A Story My Grandmother Once Told Me

This is not in any way a timely post; it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

My grandma Sally, for whom Zoe is named, told me a story once about a professor she had who, at the end of an exam, included the question, “Who won the World Series last night?”  Not answering that question correctly would have , I believe, seriously damaged your grade on the test.

When my grandmother told this story, her point was that this professor was trying to make his students citizens of the world, interested in the things happening around them, and not narrow-minded and focused only on what was immediately affecting them.  That’s certainly a good lesson, and my grandmother obviously took it very seriously.  She spent her life being incredibly well-read and well-informed and involved in community concerns.

But I’ve been thinking about this story and I’ve decided that, as much as what my grandmother took away from that story is great, I think there’s more going on there that’s kind of insidious.  My grandmother went to an all-girls’ college.  This, then, was a male professor telling a bunch of women that their grades hinged in some part on  their knowledge of a traditionally “male” thing – baseball.

Now, I do think it’s important to know what’s going on in the world and the World Series is certainly something that was going on in the world.  But you know what else was going on that particular year?  The debut of Christian Dior’s New Look, which took fashion out of the deprivations of the ’30s and ’40s and into the prosperity, even the decadence, of the ’50s.  Throughout World War II, women’s fashion had been defined by the fabric rationing that was going on to keep soldiers in uniforms and parachutes.  Women’s fashion was characterized by knee-length pencil skirts and fitted jackets; the more fashionable and daring women were even wearing slim pants, a la Katherine Hepburn.  Compared to Dior’s New Look, first, obviously, there was a lot less fabric required for each outfit.  A LOT less fabric.  Second of all, there was a lot less equipment required.  The New Look required a very specific shape, and therefore very specific undergarments – the right bra, the right girdle, yards and yards of crinolines.  The ’40s outfits were a little more flattering to a wider array of body shapes, and could be worn with a simple slip, stockings, and a bra.  (And actually, to save silk during the war years, young women would often just draw a line up their leg with eyeliner so it looked like they were wearing stockings.)  Finally, ’40s fashion for women kept you mobile, and made you look mobile.  It was for a woman who moved, a woman who lived, a woman who had places to go and things to do.  The New Look was decidedly not.  It was actually harder to move in, and made women look less mobile, less active, less tough.  Even consider the simple act of driving a car – where is that crinoline-d skirt supposed to go if you’re behind a wheel?

This is not to argue against the New Look.  I mean, I would not look good in it, and really, I can only think of maybe two women of my acquaintance who that style would really suit (Hi, Leah!  You’re one of them!) but I do like to look at it.  I even more like what Christian Dior (not the person now; the house) did with their couture collection in fall of 2008, where they sort of sent up the New Look a little.  My point is, this was a huge change.  And lest you think it had no real world effects, let me tell you the story I love from my grandmother’s college years.  See, she left for college before the New Look premiered; that means that she and her mother did all of their shopping for college before the New Look premiered, as did all of her classmates.  So they all came to school with a bunch of slim skirts.  Then the New Look premiered, and all their clothes became hopelessly out of date in overnight.  So these enterprising girls cut all their new skirts into strips, and then sewed the strips into the big, full skirts that were now fashionable. I think that’s kind of awesome.  Of course, my grandmother said, they all came to school with, like, 5-10 skirts and now they all had 2 or 3.  Because the New Look requires more fabric, remember.

But anyway, not only did this major development happen in fashion, but it would have been right under the professor’s nose, since it was quite literally happening on the bodies of his students.  And you know what?  I bet he had no idea.  I bet he wouldn’t have recognized the name “Christian Dior.”  So what annoys me know about this story is that this professor felt that knowing something about traditionally “male” culture was super-important, but probably couldn’t name another major development in a traditionally “female” realm that, I would argue, would have much further-reaching implications than who won the World Series that year.

And of course, this always happens.  What men are more interested in, or at least things that are perceived to be of more interest to men, are the things that everyone should know, about which everyone should be conversant; they are “important” things.  The things that are more “women”-oriented are considered frivolous, silly, “special interest” only.  And that has deeper implications.  I mean, it’s one thing when “fashion” is placed squarely in the women’s camp and “sports” squarely in the men’s camp, but people – comedians, politicians, men-on-the-street types – like to put things like “care of children” squarely in the women’s camp, and that has very serious effects in the real world.

Anyway, that’s all.  Also, I still miss my grandmother and I wish I could discuss this with her.

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4 thoughts on “A Story My Grandmother Once Told Me

  1. rebleah18 says:

    It’s funny, I’ve heard similar stories about exam questions that were designed to show whether you paid attention to life (i.e. a nursing exam that asked the name of the janitor in the hospital). My brother had a test where you were told to “read all of the directions” the last direction being to pass in the test blank. I like the question of how you define what is important enough that everyone should know about it. I try to keep up on cultural things so I can talk about them with congregants, but there’s so much to be “up” on: there isn’t just one national sport (or one local team to follow), or a TV show that everyone watches, or a musician that everyone listens to. I got a lot of mileage with our young people (and later, their parents) from Glee, but its rare that anything like that reaches “phenomenon” status anymore.

    Also, trying to figure out which look you were referring to and why me? Flattered at the shout-out:).

  2. perica1981 says:

    Oh, the increasing niche-i-ness of culture is a whole other blog post.

    You know, the typical ’50s “look” – big circle skirts, tight waists, soft shoulders. You could rock that. You’re the right amount of curvy – and carry weight in the right places – for the look, and you’re tall enough that it wouldn’t make you look stumpy.

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