Fashion was just as silly some 40,000 years ago

November 06, 1991|By Marcia Vanderlip | Marcia Vanderlip,Dallas Morning News

Let's get in the proper frame of mind: The best place to keep "Let There Be Clothes," according to the author, is probably in the bathroom reading rack.

And while you're there contemplating varicose veins and big thighs, don't despair. Sit down, and read a quick essay or two from the book by Lynn Schnurnberger, (Workman Publishing, $19.95 paperback).

"This is a good book to read if you aren't happy with a part of your body," says Schnurnberger. Her book touches on some of the brightest and darkest moments in 40,000 years of fashion from the fig leaf to the catsuit.

If something about your shape isn't trendy, just look for a time when you would fit in, she says. "The Mayans thought crossed eyes were really sexy ... Edwardian women wanted 40-inch hips and if they didn't have them they padded them." What's more, Egyptian beauties in 3000 B.C. outlined the surface veins on their breasts and legs with blue dye, according to the book.

Schnurnberger, 42, has been thinking about fashion's effects for a long while. In the womb she realized "fashion really created an image and had an impact," she says. When mom was eight months pregnant with me she hadn't gained any (about eight pounds) weight. She went out and bought a maternity dress so the neighbors would know I wasn't adopted," she says.

As an artist and a painter, Schnurnberger became fascinated with the history of clothes at the Metropolitain Museum of Art, where she has worked as a costume consultant. She has also written five books since 1978 one popular children's book on Medieval costume, "Kings, Queens, Knights and Jesters." Another of her books, "The Star Trek Costume Book," "sort of made me a cult figure," she says, tongue-in-cheek.

But for her most recent work, the author listened to two other important lessons from Mom: "Everything that is old is new again, and never throw anything away."

Medieval families passed clothing down from generation to generation, she says. "If something is really well made and you loved it the first time, keep it."

Plenty of other things never change in the world of fashion, she says. Not all of them are good things; pain, for instance, like say, plastic surgery, liposuction and going for the burn.

In 1886, "you could go to the local cosmetician and she would apply some acid to your face for a face peel and she would even shoot some paraffin under the eyes," says Schnurnberger. And next time you complain about poor foundation coverage, think of this: In the 1620s, according to the book, women wore black velvet masks to ward off pollution's effects but made up their faces with powdered white lead. Men suffered too. A liquid makeup made of arsenic was responsible for the deaths of 600 men in 1625, according to Schnurnberger's research.

And, inquiring minds want to know, "Why did Adam choose the fig leaf? There were other leaves. The fig leaf was probably the largest in the garden," she says. "I called a rabbi to get that information."

Her book makes the case that fashion affects the "big picture."

In today's world the big picture is affecting fashion more than fashion affects the big picture, she says.

"Fashion is more egalitarian. Fashion comes from young people because of a strong middle class in the world. Look at Chanel's street-inspired fashion," she says. Probably the hottest fashion influence now like it or not is Madonna, she says. "Kids see Madonna on MTV and pick up all that lacy underwear. That underwear is "translated again by the couture houses."

While there are influences these days, she says, there are no fashion czars. "We have gone beyond a time where anyone can dictate fashion." And thankfully, she says "we don't have to wear as much underwear as we once did."

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