Tag Archives: T&M

It Started With Harper’s Bazaar…

So, it started with Harper’s Bazaar…

Harper's Bazaar May 1915

Well, actually it started with sleeveless evening gowns.  No-one worries about underarm hair when other people can’t see it, and until the 1910s women’s fashion had concealed that particularly racy area of the body from the foul gaze of men (and, more pertinently, other women). Nary a one was bothered by it – it was ignored, disregarded, a private family matter, until along came the sleeveless evening gown, and suddenly hairy pits mattered rather more than once they had.

Thus it was that the May 1915 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, in running an advertisement that dared to mention ‘objectionable hair’ (what appallingly direct words. Bunter, ready the fainting couch!) and how to effect its removal, began – or perhaps resumed – a trend which persists to this day. The advertisement was for depilatory powder, but soon enough razors aimed at women were appearing on the market and women the world over were learning that, to avoid being an embarrassment, they were obliged to tidy up their unsightly areas (quiet at the back).

Although – wait a minute. What was it that the advert said? ‘Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair’. So it was that modern sinful jazz that started it! I should have known. As my character Ambrose Meredith will be happy to tell you, nothing good ever came of jazz.

So much for underarm hair – but what about the legs? A much more frustrating task altogether, as any woman will tell you, and yet for many years it was less of a concern than the aforementioned unmentionable underarm hair. This was partly due to hemlines. In the twenties skirts went up, but not as quickly as many people imagine they did: it wasn’t until 1925 that hemlines rose from the lower calf to just above the knee, and they went back down to almost ankle length in 1929 and remained low throughout the thirties. With legs by no means as much on show as is frequently thought to be the case, it is not surprising that leg shaving was of a somewhat sporadic nature until the 1940s, when skirts rose permanently and women became far more aware that all that hair pressed against one’s stockings does look somewhat inelegant.

That said, women of the twenties did remove leg hair – just not with such regularity as we do these days. But regardless of whether the hair they wished to remove were on their shins or under their arms, they had a remarkable number and variety of products available to achieve the goal.

Depilatory powder

Zip depilatory powder
This was the first product for hair removal that was given widespread advertising, as we have seen above. There was many sorts, including Zip, produced in the States, which helped you get rid of ‘offending hairs’ on your arms and limbs, and which makes a brief appearance in a short story I’ve written on the subject of shaving.

There was also depilatory cream, such as the one manufactured by Veet (established in England in 1922 and still going strong) or Ashes of Roses, sold around the world. Advertised as easier, less painful and less unsightly than razors, depilatory creams proved immensely popular with the fashion-conscious of almost every class.

Veet Ashes of Roses

Razors

Gillette were the champions of women’s shaving, calling it the ‘safe and sanitary way to the smooth underarm demanded by both good grooming and good dressing’ (no manipulation there, then). Men’s razors were available to women (though this advert suggests that Gillette razors were a guinea a time, so perhaps not the most accessible implements), but companies were not backwards in coming forward with feminine versions; for example, Gillette’s Milady Décolettée, especially designed for a more comfortable underarm shave (translation: it’s small).

Here is a lovely collection of photographs of a Milady razor set.

Wilkinson Sword were in on the act too, but I can’t find a picture of a twenties razor. Here, however, are some amusing and innovative razor styles from the 1930s:

razorgood12011934205 ed105

That said, shaving was discouraged (albeit mostly by manufacturers of depilatories) as leaving ‘unsightly stubble’, which was presumably not up to the standards demanded by good grooming and good dressing.

Pumice

Oh goodness, yes. Scour away that hair with a pumice stone, girls. That’ll make your underarms look pretty.

The Tweaker

Here’s a charming blog about beauty in the 20th century, in which you can see for yourself the implement known as The Tweaker. It is slightly less alarming than it looks (and sounds), though its method appears to be hauling the hairs out by the roots. Yowch.

If you think any of the above sound bad, imagine using this: the Cornell Tube, an x-ray machine. Removes hair and acne, adds cancer. Lovely.

In conclusion…

The main thing I have observed in the course of this investigation into hair removal is the insistence on the embarrassment women must face if they appear with one stray strand of hair in an unseemly part of their body. Such brow-beating, image-conscious sentiments are, of course, still with us in the ‘modern’ age, albeit often rather subtler in form, but it is nonetheless intriguing to see how early into the history of the ‘body beautiful’ these pressures on women to be physically perfect began to emerge in advertising material.

