20th Century

Terminology: What are ‘symmetricals’?

It’s been a while since I’ve done a terminology post, and I’ve got a fun one today.

Chorus girls, 1923

Chorus girls, 1923, showing the last vestiges of the Edwardian figure

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.”

Actress Miss Kitty Lord (who may or may not be wearing symmetricals) shows off her seductively rounded thighs

Actress Miss Kitty Lord (who may or may not be wearing symmetricals) shows off her seductively rounded thighs.  Via the Museum of London

Sources:

Lawrence, Gertrude, A Star Danced.  London: W.H Allen and Co Ltd.  1945

22 Comments

  1. Daniel says

    Oh, fascinating! I’ve heard that in the eighteenth century, men wore bran-filled false calves and padding to enhance their legs if they didn’t look to advantage in stockings and knee breeches, and that this was still used by footmen in the 19th century. Can’t remember where I read it now though….

    • Elise says

      Exactly! And the first thing I thought of was drag queens padding in order to give womanly curves.

      I didn’t know that footmen were padding their calves in the 19th century! Wow!

  2. Do they have “anti”symmetricals! 😀 I would love to go from my current Edwardian curvy look, to the 20’s waif that seems to be in style these days! haha!

  3. How interesting! I knew that ladies padded out their hips and busts, but I’d never have expected the padded legs! I’ll bet it took quite a bit of skill to add padding in such a way that your legs didn’t look lumpy 😛

  4. This is fascinating. I knew padding was used a lot, so for example ladies would get a corset sized for their real waist and then pad the top and bottom with cotton wool, but I didn’t know they used padded tights as well.

    Similarly, I knew gentlemen in the 18th century padded their stockings so their calves would look bigger, but I had no idea people were still doing that in 1893. These terminology posts are so educational!

  5. Ha! This is fantastic. Who would’ve thought? It does evoke one of my favorite insults though, delivered in print by Thomas De Quincey about his old pal William Wordsworth:

    “…the Wordsworthian legs were certainly not ornamental; and it was really a pity, for as I agreed with a lady in thinking, that he had not another pair for evening dress parties — when no boots lend their friendly aid to masque our imperfections from the eyes of female rigorists…”

  6. Lynne says

    Fascinating! I wonder when the concern with ‘correct’ body image really started? Can we blame the Greeks, with their obsession with the bodies of athletes? Hard to fake it, in a teeny swathing of cloth. The earliest I can get to, out of my head, is Shakespeare, and poor Malvolio, down-gyved – presumably because his scrawny calves were not curvy enough to hold up the ties.

  7. missjoidevivre says

    So next time I feel unhappy about my own very very “seductively either thighs” I can stick my nose in the air and remind myself that “they’re Edwardian period authentic”? Neat!

  8. missjoidevivre says

    “Rounded”. Not “either”. Stupid autocorrect.

  9. Demented Seamstress says

    Interesting, where did the name come from? Skinny thighs aren’t asymmetrical any more than full ones are.

  10. Fascinating! Thanks for the post. I’ve wondered how the flattened, flapper look was achieved, but it never occurred to me that such lengths were gone to on the other end of the spectrum.

  11. LadyD says

    I was soo born in the wrong era. I would have knocked miss kitty lord into a cocked hat with my figure. lol! I love 20’s style but it doesn’t suit me…so I go for the transition fashions more. Dresses with the drop waist but more frufru and ruffles on the skirt rather than stricght up and down.

    btw. love her shoes just the right heel hight for me.

  12. Shannon says

    Padded calves! I would have never guessed. For those really concerned about chicken legs. I don’t understand how all of these folks weren’t sweating profusely all the time.

  13. So what was the Edwardian position on cankles?

    (I’m actually kind of excited about the fact that had I been born 100 years earlier I would have had pins to pine over!)

    • Cankles? Hmmmm…there was definitely a bit of an emphasis on neatly turned ankles and small feet, so really, you were supposed to look like one of those Christmas ornaments that is pointy at top and bottom and really full in the middle.

Comments are closed.