Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ankles Away

Be careful what you want: you might live to see it. Men are now expected to be as luscious as women were once expected to be, not merely in choice of fashion (which was plainly industry and advertising driven) but the body itself. The option to be sloppy - rarely permitted to hetero females (or those afraid of being thought otherwise) in my youth, and a major barrier to my entree to the gay male world in the clone era - is now denied to high school boys who don't yet know what they want. Their only escape these days is behind a computer screen (in my boyhood: into a good book). The latest absurdity ( is stark naked and hot while singing three acts of a Vivaldi opera. (I thought Hercules was not only bearded but uncut. Is that costume or makeup?) When I was a lad, even Salome never bared all - and since she was usually Birgit Nilsson, neither she nor we wanted her to. (Nilsson's naughty bits were always verbal. Remember?)

One sees evidence of this (if one reads as many old books and plays as I do) in the gradual roving of the focus based on what was visible or, rather, what was not quite visible. In 1900, women's ankles still raised temperatures more than breasts did - breasts (and shoulders), after all, had been at least on half-display since the mid-century. (Queen Victoria never wore evening gowns after Albert died; her sole reason for wearing them, she said, had been for him to admire her shoulders. Anyone stared at a lady's shoulders, lately? Men's shoulders, sure; but that too came later.) Even in my father's youth, men were forgetting the ankle - they knew a thigh when they (almost) saw one, and they lived for those moments. Today, the thigh is almost passé - literally - time has passed it by, heading ever higher towards (as it were) the empyrean.

Men's fashion has been slower to pursue, perhaps because women did not have (and men did not admit) the wealth to command and the will to desire bare male flesh. (Victoria fell in love with Albert when she was walking down a staircase and he was walking up, in full court uniform - beauty used to mean the face - which seems so quaint to us now.) (Today, she'd be walking up the stairs and he'd be coming down dressed only in tighty whiteys and a Prince Albert.) Consider: before the invention of the bathing costume and the rise of swimming as a family sport, only men (as a rule) jumped in, usually bareass. That includes kings like Charles II and presidents like John Quincy Adams. Since the men were naked, there was no reason to look - there was nothing secret to glimpse. Adams couldn't have looked much more preposterous nude than he did clothed, or much less either. Women were not supposed to swim - in ancient times, only the Empress Agrippina ever had (thereby thwarting, but not for long, son Nero's attempt to kill her); it was Leander who swam to visit Hero, not the other way around. If a girl was in the surf back then, she was usually a nautical deity of some sort. No wonder Ophelia drowned - she'd never had lessons.

Then Clark Gable took off his shirt in "It Happened One Night" and undershirt sales famously dropped. By 1936, it was a giggle for a Rodgers & Hart character to observe of a man, "When he would swim, he would always wear the top." Real men had chests. Not good chests - those came later - but chests. And women had legs, even thighs - so why look at their ankles or shoulders? Been there, seen those, got the sarong and Dorothy Lamour within it.

Or such is my theory. I had a thing for nipples as a pre-sexual youth - men's nipples - they gave me a frisson when I had no idea what "tingle" truly meant. My guess now is that the nips have reasons that the mind knows not - mine were already sensitive before anyone (even I) had properly played with them. I thought classical statuary was rudely nude too. And yet I stared. As I was a pious believer in the classical gods, this seemed sacrilegious as well, but I got over that - like any good religious, I was able to find rationalization: the gods probably like it when they turn us on. Why not? They're very sexy if half the tales be true. It's a fecund planet. The whole system wouldn't function if the sex urge didn't occupy a considerable part of the brain - everything's brain. Why should they care if, perversely, we desire them or their representations? (As Goethe and Schubert suggest in "Ganymed," such lusts could merely be a metaphor for the yearning of the soul for union with the supernal. Yeah, right. Okay, when the song is sung right, I believe it.)

But nipples ("the windows of the soul," as Andrew Holleran once said) will no longer do: they are too constantly on display, indeed, suggestively enhanced on dummies in gay men's shop windows. Now we're going for primary sex organs on both genders - by primary, I mean the organs that used to be kept primarily for private acts but are now public enough to enhance Vivaldi opera revivals and are seldom not on display in Terrence McNally plays. My problem with that is: if the primary sexual organs have become ornamental, non-functional, secondary in fact, what is left? What acts remain private enough to be worth waiting for with bated breath, will give us a frisson, will inspire the next generation of fashion designers with filthy, sensational minds?

When did you last kvell at an attractive pair of ankles, eh? I vaguely remember the last time I did. And they were ... looming ... out of the darkness ... over my own head. An attractive pair of ankles! Ooops, wait - those are my own. How did they get there?


Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

It is good that you did not create a live link to the Hercules photo. The visual did my higher nervous system functioning quite enough damage as it is--such things should not be displayed "only a click away."

Entertaining post. Though... uh. er.

I'm afraid Zachary Stains has upstaged you. And without singing a note, either...

Erik said...

When did you last kvell at an attractive pair of ankles, eh?

Oh, it's happened once or twice - but my real weakness (aside from the culturally-inevitable T&A) is for a well-turned calf or an elegant neck (Audrey Hepburn... mmmmmm).

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