year, and all the way until the rations were entirely lifted on October 30, 1945. The used shoe business surged, as did the seedy shoe black market. Some inventive entrepreneurs turned to non-rationed supplies, growing the plastic, recycled carpet, and whatever-material-one-could-find-lying-around-in-one’s-basement shoe industry. Whatever the solution, Americans spent a couple of years contemplating what might have been an unhealthy obsession with what they put on their feet.

shoe rations2
By Unknown – https://collections.carli.illinois.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/nby_teich/id/9676, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because there’s no question Americans like shoes. Estimates of the average number of shoes owned by today’s American woman fall somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-eight pairs, with the men polling surprisingly close behind them.

I have to admit, I scoffed a little at that. As a highly practical person who mostly wears comfy tennis shoes, I definitely don’t own such a ridiculous amount of footwear. I mean sure, I sometimes don a pair of dress flats, which I own in several sensible colors. Also, sometimes I wear boots, either black or brown, or with a dress or skirt I might occasionally put on a pair of heels to match. And everyone has to have a pair of hiking shoes, and a pair of tough summer sandals, or fun flip-flops appropriate for beach-going, or strappy little sandals for wearing with a cute summer dress.

That’s right. In an attempt to prove that I’m far superior to the average American woman, I went into my closet and started counting. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I am, well, let’s just say above average. I walked out of my closet a little humbler, and I started to think about whether I would feel good about limiting my new shoe purchases to two or three pairs a year.

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Not my closet. But it probably could be. Image from Pixabay

Of course, if I had to, I could do it. I do, after all, have a pretty good supply of shoes already. I’d probably benefit from a new pair of tennis shoes at some point during the year because they don’t last forever and I’m old enough to suffer aches and pains if I push a pair too far. I’d also probably have to give up at least one new pair for myself to get an extra for one of my growing boys.

I’d like to think that if, like the Greatest Generation before me, I had to limit myself in a patriotic effort to help out my country, I would do it without full-on panicking. Because despite a little grumbling from podiatrists and the fear expressed in the New York Times that rations would lead to hordes of crazed women engaging in shoe-buying orgies, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that the rationing was too much of an issue.

But to be fair, I haven’t found evidence of any greater shoe-buying orgies in American history, so I guess maybe that panicked, shoe-obsessed Times writer might not have been entirely wrong.

That Thing I Just Had

The other day, I stumbled across an article posted by Smithsonian Magazine about an Ancient Egyptian sock. This toddler-size, striped sock has been a part of the collection of the British Museum for more than a century, but recently it has resurfaced as an object of interest for researchers.

The sock was originally discovered in 1913 or 14 by Englishman John de Monins Johnson during an excavation in the ancient city of Antinopolis on the east bank of the Nile. Described in the article as a papyrologist, Johnson was most likely hoping to find examples of ancient writing that he could spend years poring over. He wasn’t looking for a sock.

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I also can’t stop wondering what happened to the other sock.

But if Johnson was a parent, I can imagine he wasn’t terribly surprised by the discovery. There’s no way I could count the number of times I’ve been looking for that thing I just had* and found instead a kid’s carelessly discarded sock(s).

I have great kids. I really do. My boys are now eleven and thirteen and they both work hard at school, and are kind and generous and respectful. At this point in their young lives they can claim quite a few life skills, too. They are capable of doing laundry, preparing a few recipes, or mowing the lawn.

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These are not my keys.

But they are both guilty of constantly kicking off their socks and leaving them for their exasperated mother to find. Their stinky socks are crammed in between the couch cushions, left under the kitchen table, wedged under mattresses, and crumpled on the floorboard of the car. Occasionally I even find them in the back yard. It’s enough to drive any mama completely mad.

Please don’t tell me if I’m wrong, but I suspect this source of aggravation is universal. The Egyptian mama whose little kiddo lost her stripy toe sock (that was probably worn with sandals, which presumably also got lost), was surely exasperated that for the three hundred and eighty-third time that day, little Ahhotep had kicked off her booty.

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When your toes are this cute, socks are optional. photo credit: light2shine Feets via photopin (license)

Of course, no parent wants to leave a trail of socks wherever they go, but when kids are little, it’s also kind of cute to see them wiggle and struggle until those adorable chubby toes are exposed for all the world to enjoy. When they’re tween/teenagers, it’s less cute.

So when I read what should really be a fascinating article about researchers using a noninvasive scanning technique to learn about the types of dyes used in the manufacturing of Ancient Egyptian clothing, all I could think about was that stupid lone sock, stuffed into the couch cushions at the British Museum for the last hundred years.

It’s possible I lost the point. I’m pretty sure I just had it and then set it down somewhere. I’ll have another look at the article and see if I can pick it up again. But I’ll probably just find that same cast-aside sock.
*This could be (but is certainly not limited to): keys, book, purse, pen, phone, remote control, scissors, shoe, grocery list, my marbles

Yes! Wonderful Things! Fashionable Man-Cardigans and the Mannequin Challenge

In 1907, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon hired Egyptologist Howard Carter to aid him in his excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Carter worked for years, with a brief break caused by World War I, but it wasn’t until November 4, 1922, with Lord Carnarvon growing impatient and about to pull the plug on the whole operation, Carter got his big break.

That’s when he found stairs that led to a tomb he thought likely to be undisturbed. On November 26th, with the excited Lord Carnarvon by his side, Carter chiseled a small hole leading to the antechamber of the young, and fairly insignificant King Tutankhamun. When asked if he saw anything, the Egyptologist answered, “Yes! Wonderful things!”

It took months to catalogue everything in the antechamber and it wasn’t until 1932 that Carter was finished removing the thousands of wonderful things buried with the pharaoh. Among those were musical instruments, chariots, weapons, and a mannequin.

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Life-size bust of Tutankhamun, found in his tomb. And possibly, the world’s oldest fashion mannequin. By Jon Bodsworth [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons
At least that’s the purpose Carter suggested for the life-size, armless bust of King Tut, that it was used to model his jewelry, and robes, and fashionable man-cardigans. And dating from around 1350 BC, it may have been among the first of its kind.

Since then mannequins have gone through a number of changes. They’ve been life-size dolls shipped between European Aristocracy to exchange fashion trends, whicker dress-forms, and awkward 300-hundred pound sculptures with false teeth, glass eyes, and real hair.

At times they’ve been made from easily melted wax, have become the celebrated date on the arms of the occasional disturbed artist, and have come to life as the love interest in a bad eighties movie. Mannequins have been both curvy and slender, to reflect the fashion ideal of the era. They’ve been mangled by Salvador Dali, and they’ve often appeared in shop windows with no arms, no legs, and no heads. But longer than we’ve had big shop windows to put them in, and maybe even longer than we’ve had fashionable man-cardigans to display, mannequins have been around to creep us out.

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A headless mannequin could never pull off this look. photo credit: vtpoly best mannequin eyes, Seattle via photopin (license)

Recently, a new kind of mannequin has taken over the Internet. Scores of people are now rising to the mannequin challenge. And by scores, of course, I mean high school students, athletes, and probably very soon, people old enough they probably ought to have better things to do.

The way it goes is that a group of people stand, completely still in mid-activity, as if they are mannequins, while another person with a camera moves among them filming close-ups of their stunningly (or not so) executed poses. And usually there’s music, because let’s face it, people standing still is not, on its own, necessarily an exciting thing to watch.

I say, why not rise to it? Because Internet challenges have been with us for years (not like actual mannequins, or man-cardigans, or King Tut, but still, a while) and this one might have come at just the right time. I think after the week the US (and to some extent the world) has had, and is having, we might all be feeling a little frozen anyway.

So go ahead, give it a try. I would, but I’m old enough I probably ought to have better things to do.

That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Chances are if you’ve been to a circus at some point, you’ve seen people risk their lives. It’s part of the thrill of the show. There are fire-breathers, lion-tamers, high-wire walkers, and sword swallowers to name just a few.

