''The beauty of a woman's arm . . .''

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Posted by HSG on May 12, 2005 at 22:29:12:

They met, and Lancelot kneeling uttered, "Queen,
Lady, my liege, in whom I have my joy,
Take, what I had not won except for you,
These jewels, and make me happy, making them
An armlet for the roundest arm on earth. . ."

-Tennyson, "Lancelot and Elaine" (ll. 1172-1179)

Because so few of us are versed in the aesthetics of pre-modern times, we are scarcely aware of just how much our society lost, when it renounced the timeless ideal of full-figured feminine beauty.

One of the saddest consequences of this change was the vulgariztion of our culture. Today, for media-thin female celebrities to evoke even the vaguest response from the public, they need to be revoltingly crude and obvious in their appearance--simply because they are so emaciated and androgynous, that they have no actual feminine charms with which to beguile the viewer. If anyone who was unfamiliar with a modern female celebrity saw her in ordinary life, he wouldn't give her a second glance--unless he were a doctor specializing in the treatment of eating disorders.

But prior to the 20th century, when luscious fullness was the natural ideal of feminine beauty, a goddess could captivate and inspire admiration in a thousand different ways.

One of the most notable aesthetic losses of modern times was the waning of the appreciation of soft, curvaceous, womanly arms.

In another time, arms were even more ardently fawned over than legs are, today. In the Tennyson poem quoted above, an enraptured Sir Lancelot could refer to his beloved as having "the roundest arm on earth," and she (and Tennyson's readers) would know that this constituted passionate praise, and that it was an expression of the most fervent appreciation of the arm in question.

Likewise, in The Mill on the Floss (1860), George Eliot could ask her readers:

Who has not felt the beauty of a woman's arm?--the unspeakable suggestions of tenderness that lie in the dimpled elbow, and all the varied gently-lessening curves, down to the delicate wrist, with its tiniest, almost imperceptible nicks in the firm softness.

and again, Eliot's readers would concur with these sentiments.

* * *

Fortunately, the wealth of sleeveless styles that retailers are marketing this summer indicates that the plus-size fashion industry has realized that full-figured femininity possesses a "beauty of its own"--despite what the out-of-touch, out-of-the-mainstream, straight-size media might claim. And in offering these sleeveless styles, the plus-size fashion industry is helping to revive the natural human appreciation for the lush female figure.

Simultaneously, (and don't think for a minute that these two movements are not related,) the fashion industry as a whole is rediscovering an appreciation for ornate jewellery and lavish accessories. Flowers in the hair, chandelier earrings, and thick beaded necklaces have all made a comeback. And now, we are even hearing a call for the return of more decorative makeup kits (as noted in this season's Elena Miro magazine).

Together, these developments constitute a thoroughgoing rejection of tedious, twentieth-century minimalism, and a renewal of the human delight in a more opulent aesthetic.

Now, with those two ideas in mind, let's make a case for the return of another timeless accessory, a style that is currently out of the mainstream (just as chandelier earrings were, only a few years ago), but one which could easily return to popularity. It is the same accessory that Tennyson's Lancelot encourages his beloved to fashion for herself, out of the knight's proferred jewellery:

The armlet.

Distinguished from a bracelet (which strictly covers the wrist area), the armlet is, as its name indicates, an ornament or band worn around the arm--usually the upper arm. This has led some people to refer to it as an "upper-arm bracelet," but this phrase is somewhat contradictory.

A true Classical style (although it is known to other cultures as well), the armlet can consist of a simple, single loop, as we see in this 19th-century advertisement for the art of fabric dyeing:

But more commonly, it consists of several loops, as seen in John William Godward's celebrated Ionian Dancing Girl (1906):

If the spiraling of the loops in the Godward painting gives you the idea of a snake, you are not the first. Armlets tipped with snake-heads and tails date back at least to Roman times--as we see in this 2nd-century BC example, in gold, from the Dallas Museum of Art:

Artists have frequently used the armlet to enhance the allure of their models, whether to create a feeling of calm opulence, as in the Godward painting, or, as in Franz von Stuck's Susanna Bathing of 1904 (a detail of which appears below), to symbolize the sssssinful temptation presented by the wearer:

Alas, we do not yet possess any examples of plus-size models wearing these timeless artefacts. However, here is an eye-catching publicity photo of straight-size Canadian actress Jewel Staite (no relation to the singer), which shows her wearing a lovely contemporary armlet:

The viewer immediately sees that, on a more curvaceous arm, this accessory would look even more attractive, and would embellish the wearer's opulent charms.

(Incidentally, the Godward-like setting and feminine styling of the above image would make it an ideal test photo for a plus-size model.)

* * *

Popular in every era up to, and including, the late-19th century, it is little wonder that this armlet fell out of favour once the andorgynous standard was put in place. The sight of a metal band clamping directly onto hard bone is not particularly attractive. But on an appealingly rounded arm, pressing gently against soft flesh, it is an adornment that befits a true goddess.

And now that goddesses have returned to the modern world, it would be wonderful to see the return of this attractive ornament, as well.

Barbara Brickner in the current Catherines flyer (in one of the loveliest images that this company has yet produced):

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