As I Please

in Tribune

8 November 1946

George Orwell

SOMEONE has just sent me a copy of an American fashion magazine which shall be nameless. It consists of 325 large quarto pages, of which no fewer than 15 are given up to articles on world politics, literature, etc. The rest consists entirely of pictures with a little letterpress creeping round their edges: pictures of ball dresses, mink coats, step-ins, panties, brassières, silk stockings, slippers, perfumes, lipsticks, nail varnish—and, of course, of the women, unrelievedly beautiful, who wear them or make use of them. I do not know just how many drawings or photographs of women occur throughout the whole volume, but as there are 45 of them, all beautiful, in the first 50 pages, one can work it out roughly. One striking thing when one looks at these pictures is the overbred, exhausted, even decadent style of beauty that now seems to be striven after. Nearly all of these women are immensely elongated. A thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are everywhere. Evidently it is a real physical type, for it occurs as much in the photographs as in the drawings. Another striking thing is the prose style of the advertisements, an extraordinary mixture of sheer lushness with clipped and sometimes very expressive technical jargon. Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, innersole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random:

‘A new Shimmer Sheen colour that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.’ ‘Bared and beautifully bosomy.’ ‘Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!’ ‘Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!’ ‘Gentle discipline for curves in lacy lastex pantie-girdle,’ ‘An exclamation point of a dress that depends on fluid fabric for much of its drama.’ ‘Suddenly your figure lifts . . . lovely in the litheness of a Foundette pantie-girdle.’ ‘Lovely to look at, lovelier to wear is this original Lady Duff gown with its shirred cap sleeves and accentuated midriff .’ ‘Supple and tissue-light, yet wonderfully curve-holding.’ ‘The miracle of figure flattery!’ ‘Moulds your bosom into proud feminine lines.’ ‘Isn’t it wonderful to know that Corsees wash and wear and whittle you down . . . . even though they weigh only four ounces!’ ‘The distilled witchery of one woman who was forever desirable . . . forever beloved . . . Forever Amber.’ And so on and so on and so on.

A fairly diligent search through the magazine reveals two discreet allusions to grey hair, but if there is anywhere a direct mention of fatness or middle age I have not found it. Birth and death are not mentioned either: nor is work, except that a few recipes for breakfast dishes are given. The male sex enters directly or indirectly into perhaps one advertisement in twenty, and photographs of dogs or kittens appear here and there. In only two pictures, out of about three hundred, is a child represented.

On the front cover there is a coloured photograph of the usual elegant female standing on a chair while a grey-haired, spectacled, crushed-looking man in shirt-sleeves kneels at her feet, doing something to the edge of her skirt. If one looks closely one finds that actually he is about to take a measurement with a yard-measure. But to a casual glance he looks as though he were kissing the hem of the woman’s garment—not a bad symbolical picture of American civilization, or at least of one important side of it.

.     .     .     .     .

ONE interesting example of our unwillingness to face facts and our consequent readiness to make gestures which are known in advance to be useless, is the present campaign to Keep Death off the Roads.

The newspapers have just announced that road deaths for September dropped by nearly eighty as compared with the previous September. This is very well so far as it goes, but the improvement will probably not be kept up—at any rate, it will not be progressive—and meanwhile everyone knows that you can’t solve the problem while our traffic system remains what it is. Accidents happen because on narrow, inadequate roads, full of blind corners and surrounded by dwelling houses, vehicles and pedestrians are moving in all directions at all speeds from three miles an hour to sixty or seventy. If you really want to keep death off the roads, you would have to replan the whole road system in such a way as to make collisions impossible. Think out what this means (it would involve, for example, pulling down and rebuilding the whole of London), and you can see that it is quite beyond the power of any nation at this moment. Short of that you can only take palliative measures, which ultimately boil down to making people more careful.

But the only palliative measure that would make a real difference is a drastic reduction in speed. Cut down the speed limit to twelve miles an hour in all built-up areas, and you would cut out the vast majority of accidents. But this, everyone will assure you, is ‘impossible’. Why is it impossible? Well, it would be unbearably irksome. It would mean that every road journey took twice or three times as long as it takes at present. Besides, you could never get people to observe such a speed limit. What driver is going to crawl along at twelve miles an hour when he knows that his engine would do fifty? It is not even easy to keep a modern car down to twelve miles an hour and remain in high gear—and so on and so forth, all adding up to the statement that slow travel is of its nature intolerable.

In other words we value speed more highly than we value human life. Then why not say so, instead of every few years having one of these hypocritical campaigns (at present it is ‘Keep Death off the Roads’—a few years back it was ‘Learn the Kerb Step’), in the full knowledge that while our roads remain as they are, and present speeds are kept up, the slaughter must continue?

.     .     .     .     .

A SIDELIGHT on bread rationing. My neighbour in Scotland this summer was a crofter engaged on the enormous labour of reclaiming a farm which has been derelict for several years. He has no helper except a sister, he has only one horse, and he possesses only the most primitive machinery, which does not even include a reaper. Throughout this summer he certainly did not work less than fourteen hours a day, six days a week. When bread rationing started he put in for the extra ration, only to find that, though he could, indeed, get more bread than a sedentary worker, he was not entitled to the full agricultural labourer’s ration. The reason? That within the meaning of the act he is not an agricultural labourer! Since he is ‘on his own’ he ranks as a farmer, and it is assumed that he eats less bread than he would do if he were working for wages for somebody else.

As I Please - Index

Back    |    Words Home    |    Orwell Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback