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Victorians Gone Wild: How A Buttoned-Up Society Learned To Let Loose

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When many people think of Victorians, they may think of the stereotype of a society bound by a strict set of rules, a sense of high morals, and interest in all kinds of reform—religious, political, social, and otherwise. While this was certainly true, it wasn’t all exacting etiquette and harsh standards in the last half of the 19th century. As the maxim goes, creativity loves constraints, and this was absolutely the case in Victorian society. In an era where personal respectability was of utmost importance in every aspect of life, from clothing to behavior to hobbies, people managed to loosen up, and found increasingly creative ways to skirt the unwritten rules that they were held to, from risqué trends to dubious medical treatments to costume balls to paranormal pursuits.

The Victorian morality that we often conjure came about due to a variety of factors, but an emphasis on three core values in particular came to characterize the era: sexual restraint, a “tough on crime” stance, and severe rules regarding social conduct. While activities like gambling, drinking, and prostitution weren’t exactly acceptable before, they were definitely common. However, during the Victorian era, they became the target of reformers. So, without these base pleasures, how exactly were Victorians supposed to have fun? By finding new pursuits that were not yet taboo, of course.

Wild Things

The Victorian era was a time of fads and crazes, some more fleeting than others. While you’d never see a British royal with a tattoo nowadays, Queen Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), once returned from traveling with a peculiar souvenir: a tattoo of a Jerusalem Cross. The king also encouraged his sons to get tattoos as well, and this started a trend that trickled down to men of the aristocracy. Of course, this was hardly the only bizarre fad that the aristocracy latched onto. There were tales of nipple piercings, often joined by a chain, especially for women, even though these piercings wouldn’t be visible under the clothing styles of the day.

You Fancy, Huh

Thanks to the Victorian emphasis on respectability and sexual restraint, fashion during that era was nothing short of extra. Women were (mostly) covered from head to toe, although showing shoulders or a bit of cleavage could be acceptable. Any fabric not used to cover the upper half would undoubtedly appear on the voluminous skirts and wide bustles worn on the bottom half. However, aristocratic Victorians found a way to let loose with their wardrobes—and behavior—at costume or “fancy dress” balls.

The costumes worn at these balls were extravagant in both conception and execution. A list of common themes could be made, but truthfully, nearly any idea under the sun was made into a costume for the balls, which took place not only in England, but also in the US and Canada. Historical costumes were hugely popular, with women dressing up as Marie Antoinette or Catherine the Great. People also fell for costumes with international influence—Greek or Roman styles, or harem pants on a woman for a costume with an “Eastern” flair. Either way, attendees to these fancy dress parties strove for accuracy, meaning that if a costume was unorthodox or much more revealing than the typical Victorian outfit, it would be okay, because it was in the name of “authenticity.”

If wearing something revealing wasn’t your bag and you just wanted to get weird, costumes that would embody abstract concepts were also popular. Whereas today if you were thinking “tennis,” you might grab a racket and a headband and call it a day, at a Victorian fancy dress ball, you might wrap an entire net around your skirt and use a piece of a racket as part of your hat. Thanks to the restrictive nature of Victorian society, a great creativity flourished when it came to leisure activities.

That’s Hysterical

The concept of “respectability” so important to Victorian society was externalized not only through dress and costume, but also through an interest in “health” that occasionally spawned some very bizarre and dubious fads. After all, this was an era when many people still thought that disease was caused by “bad air” instead of germs—although thankfully, this theory was on its way out. It was important to achieve a type of physical ideal, and so fitness centers popped up for the upper classes to spend their time in—of course, the working class got enough exercise actually working.

In terms of medical trends—well, basically everything became a medical trend at some point in the Victorian era. A form of electroshock therapy was used in the Victorian period for everything ranging from muscle pain to liver problems. Hydrotherapy, or the “water cure,” was also an exceedingly popular treatment. Doesn’t a warm bath sound nice? Well, in the Victorian era, icy cold water was often the miracle cure, and different techniques were used to introduce it to the patient in order to get the body to produce pus, which the cold water “cure” would then flush out.

Finally, probably the most infamous of these medical trends had to do with the treatment of “hysterical” women. It was believed that A) many health problems (anxiety, depression, headaches) were hysteria; that B) said hysteria stemmed from the uterus (the two words have the same Latin root); and that C) the only way to cure it was for doctors to manually massage the area. I’ll spare you the details, but I think you can imagine what this looked like, and it was a surprising byproduct of a sexually repressive society.

Spiritualized

It might be expected that the church would be the backbone of such a highly moralistic society, and while that is true to a certain extent, Victorian society was increasingly secular. And so, of all the ways in which members of Victorian society managed to skirt the rules of propriety and respectability, one that was particularly pervasive was the craze for anything macabre and paranormal—in particular, what became known as spiritualism.

Spiritualism is the belief that the spirits of the dead exist and are able to communicate with the living through mediums, who are either naturally gifted at contacting those in the afterlife, or who have studied and trained to gain that skill. This led to a rise in the popularity of séances, which became totally normal social events during the era, like a getting-together for tea with the added value of talking to ghosts.

Many mediums rose to fame and prominence, claiming to be able to enter trances and talk to the dead—the spectacles that they would put on were just as much entertainment as they were a form of spiritual activity. Just as many other strange trends of the time gave the Victorians license to act out, so did these spiritualist pursuits. The mediums could act however they wanted in their so-called trances, and the refined women who witnessed them could scream or startle or openly weep in reaction to the bizarre display.

We Modern Victorians

While we might now view many of the trends that were popular during the Victorian era as bizarre or anomalous, there are modern parallels. The ardor with which fancy dress balls were prepared for is mirrored in the way that even adults will go all out for Halloween, and nowadays the interest in bizarre medical “treatments” skews more towards crystals, charcoal, and apple cider vinegar than it does hydrotherapy, but it still exists. Suppressed by the hierarchies of everyday life, people in the Victorian era, like us, found creative outlets that let them overturn the rigid social codes of conduct to which they were normally held.

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History

Teen Movies And Female Friendship

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Teen movies have come a long way from early examples like Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story. There were the slasher films of the late 70s and early 80s, movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Around the same time, a young filmmaker by the name of John Hughes began making movies about teens that blended drama, comedy, and romance. As nuanced as his portraits of teen life were in films like Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, their source of conflict, and thus the major focus, was always the main character’s romantic relationships.

But in 1988, a sharp-witted movie titled Heathers came along and turned all that on its head. Rather than a soft-focus, soft-hearted take on the teen experience like The Breakfast Club, it wrapped up some of the grittier realities of teen life in a glossy (and hilarious) package—including toxic relationships, class awareness, familial indifference, cliques, extreme emotional highs and lows, and the unfortunate truth that sometimes your best friends are also your worst enemies. Heathers and its emphasis on cliques and friendship went on to have a major influence on two of the most popular teen films that followed it into the 90s and 2000s: Clueless and Mean Girls.

Heathers was a revisionist film, deconstructing and skewering the conventions of teen films that had come before—especially the aforementioned John Hughes-helmed entries into the genre. It’s an important movie for the way it looks at cliques and how popularity affects females specifically, and their friendships.

The focuses of the film are the four most popular girls at Westerburg High School: three Heathers and one Veronica, our protagonist, played by a young Winona Ryder. Veronica hates her friends, particularly Heather Chandler, who is the only one who seems to match her intellectually. Veronica’s boyfriend J.D. (portrayed by Christian Slater) steers Veronica into poisoning Heather Chandler and making it look like a suicide, which sets off a boost in popularity of teen suicide as an issue and practice, as well as more murders perpetrated largely by J.D.

After her involvement in Heather Chandler’s death, Veronica finds it increasingly difficult to interact with and relate to the two remaining Heathers, acknowledging that despite being her worst enemy, Heather Chandler was also her best friend. Her friends negotiate their friendship and popularity in different ways after the death as well, with Heather McNamara becoming more and more lost while Heather Duke adopts some of the more unsavory character traits of the deceased Heather Chandler.

In the 90s, the teen genre built from films like Heathers and grew into a more postmodern take on the form, with more movies telling stories centered on female friendship. This was best exemplified in Clueless, but was also apparent in films like Jawbreaker (the most obvious Heathers imitator), horror entries like The Craft, and teen-centric period films like Mona Lisa Smile and All I Wanna Do. The influence of both Heathers and Clueless reached into the 21st century with Mean Girls—coincidentally (or not) directed by Mark Waters, brother to the writer of Heathers, Daniel Waters.

At a time when teens are struggling to establish a sense of identity, social hierarchies become extremely important to them: find a place within the social hierarchy, and identity is guaranteed. This is where cliques come in. They’re important because they’re supposed to work together like puzzle pieces, fulfilling different roles within the social structure of the high school.

In Heathers, Clueless, and Mean Girls, we are introduced to the trope of the “anthropology shot,” which is a quick way for the audience to understand the cliques or social groups that populate the film’s world. This type of shot typically occurs in the high school cafeteria, the only place where all the different groups would be together at once. In Heathers, we see it when Heather Chandler conducts the lunchtime poll in the cafeteria and Veronica encourages her not to just ask the same people she normally talks to.

In “anthropology shots” like this, plot devices like the lunchtime poll provide an opportunity for our characters to interact with people in different social groups without transgressing the boundaries between the groups. The lunchtime poll is briefly referenced in Mean Girls, and the main character, Cady Herron, is also given a “cheat sheet” by her friends Janis and Damian as a way for her to navigate the high school, complete with a map of where every clique sits in the cafeteria.

Aside from the clear divisions of space, what we notice in these films is the difference in dress between social groups, which further serves to reinforce the social structure. In Clueless, this plays out as Cher, Dionne, and Tai walk in the open air campus between classes, pointing out the students in glasses and plaid who produce the school’s TV station, the “Persian mafia,” in leather jackets and on cell phones, and the school’s popular boys, who either dress in sportswear or button-up shirts with cardigans.

These types of rules regarding dress within a social group are also an important part of Mean Girls. When she is inducted into “the Plastics” (the popular girls), Cady is given a list of the rules—everyone must wear pink on Wednesdays, no wearing a tank top two days in a row, jeans and track pants are only worn on Friday, and so on—all of which have to do with the way the group dresses. Regina George, as the leader of the group, is clearly the creator of these rules, which she acknowledges later in the film when she is forced to leave the Plastics table for wearing sweatpants. These rules are meant to uphold a social structure where Regina serves as leader. As such, her breaking the rules is damaging to that structure, the same as if anyone else in the clique had done it.

Similar rules, unspoken and otherwise, exist in Heathers, mostly in its unique use of color, which begins in the very first scene. Each of the four members of the core clique has their own signature color—the leader, Heather Chandler, wears fiery red; Heather Duke, her underling, wears green, the color of envy; and Heather McNamara, the weakest of the four, wears yellow, as in “yellow-bellied.” Their fourth, the miserable Veronica Sawyer, wears blue. When Heather Chandler dies, Heather Duke takes her place, inheriting Chandler’s signature red scrunchie and shedding her green clothing. These rules tie the clique together, but at the end of the film, Veronica, finally sick enough of the group to blow it up (not literally, as her boyfriend intended), snatches the scrunchie and pursues friendship with other girls, specifically ones not named Heather.

These films exist in “Girl World,” a phrase borrowed from Mean Girls. It’s a time between childhood and adulthood, where teen girls grip tightly onto what power they have in a world that affords them relatively little. They form connections with each other and, in those connections, work through the stereotypical trappings of femininity—fashion, shopping, gossip, and makeovers among them.

While this period allows females to experiment with power and leadership, this is not to say it confronts or offers a solution to the problems that they face. A problematic aspect of many of these films is the representation of female power through a depiction of female friendship that is inherently competitive and cruel. While this is touched upon very lightly in Clueless through Tai’s turn against Cher and the character of Amber, it is much more present in Heathersand Mean Girls.

However, this dark element also challenges a potentially harmful idealization of female friendship. Idealization can lead to an overly sentimental portrayal of friendship that discounts the autonomy of the female characters. The films included here manage to portray feminine relatedness and connection unsentimentally, allowing the characters to feel and express real emotions like anger, jealousy, distress, and aggressiveness.

The cycle of films examined here all attempted to parody the conventions of the teen film genre, but through their similarities and the creation of their own set of tropes (the anthropology shot, the makeover montage, etc.) they became examples of a new type within the genre to be parodied themselves. In each film, the difficulty of being a teenager is complicated by close female friendships, social structures, and issues of class and status.

While films like Heathers and Mean Girls are more interested in heavily satirizing the dark side of female friendship and power as it occurs in a high school setting, their depiction of the characters’ performances of identity is as nuanced as the subtler parody found in Clueless. While they have much in common, each film retains a unique take on what it means to be a teenage girl and the crucial role that friendship plays in the lives of young women.

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The Dangers Of Werther Fever

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I Got Chills, They’re Multiplying

In 1774, strange occurrences began popping up throughout Germany. First, young men began dressing, en masse, in a very peculiar manner. Like a uniform, thousands of youths started to sport yellow trousers, a matching waistcoat, and a blue jacket, complete with dark boots. But then the eerie but relatively harmless phenomena took a disturbing turn: a rash of suicides followed, with each of the victims sporting this very same uniform—and all holding the same pistol. Germany, it turned out, was dealing with some of the very first instances of copycat suicide. But what was driving these young, finely dressed men to despair?


A book, that’s what. In the ages before boybands, self-made Youtube stars, and Youtube shows about making boybands, people in the 18th century mostly had to occupy themselves with, ugh, books. So when you just had to get your angst on? Books. When you needed to pour all your horny teenage desires into a fictional version of yourself? Still books. And in 1774, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (say that three times fast) became an overnight sensation when he published history’s horniest, angstiest book featuring people who still wore waistcoats: The Sorrows of Young Werther. You see, before there was Bieber Fever, there was Werther Fever.

Line engraving depicting a scene from The Sorrows of Young Werther.

In the book, the titular Werther is a sensitive artiste who wears yellow trousers and falls hopelessly in love with the virtuous, beautiful Charlotte. Alas, Lotte is engaged to another man named Albert, so instead, young Werther decides to strike up a platonic relationship with her as a consolation prize. That’s right, your boy just friend-zoned the heck out of himself. It doesn’t end well: Charlotte eventually marries Albert, and Werther, convinced someone has to be eliminated from his totally unnecessary love triangle, kills himself with a pistol. Thus, the copycat suicide was born.

Good Grief?

Young men of the period resonated with Werther’s alienation from society, his outpouring emotions, and his individualism; Goethe once said, “It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.” Goethe became the toast of the town, Napoleon Bonaparte himself was a Werther fan, and a deluge of Werther-related prints, porcelain, and perfume were manufactured to cash in on the fever. But as the copycat suicides hint at, there was a dark underbelly to the mania: young men also resonated with Werther’s final, dramatic act of violence. The Sorrows of Young Werther is an elegy for the bittersweet follies of youth, but the cultural response to the novel belies an 18th-century masculine disenfranchisement that has echoes in today’s cultural climate.

Werther Fever
Five cups with scenes from The Sorrows of Young Werther, made by Konigliche Porzellanmanufaktur, Berlin, 1847-1849.

