The Age of Bosoms

LI finished watching Wojciech Has’ The Sargasso Manuscript last night. We had to watch it over two days – the movie, which came out in 1965, is a series of nested stories, framed by one master story recounting how Captain Alfonso van Worden traveled through Andalusia to Madrid. On the way, he was seduced by ghosts/genii/women/infidels at an abandoned inn. The seduction goes so far that van Worden semi-agrees to abjure Jesus Christ and follow the Prophet.

Interestingly, if you go to the Web and read about this movie, you’ll find a blur of factoids. Was it made in 1965, 1964 or 1966? Was it set in the 18th century or the 17th? Those who watch the movie more carefully and obsessively than I have discover strange loops in the film. In the Penguin translation of the book by Jan Potocki, it is reported that Potocki “is said to have fashioned a silver bullet himself out of the knob of his teapot (or the handle of a sugar-bowl bequeathed to him by his mother): he had it blessed by the chaplain of the castle, and then used it to blow out his brains in his library (or his bedroom), having written his own epitaph (or, according to other sources, drawn a caricature of himself).” Potocki and his book and the film seem to generate different stories of the same event by onlookers.

Be that as it may, the film has another significance. It was in the early seventies that the historiography of the eighteenth century took a different view of the age of reason, discovering that it was actually the Age of Bosoms. This discovery was first made, I believe, by various horror movie directors working at Hammer Studios. Certainly by the time Roman Polanski made the Fearless Vampire Killers, historians had discovered that the one commonality held by the many, many women serving drinks at Ye Olde Inns across the steppes and moors of Europe was their daring décolletage. Of course, some in this school adhered to the Long Age of Bosoms theory – that the age of Bosoms extended from the mid seventeenth or even sixteenth century all the way up to about the time Lady Frankenstein met Dracula. However, all of these directors pale in comparison to Has. The Spain of the 18th century had its problems, as we all know: a declining empire, the imperial ambitions of France and Britain, the iron grip of the Catholic Church. All that to the side, it was definitely in advance of the rest of the civilized world in terms of see through blouses and plunging necklines. The latter, apparently, was a veritable science. Physics only caught up with the precision of the 18th century Spanish countess’ neckline in 1905.

LI – ever helpful to man and beast – has diligently searched for the roots of the Age of Bosoms. Is it the paintings of Boucher? Is it an attempt to sneak tits under the guise of historical accuracy past the watchful eye of the movie censor? Going back to the authoritative Madeleine Delpierre’s Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century, it appears to have been an effect of the whaleboned bodice, a devilish contrivance that raised the bust and narrowed the waist and made it very very uncomfortable to bend. Twentieth century directors liked the effect of the bodice, but wanted it to look like a robe volante – which is how the Age of Bosoms was born, I hypothesize, circa 1963, in the mind of director Tony Richardson making Tom Jones.