Saturday, January 20, 2018

1990sFest: Day One—"Nose for news nets a piercing interview"

     I'm on vacation. As much as part of me wants to leave this space blank for the next week, to show that I can, enough people start their days here that I don't want to disappoint anybody.
    I don't know when I'll be able to vet comments and, alas, can't leave them unmonitored. Please be patient and I'll get them up as soon as possible. 
    This week marks my 22nd year as a columnist at the Sun-Times, and I thought I would reach back to the first couple years, to the foreign shore of the second half of the 1990s, and revisit some chestnuts from the day. I've tried to pick posts that hold their interest, such as this foray into kink.  Notice the rather prescient observation about Dennis Rodman. At the time he was considered a freak; now half the players in the NBA have body art very much like his.

     Some readers may doubt my motives in attending a lecture entitled "Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power." Honestly, I wasn't out for a thrill.
     I had a question in mind. I wanted to know something. I figured that Valerie Steele, a New York cultural historian speaking on that topic last week at the School of the Art Institute, just might be able to answer it.
     I hoped to have nose jewelry explained to me. I live in a neighborhood where, more and more, young people parade about with metallic ornaments dangling from their nostrils.
     Nasal decorations mystify and disturb me—not simply because I find them ugly. But because of my reaction. No matter how many times I've seen them, my brain still goes through the same three-step cognition process: 1) Hey, that girl has a booger hanging out of her nose; 2) No, wait, it's metallic; c) Oh, it's a nose bauble.
     I worry this is a sign of old age—that, at 35, my mind has seized up, and is no longer nimble enough to accept such an innocuous change. Why should a gold sphere worn at the nostril be viewed as any less attractive than one worn in the ear lobe? They're big in India. Why can't I accustom myself to what has to be, at least for some, a fetching fashion?
     Steele didn't say much about nose baubles. She focused instead on the spike heels, leather outfits and rubber unmentionables standard to the fetish underworld, showing how, via high fashion and icons such as Madonna, the marginal has quickly filtered into the mainstream.
Diana Rigg as Emma Peel
   "For the past 30 years, playful incorporation of fetishism into popular culture has been a growing trend," said Steele.
     She traced the bondage-at-Bloomingdales phenomenon to Diana Rigg's Emma Peel in the 1960s TV show "The Avengers." Mrs. Peel was "crucial" to the emergence of fetishism into pop culture, Dr. Steele said, showing how Peel's skintight cat suit was taken from an English bondage uniform. "The television producers thought the full-face mask was too kinky, so they lopped that off," Steele added.
     I imagine Steele's lecture 20 years from now will include a slide of Dennis Rodman, in full tattoo and regalia, along with an explanation of how Rodman was a pioneer of the body decoration that no self-respecting member of the class of '16 will be without. Rodman is an amazing figure, when you consider how unimaginable he would be in professional sport even 10 years ago. What today strikes us as weirdness might someday be seen as vision and guts.
     Steele showed a slide of a turn-of-the-century Viennese fetish shoe whose 11-inch heel was not meant for walking, but for . . . well, for something else. She explained how the important thing was not so much the shoe, itself, but the meaning given to the shoe.
     "A fetish is a story masquerading as an object," she said. "This shoe symbolizes a story, a fantasy."
     Steele didn't intend it, but I think her comment also explains the fantastic prices being paid for the flotsam and jetsam of Camelot at the Jackie Onassis auction in New York. Both are using an object to reach toward an unattainable fantasy.
     Afterward, I asked Steele if she saw a connection.
     "It's not a sexual fetish but it is a fetish," she said. "Clearly, the overvaluation and ritualization of objects that evoke the Kennedys. They touched these things. He sat on that chair. He used that golf club. It's like a relic of the saints."
     About 75 people attended the lecture, mostly students from Gillion Skellenger-Carrara's class, "The Art of 20th Century Dress." Among them was Rachel Parker, who sported six piercings in each ear, two nostril posts, two nostril rings, a chin ball, a tongue barbell, pierced nipples, two tattoos and a few ritual scarifications, plus long hair dyed a vibrant orange and green.
     Here, I thought, is the person to explain nose decoration to me, and indeed she was astoundingly candid, pulling down the front of her black sweater to show off the scarification on her left breast, which she administered herself with a razor.
     "I know I won't regret anything I've done," said Parker, 21. She said that while she started scarring herself at 14 as "a way to hurt myself, an escape," now she has been decorating her body for so long that it has become part of her identity. "It's not like I have a choice. This is the way I am."
     Ironically, Parker does not approve of nose festoonery, nor pierced belly buttons, nor any popular embrace of the adornments that set her apart. She sees it as an assault on her dignity by upstarts.
     "I find it annoying," she said. "It's a trend. Trends fade and go away, and I'll have a really big party when that happens. It can't go on much longer."
     I hope not. I walked away thinking how odd it is, that both of us -- this young girl with the pale blue eyes, pretty under all that metalwork, and myself, 35, unpierced, untattooed but plenty bewildered -- can't wait for society to proceed in exactly the same direction.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 28, 1996


  1. Thank you. I really enjoy reading stuff from the past. My buddy found a bounded book that contained an entire year of a long defunct newspaper from 1904. I beg to borrow it when ever possible to leaf through the pages and imagine the world described in the fragile yellow pages.

