When a bare female ankle was able to spark a scandal | Daily News

When a bare female ankle was able to spark a scandal

In olden days a glimpse of stocking, was looked upon as something shocking. - ‘Anything Goes’

People during the Victorian era were known to be prudish, hypocritical, stuffy and narrow-minded. This was also the time of Freudian psychology with all that suppression leading to sexualizing of everything.

As a member of the upper class in Victorian England (during the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901), one had to know the exhaustive rules of etiquette that went along with one's position. It was evident to many even then — social critics of the time popularly mocked the more ridiculous elements of Victorian society.

Despite many of its repressive shibboleths the era in general was a hotbed of invention around the world, especially in America and Europe some of which shaped modern day life. Successful concepts include light bulbs, sound recording, flying machines, steam trains, Coca-Cola recipe.

Failures include spectacles for short-sighted horses, electric chicken hatchers, and exploding scarecrows. It was an age of ingenuity, inventiveness and innovation that saw the birth of many of the concepts and inventions that are still with us today. Indeed, many of the inventions that shape modern life as we know it began life in the Victorian age.

Some of history's most successful designers and radical thinkers came from the era.

When you think about the Victorian era, you probably remember a whole host of ridiculously repressive social edicts such as the one about how women couldn't reveal their ankles without it being considered indecent exposure. True, if nothing else, showing an ankle in public was considered scandalous. For sure, Victorians never had the best reputation when it came to things like fun joy and spontaneity.

Come to think of it if the Victorians ever did consider the urge to indulge in the act of propagating the species they would first have had to peel off so many layers of clothing that many would have thought it almost wasn't worth the hassle.

My sympathies go out to the inhibited persons of that era, where you couldn’t make reference bodily functions. You couldn't show affection in public. Divorce was taboo. Looking pregnant or even using the word pregnant was off limits. So when a person was with child the polite reference for her condition was: “In the family way.”

It is rumoured that the Victorians prudishly even went to the extent of covering table legs to avoid causing offence. My friend Malka’s grandmother, born during Queen Victoria's reign, always maintained that bulbous table legs were covered purely to protect them from being chipped or scratched. Was she right? Who knows! But I would prefer going with my own suspicions that there existed a heck of a lot of perverts who would fantasize at the mere mention legs, whether they belonged to a person or were simply an adjunct to hold up an inanimate piece of household furniture.

Which reminds me of the old grammar textbook phrase that always sent me into titters during English class: ‘The piano was sold to the lady with carved legs.’ The darn seentence constantly had me in trouble because I imagined a heck of lot of bow-legged old dames walking down the street on legs that resembled that of a piano. I suspect that legs of wooden tables and pianos were covered up for the same reason. Because they apparently resembled women’s legs - which in my opinion is insulting to say the least.

I learned that it had been decided in the UK that women were exhorted to cover their whole bodies in public. In addition necklines were raised to just below the chin, and hemlines dropped to below the ankle. Diagrams were released to clarify what length of skirt was suitable for what age. For instance, four year old girls could wear dresses to just below the knee – but girls of 16 must wear dresses to the arch of their foot.

So it beggars belief that not t long ago that a picture of a bare ankle could have been referred to ‘pornographic’. Just imagine the sight of a naked ankle would induce a heck of a lot of monocle-popping. The same could be said of the Yankee-Doodle land where many of the old shibboleths had managed to squeeze into the puritan culture.

It showed results, for while visiting America one year, Winston Churchill attended a buffet luncheon at which cold fried chicken was among the dishes served. Churchill, delighted, returned for a second helping. "May I have some breast?" he politely asked.

"Mr. Churchill," his hostess replied, "in this country we ask for white meat or dark meat." Churchill apologized profusely and, the following morning, sent the woman a magnificent orchid with an accompanying note. "I would be most obliged," it read, "if you would pin this on your white meat."

The popularity of cycling in the 1890s led to it being more socially acceptable for women to show their ankles, at least while on a bike. Whenever I address audiences about the restrictions faced by our many times great grandmothers, listeners invariably find the stories amusing.

Who knows? Maybe it was a chicken and the egg situation. Did women cover up their ankles because men found them sexy, or did men find ankles sexy because women always kept them covered? We may never know.

At the other end of the scale are obscene representations, which are considered to be not socially acceptable. In a legal sense, obscenity denotes criminality, and its cultural connotation is lower-class vulgarity. In the United States, obscene material can be prosecuted because of its nastiness, its demeaning ‘prurience,’ or its sheer inhumanness.

By contrast, pornography is deemed entirely legal. Sexual expression is free to arouse, but only within limits, and those limits, which are set by concepts of obscenity, erode only over time. "I can’t define obscenity but I know it when I see it," US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of the subject.

Because Stewart was virtually blind, his comment illustrates the difficulty of deciding what is obscene rather than pornographic. Stewart's remark is also as close as the American judicial system has come to a definitive statement on the issue.

Al Goldstein, the scabrous publisher whose ‘Screw’ magazine pushed hard-core pornography into the cultural mainstream without the usual apologies made by such publishers had this to say about the entire issue: "Eroticism, is what turns me on. Pornography is what turns you on."

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