Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Stopping Traffic

Ah - the great ironies of life. It's always struck me as vaguely hilarious that while lingerie scenes were effectively banned from the Hollywood mainstream for over three decades, the printed media was literally saturated with cheesecake imagery - particularly newspapers and women's magazines. Many of the glossies opted for illustrations over photographs, and considering the level of quality, it's easy to see why.

Lingerie ads were often beautifully rendered in classic pin-up style, somehow managing to look both risque and tasteful at the same time. No need for racy pulps or Esquire calendars here, not when Ladies Home Journal featured artwork every bit as sexy as Vargas or Elvgren at their best. Common tabloids and mail order catalogs included much the same material as the more prestigious publications, making these visual delights available to everybody. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Before the Code

As mentioned in an earlier post, American cinema suffered a decades-long drought in sexual content, lasting from the mid-thirties to the late sixties. Intended to preserve the moral climate of the movie industry, the Hays Code forbade the depiction of practically all sexuality from the silver screen, even those delicious bra-and-panty scenes the public had grown to love during the Roaring Twenties.

Many film historians have theorized that this hardline censorship was inspired by the austerity of the Great Depression, but the plain truth is that the Code's designer, William H. Hays, was a puritanical jackass. OK, maybe that's being a trifle unfair, but let's face it: who in their right mind would consider Betty Boop a threat to the youth of the nation?

Mind you, Betty's animated shorts could get pretty steamy at times, but when cartoon characters are being censored over the length of their hemlines, you know someone has few screws loose upstairs. Prior to 1934, movies could still emphasize the inherent beauty of the female form with luscious underwear, bare thighs and stocking tops. Following the institution of the Code, revealing close-ups and gratuitous stripteases were strictly verbotten. 

The Hays Code was the Hollywood equivalent of Prohibition, only in this case the killjoys were battling the sins of the flesh. Girls had to be sweet, chaste and well-covered at all times. Hemlines were lowered, garters were hidden, and the very mention of women's intimates was banned from big screen (hence the word 'unmentionables').

It was a sad day for human civilization: audiences around around the world were forthwith denied the spectacle of Carol Lombard's satin underwear no matter how innocent the context. Disrobing had to take place off screen when it occurred at all, as everybody knew there was nothing more shocking than the sight of a pretty young woman in her stockings and panties.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

B-Grade Thrillers

Lingerie scenes were less common in US cinema than in its British counterpart, although occasional 'boudoir' imagery sneaked in under the radar every now and them. Sexual elements were generally toned down in accordance with the Hays Code, a censorship board which demanded - amongst other things - that underwear be of the neck-to-knee variety so popular in the late 19th century.

The results were amusing to say the least. Navels were a taboo subject on both film and TV, meaning that costumes frequently had to be redesigned to cover the tummy-button. In addition, American actresses were rarely depicted on screen in stocking-tops and garter belts - presumably because such uninhibited sexuality would cause riots in the streets.

There were, however, a few notable exceptions to the rule, usually B-grade thrillers that somehow made it past the censors. It's also interesting to note how overtly sexual themes surfaced in American horror flicks (in contrast to Britain's 'naughty' comedies).

The 1964 schlock masterpiece The Strangler featured two gratuitous stripteases (unusual for the time) between assorted acts of mayhem and violence. In both cases, the girls were shown stripping down to pristine white bras and panties before peeling off their stockings.

By contrast, 1959's Attack of the Giant Leeches may best be described as a horror in its own right. Take my word for it, this has to be one of the biggest turkeys this side of Plan Nine from Outer Space, and that's being as generous as humanly possible. Even the brief panty-scene near the start couldn't save this humongous lemon.

Panties for Peanuts!

I tend to believe that panty ads of the 1970s were a lot more fun than they are today. I mean, there was none of the hard-edged arthouse angst we see in the present day. Eiderlon girls like the one posted above looked like they were actually having a good time.
I guess that was one of the hallmarks of the "Age of Aquarius": pretty young women could still be bright, playful and 'girly' if they wanted; the stifling pressures of the 'Excecutive' decade hadn't yet set in. Take the header for example: "Be a pantynut. For peanuts!" Could you imagine any high-end women's magazine carrying something so unabashedly light-hearted these days?

No post-feminist subtext here: our erstwhile heroine isn't some world conquering CEO, she's a sweet young thing surprised in her underwear (something she quite enjoys by the looks of things), innocently comfortable with her own natural beauty.

Yeah, OK - we all know that beauty is only skin deep and no one should be judged on looks alone. But the message here isn't one of political repression, it's something far less sinister. Why do girls wear pretty, patterned undies in the first place? The answer is simple, of course. They wear them to feel good about themselves.