November 14th, 2013

A meandering reflection on fashion and decadence

This is what the well-dressed starlet/model/whatever is wearing lately:



Dresses that leave so little to the imagination seem to me to have almost nothing going for them except their power to shock (then again, perhaps the men in the crowd would disagree). And we’ve grown so accustomed to the display of more and more skin that such things have lost some of that power, so it’s necessary to escalate to get the requisite effect.

As in long ago Rome:

In lifestyle Roman actors did not enjoy a good reputation and their morals challenged even the decadence of Roman society. Their performances could be lewd, highly sexual and offensive, even going as far as to appearing naked on stage and engaging in sexual acts. They could also be highly critical of the political status quo and so ran the gauntlet of emperor and senator…Far from being great dramas most Roman plays were whimsical, more mimes and pantomimes; the classics we know and respect were in the minority…in the Imperial period a number of women emerged as famous actresses, earning reputations as infamous as their male counterparts…Over the years a number of actors became quite influential, counting among their friends men of high standing within Roman society.

And musn’t forget the ill-fated Weimar Republic:

Apart from the new tolerance for behaviour that was technically still illegal, and viewed by a large part of society as immoral, there were other developments in Berlin culture that shocked many visitors to the city. Thrill-seekers came to the city in search of adventure, and booksellers sold many editions of guide books to Berlin’s erotic night entertainment venues. There were an estimated 500 such establishments.

If you’re not familiar with Anita Berber (and I certainly wasn’t until I did the research for this post), her performances and life may retain their ability to shock, even now.

The Weimar Republic and decadence—makes me think of the Sally Bowles character in the musical “Cabaret,” which itself was a somewhat-cleaned-up version of the real Weimar goings-on. Sally was based on a British actress and writer by the name of Jean Ross, who lived with writer and playwright Christopher Isherwood in Berlin in the 30s (just as Bowles did with the highly fictionalized Isherwood character in “Cabaret”).

Unlike the apolitical Sally, Ross was a lifelong Communist, and possibly even an undercover agent for the Comintern. She latter married the British Communist journalist Claud Cockburn, one of whose three journalist children from his third marriage was Counterpunch’s leftist editor Alexander Cockburn.

As I was writing the above paragraph, I thought, “Why am I following this strange trail?” And then I found that someone else had done much the same, although his journey led in still another direction to a completely unexpected connection: Claud Cockburn’s daughter from his first wife (Ross/Bowles was his second) was married to Flanders of the British comedy team Flanders and Swann, favorite performers of my youth, and not especially decadent at all:

Make of it what you will.

22 Responses to “A meandering reflection on fashion and decadence”

  1. Lee Merrick Says:

    You must remember Barbra Streisand in her see through outfit at the 1969 Oscars!

  2. PA Cat Says:

    You could add the merveilleuses and incroyables during the Directoire (the handful of years between the end of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon). “The Incroyables (“incredibles”) and their female counterparts, the Merveilleuses (“marvelous women”, roughly equivalent to “fabulous divas”), were members of a fashionable aristocratic subculture in Paris during the French Directory (1795–1799). Whether as catharsis or in a need to reconnect with other survivors of the Reign of Terror, they greeted the new regime with an outbreak of luxury, decadence, and even silliness. . . . The Merveilleuses scandalized Paris with dresses and tunics modeled after the ancient Greeks and Romans, cut of light or even transparent linen and gauze. Sometimes so revealing they were termed “woven air”, many gowns displayed cleavage and were too tight to allow pockets. To carry even a handkerchief, the ladies had to use small bags known as reticules.”

    Caricature of “Paris Ladies in Their Winter Dress” by the contemporary English cartoonist Cruikshank at the link:

    I remember reading in a history of the period that the see-through dresses of the merveilleuses offered such little protection against the cold and damp of the Parisian winter that several of the fashionable wearers died of pneumonia.

    As for the incroyables, they could best be described as eighteenth-century French zoot suiters (as in ‘Zoot alors,’ excuse the bad pun).

  3. Mike Says:

    Weimar, Ancient Rome, Paris, New York, Blue States Everywhere and in all times…

    According to Denis Prager the problem is that people think of themselves as animals only, and not human persons.

    Not according to Denis Prager, but logically following on his critique…

    The correlate of wearing scanty clothing, if they could only see it, is public defecation, urination, copulation, eating with your hands, swearing, crudity, violence, theft, cruelty and murder.

    Is there are doubt we are there?

    Civilization has fallen before. It has been restored before. It is not a sure thing either way. It has definitely fallen now….

    Meanwhile, in other interesting news the relics of the Little Flower are (currently) on display at the Cathedral in Philadelphia, presumably to continue a tour of the States at other locales.

    Totally unrelated juxtapositions of course (not).

  4. JuliB Says:

    As soon as I saw the first picture, I thought of ancient Rome. I wonder if they had a Miley Cyrus as well.

  5. Matt_SE Says:

    Sex is power (for women), and there’s a lot of competition these days. That invites escalation.
    It’s to the point that I wonder how a porn star can even earn a living, let alone get wealthy.

    On the second topic: pulling the thread of Communist familial ties reminds me very much of the relationships between jihadis.

  6. Ymarsakar Says:

    It’s to the point that I wonder how a porn star can even earn a living, let alone get wealthy.

    You probably don’t want the truth on that matter.

  7. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Reflecting on the subject, I found myself contrasting my reactions to today’s actress’ dress and other cultures that have permitted female nudity, specifically South Sea Islanders and the Minoan cultures. I think the critical difference is that today’s dress is intended to titillate, to provoke prurient interest, whereas that was not the case in past cultures.

    I was completely unaware of the delightful British comedy team Flanders and Swann. The verbal pyrotechnics as compared to today are striking.
    Thanks for the intro Neo. And as reward, I’ll share my discovery that Amazon has a page of eight of Flanders and Swann’s albums available. Obviously, for anyone interested, they should be ordered through your link.

  8. blert Says:

    Jaimie Alexander need hardly expose so much… (Thor)… since she’s already established as a starlet. She’s received bad counsel.

    Between Titanic and Black Swan there’s so much ‘lead nudity’ that starlets are compelled to stay never more than one notch below porn starlets… of whom many should’ve made it in straight film. (They ‘write’ their own dialog on the spot… as most porn dialog is entirely ad-lib.)

    Hey, they should be members of the Writers Guild.

  9. Matt_SE Says:


    “You probably don’t want the truth on that matter.”
    Yes, I do. The truth is the truth, whether it is unpleasant or not.

  10. leigh Says:

    I’d like to congratulate Hollywood on doing the impossible: making sex boring.

  11. Matt_SE Says:

    And another thought: sex is only powerful to the extent that few are using it. Supply and demand: increased supply drives down prices, ceterus paribus.
    Modern feminists tell women to embrace sexuality, I think as a way of becoming more powerful. They didn’t realize they were diluting their own value by doing so.

  12. Ymarsakar Says:

    Yes, I do. The truth is the truth, whether it is unpleasant or not.

    Then study the Middle East, African, and Eastern Europe slave trade.

    Work backwards from there about 2 or 3 layers and you’ll arrive at the answer.

  13. Ymarsakar Says:

    Feminism was hijacked some time ago by communists and then transferred to the modern Left.

    Why wouldn’t they have engineered the collapse of female power? Are people still on that obsolete idea that the Left exists to help the poor, immigrants, and homosexuals find a better life or something?

  14. Sam L. Says:

    Methinks that be the well-barely-dressed starlet. Or tartlet.

  15. Lizzy Says:

    It’s getting so hard to épater le bourgeois nowadays, huh? The weirdest part about Jaimie Alexander’s dress is that her boyfriend’s teen daughter accompanied her to the event – talk about awkward. She didn’t tape her dress in place, so she was showing the world her nethers at certain angles/in certain poses.

    Slightly O/O, but related to an earlier comment about nudity in film and TV:

  16. Lizzy Says:

    Probably should have mentioned – that video is NSFW/has explicit sexual language.

  17. Matt_SE Says:

    Yeah, I like collegehumor.

  18. blert Says:


    That sent me into a tizzy… I was concerned for their careers… until I knew it was HBO.

  19. T Says:

    “. . .and so ran the gauntlet of emperor and senator . . .”[Wikipedia].

    Wikipedia, FYI it’s “gantlet,” i.e., a maze. A “gauntlet” is a glove.

    Sorry, it’s a pet peve.

  20. Matt_SE Says:

    Sorry. From Wikipedia:
    Running the gauntlet or gantlet is a form of physical punishment where a captive is to run between two rows – a gauntlet – of soldiers who repeatedly strike them.

  21. T Says:

    From the dictionary:

    gaunt·let1 /ˈgɔntlɪt, ˈgɑnt-/ Show Spelled [gawnt-lit, gahnt-] Show IPA
    1. a medieval glove, as of mail or plate, worn by a knight in armor to protect the hand.
    2. a glove with an extended cuff for the wrist.
    3. the cuff itself.
    4. take up the gauntlet,
    a. to accept a challenge to fight: He was always willing to take up the gauntlet for a good cause.
    b. to show one’s defiance.
    Also, take up the glove.
    5. throw down the gauntlet,
    a. to challenge.
    b. to defy.
    Also, throw down the glove.

    1375–1425; late Middle English gantelet < Middle French, diminutive of gant glove < Germanic *want-; compare Old Norse vǫttr

    gantlet 1 (ˈɡæntlɪt, ˈɡɔːnt-)

    — n
    1. a section of a railway where two tracks overlap
    2. ( US ) a variant spelling of gauntlet
    [n.B. I find it interesting that the on-line dictionaries I consulted provide the railroad definition but fail to mention the gantlet as a means of punishment]

    Now one might point to # 2 (variant spelling) to justify the use of “gauntlet,” but it is a variant spelling and appears to be peculiar to the U.S.. “Nite” is a variant spelling of “night” (“luv/love”, “dri/dry,” et. al.) also seen all the time; that doesn’t make it correct. To be fair in this discussion, also see:


    and while they seem (in the U.S.) to have become interchangeable I would never write “gauntlet” for “gantlet”, or for that matter “dri” for “dry” in anything I intended for publication. Matt_SE you may disagree and think me doctrinaire. Many may even consider that a valid criticism but in my book, sloppy grammar is sloppy grammar.

  22. Ymarsakar Says:

    It’s common usage to refer to the Roman practice that way.

    A lot of things in dictionaries are determined by individual usage. Even though authority thinks it is the other way around.

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