It’s been a while since I’ve done a terminology post, and I’ve got a fun one today.
Remember how I posted two images of Madge Bellamy, one in full Edwardian curves, one in slim, flattened ’20s? Madge’s curvy Gibson Girl silhouette was achieved with corsetry and padding above and below.
Extremely voluptuous (if fake) figure were the desired look throughout the late 19th century and for the first decade of the 20th, and actresses like Madge often found such curves a useful attribute in advancing their career. As we can see from Madge, these curves weren’t always real.
It’s not that hard to fake curves in a dress, but what if you were a chorus girl, expected to show off your legs? Or an actress given a role that demanded a little more exposure?
Enter symmetricals. Symmetricals were knit tights that were padded to create full calves and thighs, instantly giving the effect of voluptuous curves from the waist down.
Symmetricals were primarily the provenance of actors, as they were the only ones likely to need them on a regular basis, but non-stage folk resorted to them for fancy dress balls, as this account of a society ball in New York in 1893 attests:
Some of them looked enviously at the fat calves of the flunkies. Some regarded their own with apprehension. They were padded outrageously, and everyone knew it, but as long as the ‘symmetricals’, as stage people call them, did not get out of place it did not matter.
Symmetricals could be bought, but those on the lower pay scales made their own by carefully sewing cotton wool into flesh coloured silk-cotton tights. The actress Gertrude Lawrence describes how, as a child, she helped her slim-legged chorus girl mother with the tedious task of creating the “much -desired and seductively rounded thighs”, and thus learned that “frequently a woman’s legs (and not her face) are her fortune.”
Lawrence, Gertrude, A Star Danced. London: W.H Allen and Co Ltd. 1945