I spent an unconscionable amount of time in my youth obsessing about bra straps. I could have been reading Proust or studying calculus, but instead I was worrying about whether my bra straps were showing. The sight of an errant bra strap in those days was even more embarrassing than that other wardrobe malfunction, the slip (remember slips?) hanging below the skirt. And when a bra strap showed, there was nothing you could do about it, as the act of tucking it in in public was considered practically indecent.
Women used to sew little tabs with snaps under their shoulder seams that supposedly kept the straps in place, but sometimes the snaps came apart, and the straps sprang into view. (Speaking of snaps reminds me of that other artifact of the era, the dickey—a triangular piece of fabric that snapped under the bodice at the point where the opening might have revealed the merest hint of cleavage.)
But back to bra straps. After waging war on them for decades, my generation was mystified to see them, like royalty summoned from exile, not only accepted but treated as an important wardrobe accessory. The trend began with gym clothes, and soon bras and bra straps were everywhere, flaunting their neon hues and becoming practically de rigueur for a cool look.
The emancipation of bra straps was shortly followed, thanks to the presidential innamorata, by the liberation of their cousin, the thong strap. Mercifully, however, it has not gained the respectability of the bra strap, at least in my circles.
But bra straps and cleavage-concealing dickies were as nothing compared to the time and energy I used to devote to taming my hair. There was too much of it for me to wear it in the iconic style of the era—parted in the middle and flowing straight down to the waist. The alternative was to cut it short and tease, smooth, and spray it into a helmet-like bubble, often ornamented (though I never succumbed to this) with a little bow. With our big round heads and tiny skirts, we girls of the late 60s looked like overgrown toddlers, but we felt deliciously daring and modern.
Whether due to the discovery that hairspray depleted the ozone layer, or the fear that all that teasing would lead to premature baldness, the bubble and its fancier sister, the beehive, eventually faded. But for my generation, whether we wore our hair short or long, the goal remained for it to look neat and controlled.
I don’t watch the Emmys, the Oscars, or the Met Gala, but I do look at the photos in the NY Times. And there you will see, along with plenty of bra straps and other gasp-inducing intimate garments, hairstyles that look as if the wearer had just gotten up from a tumultuous night in bed. So-called “bed hair” is beyond tousled. It is spiky, choppy, chaotic, and looks like it was hacked with kitchen scissors—in other words, the polar opposite of neat and controlled.
And what, you ask, is wrong with neat and controlled? Nothing, if one wants to look like dear Queen Elizabeth, may she rest in peace. But since I’m told that nothing is as ancient-making as clinging to the styles of one’s youth, it seems like a good idea to go for a less structured appearance. However, despite abandoning blow dryers, hairspray, rollers, and curling irons, I inevitably catch myself trying to domesticate the (as Shakespeare put it) black wires that grow on my head.
But lately I’ve been thinking of the women who came of age in the 1870s, the age of bustles, furbelows, and skirts that dragged on the ground, the whole crowned with baroque hairdos requiring the daily ministrations of a lady’s maid. Then, in the 1920s, when those women were the age I am now, sleeveless dresses, short skirts, bound breasts and bobbed hair became the thing. Compared to those changes, the fashion shifts of the last half century seem trivial. And if our great-grandmothers managed to survive the transition from bustles to bound breasts, my fellow baby-boomers and I can deal with bra straps, bed hair, and (most of) the rest.