A brief encounter with dress codes

7th April 1995 at 01:00
Very Peculiar History series: Underwear 0 7496 1284 3 By Jennifer Ruby Vanity 0 7496 1679 2 By Vicki Power Keeping Clean 0 7496 1613 X By Daisy Kerr Mummies 0 7496 1612 1 By Nathaniel Harris Watts Pounds 7.99 each

Lord, what fools these mortals be." Did you know that manufacturers in the 1950s "came up with the inflatable bra in puncture proof plastic", of the time and pain invested over centuries and cultures in dealing with too much or too little hair, or in the ubiquitous arts of tattooist and piercer? Can a man, by taking thought, add an inch to his stature?

Well, he (and she) has constantly tried to, with Geta Japanese pedestal clogs, with Venetian Chopines, with Syrian Kubkabs or 1970s platform shoes. The ingenuity of the rich in combining elegance with necessity has been impressive: the velo-douche shower was controlled by foot pedals while a 17th-century commode was disguised as a stack of books, (entitled Journey to the Netherland).

Mummies contains interesting information on ancient Egypt, but also includes Inca and Iron Age mummies, Jeremy Bentham, Eva Peron and modern experiments in cryogenics.

These beautifully produced books have well-referenced, colour illustrations supported by a brief text which explains the pictures in the context of time and place, with such thought-provoking headings as "Changing Colour: a fine colour enhances social standing".

Each has a short glossary and index; the Underwear glossary ranges from braise and bum roll to x front and zone. The books can be enjoyed at a range of levels.

Can such fun be justified as proper history? First, these books encourage an understanding that across the centuries people have responded to similar problems: how to convey power or symbolise cultural values through dress, how to appear physically attractive and how to contest mortality.

The ways in which they have done so reflect social attitudes, which have often been neither more nor less rational than our own. This could help children to see their own times in perspective and to explain the past in an unpatronising way; the stiffened pink hair of a punk or a 1950s beehive echoes wire-frame hairstyles of ancient Rome or of the 18th century.

Second, the books can be used in the context of the national curriculum programmes of study. The section on "19th Century: Death or Drains?" could lead to extracts from Reports of the Sanitary Commissioners in London in 1847 and from Oliver Twist; Britain since 1930 could begin with "Emancipation and Elastic 1918-1939", through "Parachutes and Passion Killers" in the 1940s to the 1960s' "Youth Revolution", then "Fitness and Power for Men and Women".

Indeed, "Reaction Against Restriction" could reflect teachers' responses to the revised national curriculum.

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