Read an Excerpt
the big book of women's trivia
By ALICIA ALVREZ
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2008 Conari Press
All rights reserved.
women and their wardrobes
We've always loved to accessorize. Archeologists have uncovered bracelets made of mammoth bones from 20,000 B.C. and necklaces of mammoth tusks, shells, and animal teeth from 30,000 B.C.
Is shopping in the female genes? No one knows for sure, but what is known is that deprived of the money to shop, women will keep on shopping anyway. Women outnumber men by five to one in shoplifting convictions.
The craze for shaved armpits in women began in the United States around 1920, when deodorant began being marketed and bathing suits that revealed one's armpits became fashionable.
As you know, pants were originally a male-only fashion item. But so were undies. Women, no matter the circumstances, were just supposed to keep their skirts down and avoid showing their bottoms to the world. Indeed, it was a crime to let anyone other than your husband see your privates. This caused quite a problem for Catherine de' Medici, who loved to ride horseback. Every time her horse jumped, she broke the law. What was a gal to do? She was damned either way—either she could continue to be immodest or don some coverings. But that caused consternation too, one critic proclaiming, "Women should leave their buttocks uncovered under their skirts, they should not appropriate a masculine garment but leave their behinds nude as is suitable for them." It wasn't until the mid-1800s that women began wearing underpants on a regular basis.
By the way, Catherine took up riding because it was a way of showing off her legs, which were her best feature. It is she who is credited with inventing riding sidesaddle for women, again for the advantage of showing off her legs.
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Umbrellas first made an appearance in China in the second century B.C.
a fashion trend i'm glad i missed
It used to be fashionable in the late 1800s and early 1900s for women to shave off their eyebrows and wear glued-on mouse fur ones instead.
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Before the 1920s, tanned skin was considered coarse because poor people got tanned by working outside. That all changed when the famous designer Coco Chanel returned from a cruise on the Duke of Westminster's private yacht with a tan. Suddenly, everyone had to have one, and sales of parasols and bonnets dried up.
emily post on proper fashion, circa 1922
"What makes a brilliant party? Clothes. Good clothes. A frumpy party is nothing more nor less than a collection of badly dressed persons."
"Rather be frumpy than vulgar! ... Frumps are often celebrities in disguise—but a person of vulgar appearance is vulgar all through."
It's important to be chic, said she. "Chic is a borrowed adjective, but there is no English word to take the place of elegant, which was destroyed utterly by the reporter or practical joker who said 'elegant dresses.'"
"Fashion ought to be likened to a tide or epidemic; sometimes one might define it as a sort of hypnotism, seemingly exerted by the gods as a joke."
"All women who have any clothes sense whatsoever know more or less the type of things that are their style—unless they have such an attack of fashionitis as to be irresponsibly delirious."
"A conspicuous evidence of bad style that has persisted through numberless changes in fashion is the over-dressed and over-trimmed head."
Those who receive her greatest disdain are modern women with overly fancy shoes and fur coats. "She much prefers wearing rings to gloves. Maybe she thinks they do not go together? ... She also cares little (apparently) for staying at home, since she is perpetually seen at restaurants and at every public entertainment. The food she orders is rich, the appearance she makes is rich; in fact, to see her often is like nothing so much as being forced to eat a large amount of butter—plain."
"When in doubt, wear the plainer dress. It is always better to be under-dressed than over-dressed."
* * *
In the 1930s, members of the British Royal Air Force were introduced to a new kind of inflatable life jacket. They named it the "Mae West," for the remarkably busty actress who was then at the height of her popularity, because the jacket gave the wearer a busty profile.
Do you own a Victorian, a.k.a. a tippy? That's a scarf of fur (or now, fake fur) that has long, dangly ends. It's named, not surprisingly, for Queen Victoria.
emergency fashion tips
Hem come loose and no thread in sight? Try masking tape or a stapler.
Bring your patent leather shoes back to life with petroleum jelly. Rub a pea-sized amount into the leather.
Use a black felt-tipped laundry marker to cover over cracks in black leather shoes or to cover a light-colored stain on any black cloth.
No, freezing your panty hose will not keep a run from spreading, but clear nail polish will.
* * *
The Marquise de Pompadour was the mistress of Louis XV and was so influential that the other ladies of the French court would rapidly follow whatever fashion she adopted. So when she began to appear with her hair piled astonishingly high on her head, the multitudes followed suit. Hence the name "pompadour" for that particular hairdo.
Your fingernails and toenails are a type of skin that grows about one inch per year. The record for the longest fingernails on both hands is held by a woman living in Salt Lake City, Utah, whose nails are a whopping 24 inches long.
If you are less than happy about the state of your nails, remember that the fashion of long, perfect nails developed among wealthy ladies of leisure who had not much else to do with their time than to spend it having their nails done.
