Saturday, August 18, 2012

Immaculate Misconception

This post is a companion post to today's earlier piece, Bitchin' Velvet.

Fresh from the bath, smelling of sandalwood and the rich perfume of my shampoo - feeling frank relief and joy in being clean, in my clean house - now seems the perfect time to write this post.

For one reason or another, the concept of cleanliness, specifically personal hygiene and bathing, have been cropping up a bit recently.  As I've mused about costume (see BV link above), I've also been thinking about bathing - its history, its place in our culture over time, its myths above all, and its biological necessity.

As we like to project on the denizens of the past certain attitudes, behaviors, and silly costumes (histfic has often been a vehicle for simple consumption porn, as much as anachronistic sexuality), we also like to make assumptions about how things "really" were, entirely apart from pretty taffeta.  One of the most popular areas of sneering, leering, and peering speculation is the subject of bathing.

Historical productions tend to fall at one extreme of the spectrum of immaculate-to-filthy.  Books and other entertainments striving for "gritty realism" tend to ladle grime over a character and ruin extras' teeth in the name of truth - because, everyone knows, human beings were all utterly disgusting until two generations ago.  That and, of course, there's a brand of "genuineness" we like to admire (from a safe, upwind distance) in a heroic character "all muck and muscle" ...

This profile always reminds me of my ex husband.
(Him, not her.)

Those works presenting fresh, daisy-like heroines or dashing, leather-scented but clean-as-the-outdoors leading men have a tendency to present history for its purty fantasies rather than as anything in-depth enough to really think about.

As is always the case, the truth lies somewhere beside the point of production design.  For one thing - there are more ways to clean oneself than full-immersion baptism, and one can effectively stay clean focusing on certain obvious areas.  For two, there is a lot of room in between the extremes - which people like to forget.

Like I could have used any other image ...

"Baby, can I wash your back?"
They even look like they're surrounded in suds

Even today, the idea of daily, soap-and-water, full body dunking in steaming hot water is not only culturally unrealistic in considerable swaths of our globe, but outright wasteful in more of it than actually eschews the practice.

Biologically speaking, we weren't designed with this sort of bodily function presumed nor built in.  The first thing most women, in particular, do after bathing is to moisturize.  Because ablutions strip all the oils from our skin.  Soap is a detergent, and detergents cut through oil, removing the natural emollients our skin would generate, left in an undisturbed state.  All that oil we were taught to "fight", the whole t-zone of women's faces which has supported generations, now, of industries in acne-fighting, blotting paper, miracle cleansers, powders and cosmetics, is part of the functioning of normal human skin.  That area of our faces, particularly in northern and colder climes, is most likely to be exposed and chapped by cold.  The oil it builds up *really* fights those things our bodies encountered for millennia before we civilized ourselves into a whole new crop of skin conditions.

Of course, I say all this in a state of chemically aromatic "cleanliness" - as properly defined by the culture I live in today.  I say it as a FAN of certain perfumes, of soaps, of moisturizers and shampoos.  I say it as a woman who offers, as one of the longest-standing little personal compliments between us, the praise of Mr. X, that he is "immaculate".

But even if we don't admit it, there's a secret corner in most of our hearts where we understand the fabled quote of Napoleon to Josephine - essentially, "I'm coming home - don't take a bath, lover."  That un-admitted part of us that recognizes a wordless bit of business from "Portrait of a Lady" where Nichole Kidman takes off her boot and sniffs it - or a certain moment from SNL's Superstar skits.


In Rome, not necessarily that place the popular imagination goes when it thinks about filthy history, bathing was accomplished not with detergents, but oils - and scrapers.  There's a great scene in the BBC's "I, Claudius" episode one, where Tiberius and his brother discuss the ultimate state of friendlessness - in terms of the dearth of someone to clean your back for you.  The social aspect of bathing is lost to us today, but makes for a pretty interesting study - and it was hardly lost, in those years they like to call "dark ages".

The modern inability to recognize as cleanliness any state not resulting from the application of Dial to every inch of the body is incredibly widespread, and remarkably silly.  It's not just in the murky (mucky) past human beings have used other methods of personal hygeine.  Take a look again at my Swabian with the topknot - not a drop of Prell to be had, and yet his hair GLEAMS even all these centuries later.

If you don't squick, and really look, that hair is really beautiful.  And all without aid of civilized methods of ablution we only invented with mass-marketing ...


Scheherazade said...

This is a great post. Of course the Monty Python reference had to go in there. I wasn't familiar with the pic higher up, with the two people lying down, so I kept wondering what was up with his neck. Probably a cord of some sort.

At any rate, they didn't call it Baths, England, for nothing. :)

DLM said...

The couple are Connor McLeod and his wife, from the original "Highlander" movie, 1985. :) Most of that is hair, but yes, I think he might hae had a thin leather cord as well.

Thank you so much for coming by and commenting!