(Now that you’ve read all of this, I recommend you nip over to my other blog and have a look at my short story on the subject of shaving, ‘It Started With Harper’s Bazaar…’)

This post was written to the tune of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop conducting. I’ve been looking forward to listening to that all day and it was certainly worth the wait – best recording of the New World Symphony I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a few. Available on Naxos for a ridiculously low price.

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The Fairy Queen

So I’ve started writing yet another story. This is my bad habit – I get an idea, I worry at it for a few weeks and then I drop it again. I’m determined this is not going to happen with the latest new idea, though I’m damned if I know where it’s going to go in my canon of literature, since it’s a story about familiar characters, the T&M lot, but in an unfamiliar universe, the sort of universe where fairies and witches and magic exist, and music causes weird and wonderful things to happen. It’s a fun story, and it’s one I’ve been wanting to write since I was about seventeen and first found myself getting hooked on folk ballads, but it’s another break from the original style of the stories I write about these characters – there’s already one of those in the series – and I’m not sure how well it works.

Time is the only thing that will tell, of course, and I ought not to get worked up, so I will change the subject and talk to you about Purcell, or more specifically, about one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music I’ve ever heard, easily on a par with Erbarme Dich – namely Hear My Prayer, O Lord. It is a setting of Psalm 102:1 (KJV), and for a setting that is so jolly short, it crams a hell of a lot of emotion into just one line of text. I defy you to listen to the final – and incredibly long – discord and not have the hairs on your arms and the back of your neck standing on end. Interestingly, the final dissonance resolves into an open fifth, a chord one is most certainly instructed to avoid in composition classes – another reason not to listen to the teacher, though probably only if one is as much of a genius as Purcell.

Purcell was most certainly a genius. He died in 1695, aged just 35 or 36, leaving behind seven operas/semi-operas, 200 sacred choral works, countless secular songs and instrumental suites and an enormous reputation, so huge that the Trumpet Voluntary by Jeremiah Clarke was attributed to Purcell for many years after its composition (poor old Jeremiah!). He was also a very human composer, with a huge sense of humour and a great gift for getting under the skin of things. Not only could he compose works of immense tragedy and suffering, like Hear My Prayer and the much more famous When I Am Laid In Earth (I link to Dame Janet Baker’s performance because, despite its unfashionably mid-20thC performance style – the Baroque, these days, has gone Stark – I have never yet heard a performer to score out every last dreg of emotion from this delicious piece); he could also write hilarious (and exceedingly elegant) songs about farting, and rounds about being rejected by women – and, of course, everything in between. Immensely talented, funny, and evidently well experienced in life, given the range of texts he chose to set and the varied ways in which he did it, he’s absolutely on my list of Chaps I’d Visit If I Had A Time Machine.

Now, I don’t pretend to be a musicologist, so I can’t strip Hear My Prayer down into its constituent parts and tell you precisely what it is that makes it so moving (though perhaps I might have to learn how, if I’m to make a success of the story I mentioned above). But I would quite happily say that it is just as tragic, and considerably more painfully tragic, as the aforementioned When I Am Laid In Earth from Dido and Aeneas (I won’t tell you the filthy nickname given to that opera by the good folks of the CBSO). The final chords of Hear My Prayer are wrung out for almost as long as is humanly possible, certainly for the Baroque period (I suspect Shostakovich would have strung the listener out for longer, but he always was a sod like that and, luckily for him, not constrained by carefully regulated Baroque traditions of tonality), and if you haven’t yet started crying before those final bars, the agony of the dissonance might just wring a tear from beneath a trembling eyelid. But the text has just as much a part to play as the weeping music:

Hear my prayer, o Lord, and let my crying come unto thee.

Perhaps it is sympathy that makes me shiver when I listen. Which of us, when in tears, has not longed for someone who knows how we feel? And here, in this music, is the proof that someone, though separated from us by centuries, knows how it feels to cry, and to want someone to hear that crying. I think that the understanding in this music is one of its greatest legacies, and it’s one of the reasons I adore Purcell so much.

Next, back to silliness as I take a troll through the weird and wonderful world of Polari. Till then, possums.