And while the circus used to be primarily about tortured exotic animals, unfortunate human oddities, and psychotic-looking clowns that haunt our nightmares, at some point the attention shifted to more and more dangerous performances of highly skilled human oddities as they defied the kind of grisly deaths that haunt our nightmares.

One of the turning points for the circus came in the middle of the 19th century when a young Frenchman named Jules Léotard went swimming in his father’s pool in Toulouse. A skilled gymnast, Léotard swam a few laps and then thought he might have more fun at the pool if he swung above it. He rigged up a series of apparatuses resembling dangling pull-up bars and began swinging, launching himself from one to the other. Soon he was performing elaborate acrobatic maneuvers above the pool.

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Jules Léotard and his bulging muscles. Fetch the smelling salts!

And a terrifyingly dangerous circus act was born.  Léotard performed on the trapeze above straw mattresses in his home town and soon he found himself flying above large crowds in Paris and London. The practical, tight-fitting costume he designed both for flexibility and for making the ladies swoon at the sight of his bulging muscles, came to be known as the leotard. And that song about flying through the air with the greatest of ease? That was about Jules Léotard, too.

Today the flying trapeze is an iconic act in the world of the circus performances. And it’s one of the reasons I won’t attend a circus. Now I don’t care much for the animal training or the clowns, either, but I really really don’t like to watch people risk their lives for the sake of my entertainment. It’s just not my thing.

But I am fascinated by the performers who do it. So a few months ago, I wrote a little flash fiction piece about a circus acrobat performing on the trapeze. I entered the story into a contest sponsored by the group Wow! Women on Writing. And the story won third place, which was very exciting. If you’d like, you can follow the link and read “The Greatest of Ease” and some other lovely flash pieces on the Wow! website.

Then, if you’re a really super amazing person, you can also check out an interview with me that was posted on the Wow! blog earlier this week. In it I talk about the story, about my forthcoming novel, and a few other writerly kinds of things.

I hope you will find it entertaining, because though it would be pretty cool if someone wrote a song about me one of these days, this is pretty much as close as I ever plan to get to risking my life for the sake of entertaining an audience. And I think it’s also unlikely I’ll ever wear a leotard in public. Because that’s the kind of thing that haunts my nightmares.

One Cool Artsy Hat

Sultan Mahmut II sporting his modern look. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Sultan Mahmut II sporting his modern fez. [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On November 25, 1925, the parliament of Turkey passed a law prohibiting citizens of that country from wearing a fez in a public space. The widely worn rimless hat had been an important part of the culture for nearly one hundred years, initially stemming from an 1829 decree by Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II that all civil officials and military personnel were required to update their headwear to the fez.

The move was part of a larger effort to modernize the Ottoman Empire, similar to Peter the Great’s grand plan to westernize Russia by taxing the beard. Though there was some resistance at first, the people more or less responded well and by the end of the century, the fez had become not only standard headwear, but also a beloved national symbol.

And that’s what led to the Hat Law. Prior to its passage Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk spoke passionately of his vision for the burgeoning nation of Turkey, which, he demonstrated, included the wearing of Panama hats, which he thought were much cooler.

First president of Turkey, with his modern Panama hat. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
First president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, with his even more modern Panama hat. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Alas, the public already thought it looked pretty good wearing a fez and was not prepared to embrace yet another change to its attire. Instead of immediately casting aside the fez in favor of the rakish fedora, pockets of the population rose up in revolution.

The uprising didn’t last long, and it didn’t go particularly well for the revolutionaries who adopted the fez, formerly a symbol of reform, then a rallying cry for proponents of Turkish cultural conservatism. More than thirty people, both men and women, were executed in the course of Turkey’s brief Hat Revolution.

And though it is rarely enforced with much gusto today, the law remains on the books in Turkey, where it’s been for ninety years, even during the rise and fall of the casual European man lounging in a smoking jacket and matching fez.

