olivia de havilland, the breast, and christian dior -- 8/3/23

Today's encore selection -- from Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland. Olivia de Havilland is an Academy Award-winning actress who appeared in 49 films including Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Heiress (1949). Her younger sister was the famed actress Joan Fontaine. In 1961, the glamorous de Havilland wrote a short, witty book about her experiences living in France. Here she comments on both the breast ("the Bosom Rampant") and the designer Christian Dior:

"In no way is the difference between the two cultures, French and American, more evident and more clear than in the attitude of each toward the Bosom. Our American philosophy in this regard can be summed up, it appears to me, as that of the Bosom Rampant. The French, on the other hand, subscribe to the principle of the Bust Trussed.

"The two divergent, indeed, opposed ideologies are most vividly and dramatically expressed in the World of Couture and the World of Girls and/or the World of the Girl Show. ...

"To begin with, ever since coming to live here I've been faithful to the House of Dior, which means that I've known the establishment under the reign of King Christian the First, under Yves Saint Laurent, who be­came Prince Regent on the royal demise, and under Marc Bohan, the incumbent. And it is a question as to which of the three has tried the hardest and done the most to flatten my bosom. Not permanently, you understand -- just while I'm wearing a dress.

"The whole thing started at my first fitting on my first Dior dress, designed by His Highness himself. There I was, standing in the fitting room, half-undressed, in merely my stockings, my slip and my bust, and the next minute I was fully clothed and bustless. At first I couldn't think where I'd gone to. Then I was struck rigid by the idea that some sort of instantaneous and lasting transformation had occurred and that I'd sud­denly lost forever what is every girl's pride. Springing out of my paralysis and into action, I looked frantically down my décolleté to see what had happened to me. For­tunately, I was still there, both of me. But bound. And gagged. Like the Japanese female foot. Or feet, rather. By a framework of net and bone. The dress's basic foun­dation.

Olivia de Havilland in Dior 1955
by Raymond Voinquel

"You mustn't think, here, that I have one of those overexuberant superstructures that really needs lash­ing to the decks to keep it from going overboard. No, no, not at all. It is, rather, the sort that you might call appropriate, quite becoming, so it's been said. Neat but not gaudy. However, it's a wonder what the tender en­couragement of a well-placed dart can do to put it 'en valeur.' Therefore, all in favor of tender encouragement, I did not take the matter of my binding meekly, but immediately crossed pins with my fitter in the first skirmish of the Great War of Compression. But each time I advanced my cause by withdrawing a peg from my armature, the fitter would swoop in with a fresh squad of cleats and batten down the hatches tighter than ever. I tell you, there have been times during these for­ays when it has been my mind that cleaved and my bust that boggled.

"Now that we are in the full swing of the third re­gime of the House of Dior, you would think, wouldn't you, that, pin-scarred and needle-tried, I'd be able to say to you that I'd succeeded in imposing the American silhouette upon at least one dress of French haute cou­ture? But I have not succeeded. As I charge into combat, arrayed as I am in the constraining armor of my basic bodice, oxygen starvation defeats me every time. In the end, I always lose my War of Liberation, and the French always win their War of Containment.

"But I must say, I do look darn well dressed. And I'm beginning to accept the French notion that a girl's bust really is more important when she's got her clothes off than when she's got them on.

"Now, about when she's got them off ...

"Of course, I know just as well as you do that back home in the States if a girl's got a delicate, elfin 32 she has no choice but to commit suicide. If she has a tender, swell­ing 34, she can, however, enter a nunnery. If hers is a warm and promising 36, she may resign herself to spin­sterhood. But with a generous 38, there's hope -- she can take exercises. On the other hand, with a cumbersome 40, Hollywood is bound to find her. And with anything over 42, national adulation is assured. We not only have our clothes and cars confused, we have our girls and Guernseys, too. They need the same gallon content to win the Blue Ribbon.

"Over here in France, though, they're not all that keen on animal husbandry. At any rate, they do feel that girls are girls and cows are cows. They do not expect them to look identical. They would consider it udderly ridiculous if they did."

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Olivia de Havilland


Every Frenchman Has One


Penguin Random House


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