    1. Glad. To be honest, I enjoy glance back into the not-so-recent past. We change, slightly, every day, but only notice it over a decade or two. This place is part of the modern world, so I'll be in the loop.

    2. Do we get to guess where you are? It's obviously someplace that never gets snow, because that old Ford truck next to the plane only has rear wheel drive.

    3. Thackeray also was fond of glancing back and is great for nostalgia, sometimes ironic, sometimes weepy, but also for creating characters that would stand out in any era and could exist hundreds of years in the past as well as hundreds in the future. The confluence of the conservative and the radical depicted above is also of the ages, I believe, and very nicely drawn.


    4. Wonder what Rachel Parker looks like now almost 20 years later.

  2. An odd and unnerving coincidence: EGGD semi-shuts down the same day as the U.S. Government.

    Not too many benefits from getting old, but having been young before the fashion of body art took hold is one of them.


    1. I'm with you, Tom. Glad that road wasn't open when I passed through.

    2. How fortuitous that I have become one-half of an "old married couple" instead of young and single. It's now extremely unlikely that "body art" or "body jewelry" would ever end up being a "deal breaker". And how ironic that a liberal becomes more socially and culturally conservative in geezerhood. But I just cannot imagine kissing anyplace that contains a post, ring, ball, stud, or barbell. Not that I have to worry anytime soon.

      Two lines come readily to mind: Maurice Chevalier's nasal rendition of "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" in "Gigi"...and Seinfeld's Mrs. Costanza character whining that "George is turning his body into an amusement park."

      Sorry, Missy, but the "carny look" just ain't my cuppa java.

  3. I'm looking forward to these 1990s columns, which I've never read; this is a good one. I had to chuckle at the "old age creeping in, 35 years old" remark.


  4. Have you considered doing a follow-up interview with Rachel Parker? I'd be interested in knowing her present views on her body adornments and how she thinks they have affected her life, if at all.

  5. Diana Rigg, now in her eighties, appeared last Sunday in the first second-season episode of "Victoria." Still a fine actress, but somewhat painful for those of us who remember Emma Peel to watch. "Mais ou sont les neighes d'antan?"


  6. I hope you have a swell vacation -- I've never been to Gilligan's Island, myself, but it looks wonderful! ; ) Very thoughtful of you to keep your readers in mind even when switching bases from the leafy suburban paradise to the tropical one.

    "Why should a gold sphere worn at the nostril be viewed as any less attractive than one worn in the ear lobe?" Personally, I find both pointless and unappealing. But at least you don't need to blow your ear lobe, as with your nose. [Not that there's anything wrong with it - blowing ear lobes -- if that's your thing! ; )] That's what confounds me when I see nose rings, as I blow my nose multiple times every g-d day.

    "What today strikes us as weirdness might someday be seen as vision and guts." Ground-breaking weirdness doesn't qualify as vision to this stodgy observer, given that the result was simply weirdness becoming somewhat more commonplace. Harrumph!

    1. Well, Jakash, I guess this thing between us is going nowhere, due to my pierced ears. I should have listened to my mother, who thought they were barbaric and forbade them until I was "eighteen and living elsewhere."

    2. Say it ain't so, Co! Your mother was a wise woman, as you're no doubt aware. I guess I'll have to decide whether or not that's a "deal-breaker," as Grizz refers to, above. Regardless, I assumed things "between us" were already kaput when you didn't welcome me back to the EGD commenters' fold months ago, as Sandy and Nikki graciously did. ; )

    3. Actually, I question my mother's judgment, if not her intentions, on many matters (and it was mutual, I'm sure). But I know she would disapprove of my inadvertent slight!

    4. Hopefully our mutual admiration of our host's daily reflections (even when he cheats/recycles) can bridge any misunderstandings.

      Just kidding on that parenthetical, Mr Steinberg! Enjoy your well-deserved time off.

    5. Oh bother, I too have pierced ears, but probably even worse for you, a tattoo as well. Although, my tat is in a spot that isn't ever visible in public, so there's that I guess.

    6. Oh, Nikki, any longtime EGD-comment-nonsense aficionado is well aware that you've never been as "prissy" as Coey has been accused of, so your "body decorations," as our genial host put it in 1996, only intrigue, never disappoint!

      And no "slight" was inferred, Coey. Though I much appreciated the welcome from others, it's not like I blamed you for having moved on! Crushed, yes; slighted, never.

      (I realize that both these comments are too presumptuous for polite company, but hope that you'll both take them in the spirit in which they are intended, that NS is too enraptured by his mid-winter idyll to care, and that nobody else is visiting this thread anymore...)

    7. No one has ever accused me of being polite company. I find myself curious about where Nikki's tattoo is located. Shoulder blade? Lower back? A bit of mystery is intriguing. As for me, as I like to frequently change up even my jewelry options, I couldn't see my way to choosing any permanent marking. But that's just me: vive le difference!

    8. My tattoo is very low on my abdomen, still covered even if I'm wearing a bikini.

  7. Replies
    1. My sister and my daughter marched, in different locations. If anyone has not heard/read Natalie Portman's speech, I strongly recommend it.


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