I have to say, as far as symbols of cultural tug-of-war go, the fez is a pretty cool one (unless it’s paired with a smoking jacket, which most people can’t pull off). And I suspect that may be one of the reasons the online arts and literary journal Red Fez adopted it.

Because in 2002, magazine founder Leopold McGinnis decided to rise up against the well-guarded path to traditional publishing and provide writers with a new opportunity to get their imaginative work out there for public consumption.

Within a few years (with the help of additional artistic revolutionaries) Red Fez expanded to include not only fiction and poetry, but also comics, photography, music, and videos. And it became a really cool Internet hangout for artists of all types (like maybe even cool enough to pull off a smoking jacket).

That's one artsy hat.
That’s one cool artsy hat.
“Fes”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://bit.ly/1Kauoek

The magazine is published monthly and to date has served up “1,481 poems, 568 stories, 114 graphic works, 70 videos, 35 audio works, 424 articles and reviews from 1302 authors and artists around the world.” And this month, among the creepy artistic offerings of Issue 83: October 2015, The Halloween Issue, there is a story by a little known practical historian.

The story is called “Elixir of Life.” It’s not of a historical nature, but I hope you’ll follow the link and enjoy it anyway. While you’re there, don your fez and coordinating smoking jacket (you’re cool enough to pull it off) and hang out for a while because there’s a lot of good stuff to soak in.

Bald Might Be Better

On October 8, 1905 in London, German-born hairdresser Karl Nessler carried out the first successful public demonstration of a permanent hair wave process. Nessler applied sodium hydroxide to the long hair of Katherine Laible, wrapping sections of it around a dozen or so 2-pound brass rollers electrically heated to 212˚F. He then suspended the rollers above Laible’s head from an elaborate chandelier contraption so she wouldn’t be burned as she waited the six hours necessary for her new do to be done.

Turn of the century ad for Nessler's Permanent Wave Process. rough translation :
Turn of the century ad for Nessler’s Permanent Wave Process. Rough translation : “Better than bald!” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The demonstration was promising and it led to a 1909 patent held by Kessler who continued to improve his permanent wave machine up until he was subjected to internment during World War I. After the interruption to his career, Nessler immigrated to the US, changed his name to Charles Nestle, and grew a successful hairdressing business that included branches in major cities across the country.

But as far as I’m concerned, Charles Nestle is not the hero in this story. That title belongs to Katherine Laible, his incredibly supportive wife. Because before the successful demonstration of 1905, in addition to the chemical and heat experimentation on wigs, there had been at least two previous attempts to put permanent waves into a woman’s locks.  Katherine was the guinea pig then, too.

Six Hours. Hooked up to this. That better have been a really good perm. By Stillwaterising (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Six Hours. Hooked up to this. That better have been a really good perm. By Stillwaterising (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
And at least twice she wound up bald, with painful burns on her scalp. Obviously she was a much better wife than I am, because she kept letting him try. I often don’t even return to a hairdresser a second time if I don’t like the way my cut turned out.

Actually, I’ve been on a quest for the perfect haircut for about two-and-a-half years. The trouble is that when we lived in Oregon, for the first time in my life, I had great hair, like the kind of great that would make strangers stop me on the street and ask where I got it done.

Then we moved 2000 miles away and though I tried, I couldn’t persuade my hairstylist to move with us. Since that time, I have been to probably a half dozen salons, scoured family snapshots and determined that no one ever takes a picture of the back of my head, and made a fool of myself asking countless perfect-haired strangers where they got their dos. So far no one has successfully duplicated my cut.

photo credit: You're a good cop, Velez via photopin (license)
On second thought, bald might be better. photo credit: You’re a good cop, Velez via photopin (license)

But no one has yet burned away all of my hair, leaving me blistered and bald, either. Nor have I had to sit for six hours strung up by a machine that looks like it is more likely to suck out my brain than give me fabulous hair. So maybe I should take a lesson from Katherine Laible and give someone another chance. Or maybe I should honor this 110th anniversary of Charles Nestle’s success and just get a perm.