Friday, March 16, 2007

The Passing of the Flounce

Among feminine gestures that have fallen into disuse is the flounce. As late as 1908 ladies--and others--still flounced out of rooms. It was a very usual method of betraying vexation. Then the practice gradually diminished, and the word disappeared from our literature.

It is true that chorus girls have from time to time used a similar gesture, flirting the skirts upward and outward as they make their exits. This involves using the hands. The real flounce never employed the hands, however. It was done with the hips, aided by the full skirts of the period. Another difference is that while the chorus girl makes the gesture to attract, the genuine flounce was always intended to repel, or at least to rebuke. It never prompted spectators to send notes suggesting a quiet little supper later.

No, not even the chorus girl can flounce today. An approximation can be seen in an occasinal costume play with an all-star cast. But there the best exponents of the art of flouncing are not the younger actresses.

We of today are hampered by two things--the meagreness of skirts and petticoats, and the comparative absence of hips. There are hips today, but whereas they have the bulk, they have not the contour necessary to the perfect flounce. And even old-fashioned hips can do nothing without the long, full skirts of yesterday. Present-day full skirts, sometimes advocated by costume designers, tend to distribute the gathers more or less equally at the waistline, whereas the proper skirt for flouncing should concentrate the gathers at the back, where the greater part of the movement occurs.

The flounce was not one of our most genial gestures, and few have been known to deplore its passing. It is a matter for historical interest, and not for regret.

Josie Turner, The New Yorker, July 23, 1927
I'm inclined to agree with Josie. The only people I ever see flouncing are drag queens, but they do it in a different style: hands on hips and a quick strut off-stage, hoping that their dress billows after them. The "drag flounce" is not meant to repel OR attract, but to be a campy play on the way that divas "leave in a huff."

It's interesting that I can PICTURE the flounce in my head, but I've never REALLY seen anyone do it. I imagine that women in '40s period musicals did it a lot, and I bet that I can find some quality flouncing in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" or "Kiss Me Kate."


Anonymous said...

"The word disappeared from our literature." Well, Josie, when did it come in?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word seems to be related to " Norw[egian]. flunsa to hurry, work briskly, Sw[edish]. dial. flunsa to fall with a splash," but the etymology is uncertain (I would have thought that flouncing was French, but that's just me).

The meaning Joise refers to seems to be meaning 1: "intr. To go with agitated, clumsy, or violent motion; to dash, flop, plunge, rush. Also with away, out, etc." Why? Because of the examples from, first, Thomas Carlyle's "Life of Frederick the Great": "Upon which My Lady flounces out in a huff" (1865), and Thomas Hardy, from "The Hand of Ethelberta": "Picotee flounced away from him in indignation" (1876).

But one of the earlier instances is my favorite, from an author named Foote in 1760: "One flower [of speech] flounced involuntarily from me that day." I like to flounce flowers of speech whenever I can, myself, preferably voluntarily.


Adam Thornton said...

What a beautiful pedigree the flounce has! I did an impromptu survey at the Guelph show on Friday, and most of the people I talked to (under the age of 22 or so) had never heard the word. The older crowd knew the word but couldn't really define it.

One thing everyone had in common, however, was confusion as to why I was so interested in the first place.