It is the fashion in many countries to grow one fingernail to show you don't have to do manual labor. Which nail it is varies—in the Philippines it's the thumbnail; in Greece it's the pinky.
Ancient Egyptians, ahead in this as in so many things, were one of the first people to use fingernail polish—they would color their nails with henna. The ancient Chinese dyed their nails too—with vegetable dyes mixed with beeswax, among other things.
When polish was first introduced in the United States in 1907, women's magazines published directions on how to put it on.
a fashion faux pas
In 1994, Karl Lagerfeld created a slinky black dress with a love poem in Arabic as a design element on the front. He should have done his research better—the passage turned out to be from the Koran, which created a huge stir in the Muslim community when it appeared on the runway that season. The designer apologized, destroying not only the dress but all photos and videos of it as well.
* * *
In the early 1900s, it was fashionable to brush on your powder with a rabbit's foot.
Anthropologists tell us that all cultures around the world from 15,000 B.C. onward invented some kind of comb to get the tangles out of hair. All but one, that is—the Britons, who had unruly heads until A.D. 789, when the Danes invaded and taught them proper grooming techniques.
Archeologists once found a solid gold comb in a tomb on the Black Sea.
In ancient Japan, the kind of ornaments you wore in your hair revealed your class, age, and marital status.
Highly prized hairpins in China had blue kingfisher bird feathers in them. They were so valued that they were sent to the emperor as tribute. Chinese women would also wear hairpins with springs that bobbed every time they moved their heads.
Mattel has done studies of what girls actually do with Barbies. Far and away, the most common activity is playing with their hair.
European royalty began the fashion of wig wearing in the seventeenth century because two kings—Louis XIV and Charles II—didn't want anyone to see their natural hair—Louis because he had none, Charles because his was gray. Wearing wigs became so fashionable that in the eighteenth century children were in danger of having their hair cut off as they played outside and houses were built with racks for guests' wigs to be stored on. The trend ended with the Revolutionary War, when it became decidedly unfashionable to follow royalty.
hats off to him
Guido Orlando was a very creative marketing professional who was employed in the late 1950s by the Millinery Institute of America to get women to buy more hats. Knowing that the Catholic Church required women to cover their heads at mass, Orlando wrote a letter to the pope on letterhead from a bogus institute called the Religious Research Institute, saying that a survey showed that over 20 million women in North America went to weekly mass with bare heads (he made this "fact" up). Then Orlando offered a remedy that the pope might want to suggest to his flock: "Of the various pieces of apparel worn by women today, hats do the most to enhance the dignity and decorum of womanhood. It is traditional for hats to be worn by women in church and other religious occasions—and I commend hats as a right and proper part of women's dress." His scheme worked. Pope Pius used Orlando's very words in a general recommendation, and hat sales soared.
hatter to the stars
Mildred Blount was an African American woman who was the hatter to the stars in 1930s New York. She created an exhibition of hats based on designs from 1690 through 1900 that was shown at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and she was tapped to design the hats for the movie Gone with the Wind. Women like Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Gloria Vanderbilt, Marian Anderson, and many wealthy black women became her clients. One of her hats was featured on the August 1942 cover of Ladies' Home Journal. In 1943, she became the first black American to have her work exhibited at the famous Medcalf's Restaurant in Los Angeles.
* * *
The National Science Foundation once spent $64,000 to study what might reduce car honking of drivers stuck in traffic. How did they do it? Put bikini-clad women on sidewalks as visual distractions.
* * *
We in the United States spend over $5 billion annually on perfumes and colognes.
When perfume techniques were more primitive, it took 200 pounds of roses to make one ounce of rose scent.
For thousands of years, women poisoned themselves with their face makeup by using ceruse, a powder that caused lead poisoning. Rouge, too, was not safe—it contained mercury, which lead to miscarriages and birth defects.
"I believe in my cosmetics line. There are plenty of charities for the homeless. Isn't it time someone helped the homely?"—Dolly Parton
In England in the late 1700s, there was a law that said women could not lure men into marriage by using makeup. To do so was to be branded a witch.
* * *
In the original story, Cinderella didn't wear glass slippers (which makes sense—glass would break). She wore squirrel fur slippers. But the person who translated the tale from French to English confused pantouffles en vair with pantouffles en verre, and glass it became.
Blue jeans are named for the fabric they are made of. The word jean is a derivation of Genoa, which is where in Italy the material came from. Denim too gets its name from its city of origin—Nimes in France. The fabric was called in French serge de Nimes, which English speakers mangled into denim.
Actually, what we call paper money is made of a denimlike cotton as well as linen, which makes it much more durable than regular paper.