But the novel and its tragic fallout also bring up another contemporary, related debate: how much does life imitate art? To put it in 21st-century terms: do video games incite violence? Do slasher flicks make serial killers? Did Werther wreck these men? Art is influential; when we read or watch it, we feel deeply, and maybe we get ideas. Famed wit Oscar Wilde made the case that, “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life. A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form.” In this view, Werther made these young men and then unleashed their tragic deaths onto the world, like a doomed assembly line of little real-life Werthers. Thanks a lot, bud.

But however darkly romantic this image is, it seems more likely that these men were looking for an outlet for existing grievances, something to give their woes shape. Art can’t be created out of nothing—and, more importantly, fiction can’t fully encompass us: we are living, breathing, growing, and changing. When I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time, I wanted to be Holden Caulfield. Now? You couldn’t pay me to date him. We change, we grow beyond the books we read and the films we watch; they shape us but they do not make us. In following Werther’s plot right up until his end, the youths robbed themselves of the privilege to go past him. No matter how many times you re-read The Sorrows of Young Werther, he always ends up dead. These boys shared the same fate as Werther, but they once had other options.

Let The Flame Wars Begin

In fact, in a truly impressive case of 18th-century fanfiction, Friedrich Nicolai decided to exercise these options. Not super into Goethe’s original climax, Nicolai totally rewrote The Sorrows of Young Werther as a satirical text with a happy ending. He called it The Joys of Young Werther, naturally, and in it Werther is tricked into avoiding his suicide, eventually gets the girl, and overcomes his youthful disenfranchisement to reintegrate into society. Does Nicolai’s work completely override the subversive elements of Goethe’s novel? Oh, for sure. But it also imagines a world outside the text, and proves that literature need not be taken as gospel, especially for our lives.

Portrait of Friedrich Nicolai

If you need any more proof that The Sorrows of Young Werther is more than just a revered handbook for 18th-century nice guys, get a load of this: Goethe was pissed off at Nicolai for the liberties he took with Werther, and clapped back with the poem “Nicolai on Werther’s Grave.” In it, a simple passerby (a thinly veiled Nicolai) ends up defecating on Werther’s grave. Wait, what? That’s right, Goethe rails against Nicolai for disrespecting his novel… by gifting everyone with the image of someone plopping a nice, thick number two on Werther’s final resting place. The jury’s still out on how much dignity that actually gave back to the novel. But what I’m really trying to illustrate for you here—besides the image of a MAN POOPING ON A GRAVE—is that we have lives beyond texts, and even these texts can have lives beyond themselves.

In short, fiction is powerful and moving, but its endings need not be our ends. The Sorrows of Young Werther itself went on to influence the burgeoning Romantic movement of the 19th century; Goethe went on to write more novels (though he continued his feud with Nicolai until his death); and many years later, kindred characters like Holden Caulfield and Madame Bovary were created. Tragically, the victims of Germany’s 18th-century copycat suicides never found out an essential truth: we can read other books, and we can become other people.

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Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Father Of Food Writing

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“Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.”—Brillat-Savarin.

After eating food, the next greatest pleasure is certainly talking about it. People love talking about the last fantastic meal they ate or what makes their favorite recipe special, and with anything people love talking about, writing and reading about it comes next.

Before Anthony Bourdain quit the kitchen and put pen to paper, writing a number of celebrated books; before Lucky Peach magazine; before Ruth Reichl, Sam Sifton, Samin Nosrat, and the like, there was Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Without this legendary 18th century gastronome, we might not have Proust’s madeleine moment, the beautiful writing that is characteristic of modern cookbooks, or even the Food Network—after all, as much fun as it can be to watch on mute, each show has a team of writers behind it. Not to mention that without Brillat-Savarin, we also wouldn’t have the unbelievably creamy and deliciously rich cheese named for him. Through his writing, Brillat-Savarin transformed the way food was thought about, talked about, and the role it played in people’s lives. Like it or hate it, he’s undeniably one of the original gourmands, and thus the forefather of similar 20th century stereotypes like the gourmet or the “foodie”—and that’s not even mentioning his role in the French Revolution, his interest in low-carb diets, or the bizarre declaration of love for his cousin that appeared in one of his book dedications.