According to the Color Marketing Group, what colors are in at any given moment is a reflection of the economic times. When the economy is booming, we flock to bright colors like bright orange, gold, and red; when times get tough, we gravitate to beige, brown, and cream. One reason, they say, is that we are less likely to buy an appliance that is chartreuse, for instance, if we think we will have to keep it for a long time. If we're confident in our ability to get a new one when we feel like it, we're more adventurous. Colorists say blue will be the color of this decade, in all kinds of shades ranging from navy to the aqua that was popular in the '50s.
* * *
The fashion for hairlessness on women's bodies goes back to ancient India. Since then, hair on legs and underarms has gone in and out of fashion.
Those who track such things tell us that women break down into three categories of preferred method of leg hair removal: 50 percent like shaving; 25 percent go for waxing; and 25 percent prefer depilatory creams.
A female sculpture artist in San Francisco, California, created an 1,800-pound Bra Ball constructed out of over 7,000 donated bras.
In 1979, a bra called the Loving Cup was introduced. You could program it around your menstrual cycle so that it would flash a red or green light as to whether the wearer was in her fertile period or not.
Edible bras made a brief appearance in the '70s. Flavors included cherry and liquorice.
We used to use Band-Aids to cover our nipples while going braless, but the French in the 1980s did one better. They created the Joli'bust, which were two strips of adhesive to be placed under the breasts to create uplift.
Someone once created a diamond bra made of 3,250 diamonds, presumably to be worn as outer wear. It cost $1.5 million.
Bras of the future: scented ones that will release fragrance all day; ones that release insect repellent; and one made of hologrammatic material that will project better looking breasts than you have. I'm waiting for the Smart Bra, made of shape-changing materials that will fit you exactly!
more bra NEWS
At a professional golf tournament in the '70s, a player hit a ball into a woman's bra. She was allowed to remove it, and the golfer continued on with play.
* * *
"I have no weakness for shoes. I wear very simple shoes which are pump shoes. It is not one of my weaknesses." —Imelda Marcos, who was found to have 3,400 pairs of shoes in her closet
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In ancient Assyria, locks were considered fashionable only if curled. So both women and men would use iron bars that had been heated to curl their hair.
The earliest hair dryer was marketed as part of a vacuum cleaner—women were pictured drying their hair in the hot air the vacuum gave off.
the mother of invention
Bermuda shorts were invented as a solution to a morals issue. In the 1940s, a law was passed on the island of Bermuda saying that women were not allowed to walk around with bare legs. So knee-length shorts, worn with kneesocks, were born.
* * *
Emilio Pucci was a fashion designer in the '50s who was on the Isle of Capri when he spied a woman in skintight calf-length pants. And Capri pants were born.
The bob haircuts of the Roaring Twenties gave the name to the hair clips used to hold them back—bobby pins.
The best-selling mascara in the world is Maybelline's Great Lash. One is bought somewhere in the world every 1.9 seconds.
Over 50 percent of the women in the United States use haircoloring. Men are dyeing too, but over half of them say they were talked into it by the women in their lives.
Some early hair dyes: crushed dried tadpoles in oil in ancient Egypt; black wine, raw crow's egg, and putrefied leeches in ancient Rome.
Bad news on the lipstick front (although you might have guessed as much): Only 50 percent of our lipstick stays on our lips; the rest we end up accidentally eating.
more fashion advice from emily post
Since in Ms. Post's estimation freckles are the very worst thing that can happen to a woman (calling them "as violent as they are hideous"), she counsels wearing an orange-red veil when out in the sun.
Because of the vulgarity of most exercise outfits, "the young woman who wants to look pretty should confine her exercise to dancing. She can also hold a parasol over her head and sit in a canoe."
"You must never wear an evening dress and a hat!"
"One should always wear a simpler dress in one's own house than one wears in going to the house of another."
"Elderly women should not wear grass green, or "royal blue, or purple.... Pink and orchid are often very becoming to older women.... Because a woman is no longer young is no reason why she should wear perpetual black—unless she is fat."
* * *
Ever notice how many zippers have YKK on them? It stands for the Japanese-owned corporation Yoshida Kogyou Kabushikkaisha, makers of 90 percent of the world's zippers.
The zipper was first created in 1917 (its creator, Gideon Sundback, nicknamed it the "snake trap") but didn't come into popularity until the 1930s. It was originally designed for men's pants, but its usefulness soon spread to all types of clothing. Of course, when it was first introduced, no one was quite sure what to do with it, so it came with instructions.
Women of the Toda tribe in southern India have only two items of clothing their whole life. One they get as children; the other as young women.
In the nineteenth century, it was fashionable for ladies of certain means to have makeup tattooed on their lips and cheeks. In the twenty-first century, that practice has been revived. Recently I met someone who had had lipstick and eyeliner tattooed on. Yes, she revealed, it hurt like hell to do.
Four percent of women in the United States own no undergarments (by choice, I gather), and 6 percent sleep nude.
Excerpted from the big book of women's trivia by ALICIA ALVREZ. Copyright © 2008 Conari Press. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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