Father of Food WritingGetty Images

Brillat-Savarin was born to a family of lawyers in France in 1755, and staying with the family tradition, he studied law and practiced as a lawyer in the years before the French Revolution. It was certainly an interesting time to be a well-off lawyer in France, what with all the guillotine use going around. But when the Revolution broke out, he managed to stay in France at least for a while, and was sent to be a deputy in the new National Constituent Assembly. Later, while serving as the mayor of Belley, his hometown, he came under fire and escaped to Switzerland. After years in Holland and the US, he was finally able to return to France in 1797. It was then he was appointed magistrate in the Court of Cassation, a position he’d keep for the rest of his life.

That position didn’t stop him from writing or pursuing his true passion: food—or more to the point, eating. While he had previously had several pieces published on law and political economy (and one erotic short story), he published the work he became best known for just two months before his death. Titled Physiologie du gout, or The Physiology of Taste, it has never gone out of print since its initial publication in 1825. The book is a landmark text in the field of gastronomy, which is essentially the analysis of the connection between food and culture. According to Brillat-Savarin himself, “Gastronomy is the knowledge and understanding of all that relates to man as he eats. Its purpose is to ensure the conservation of men, using the best food possible.” Well, when you put it that way, it’s essential to the survival of the species!

Father of Food WritingGetty Images

Hyperbole aside, The Physiology of Taste is one of the urtexts of French cuisine, that (in)famous term that evokes rich sauces, butter, foie gras, wine from Bordeaux, escargots, cheeses, duck, truffles, and any other ingredient that could cause instantaneous heart attack or gout. The book illustrates the role that not only food, but the act of cooking, serving, and eating—the ritual of it all—plays in French culture. Its chapter names range from “Analyses of the Sensation of Taste” to “Financial Influence of the Turkey” to “Are Women Gourmands?” (survey says yes). The exhaustive and holistic nature of the work—it includes meditations on the relationship of food and digestion, rest, sleep, dreams, health, different types of sickness, and death—only serves to illustrate just how important Brillat-Savarin thought the role of eating in everyday life was. It is at once a glossary of gastronomic terms, a collection of recipes and techniques, a diet book (Brillat-Savarin thought that sugar and white flour caused obesity), a memoir, and philosophical reflection.

From the outside, dedicating so many words and so much effort to what could be seen as a frivolous pursuit might seem insensitive, especially considering its proximity to the poverty that both precipitated and followed the French Revolution. But food has always been such an important part of French culture, and it had its role on both sides of the Revolution—the infamous “Let them eat cake” of Marie Antoinette to the part that poor harvests and deregulation of the grain industry (read: hunger) played in fomenting animosity toward the aristocracy. Whereas its close counterparts in other languages may have negative connotations (think of the word gluttony in English), the French word gourmand signifies no guilt. The Physiology of Taste is snobby, yes, and where it attempts class consciousness, it fails. But, to his credit, Brillat-Savarin was unapologetic about his passions and did not begrudge any human anywhere the same satisfaction: “The pleasure of the table belongs to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries, and to all areas.”

Father of Food Writing

While he certainly wasn’t the only person during that era to put words to paper when it came to the subject of food, with just one major work, Brillat-Savarin opened the doors for scores of food writers before food writing was even a thing. His eclectic mix of recipes, explanation of techniques, reflections on just why some things aren’t delicious and some things are, and personal narrative, are reflected in many types of modern food writing. From the Food section in your local newspaper (the fancy and casual restaurant reviews balanced with recipes and essays); to best-selling cookbooks that you can also sit down and read like Sami Tamimi and Yottam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem and Anthony Bourdain’s Appetites, and even to ultra-popular blogs like The Pioneer Woman. While some of those examples are more gourmand than others, they all emphasize how highly personal the subject of food can be—and just how much fun it can be to talk about it—just as Brillat-Savarin once did.

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