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But These Sleeves

I was in search of a primer on how women dressed in the 1940’s, and turned, as you might expect, to a Canadian miniseries about a lesbian, an on-the-run Evangelical street preacher turned jazz singer, a society girl who signs on as a pistol-wielding spy, and a woman whose scalp had been torn from her head, all working side by side in a WWII munitions factory. It’s called Bomb Girls and I pressed “Add to List” only after bitter disappointment with a similar BBC offering, Land Girls.

Land Girls offers minus-one lesbian and plus-one Big Fat Comic Relief character, so designated by his squashy hat and alcoholism.  I lasted precisely ninety minutes with it because I became quickly resentful over how my countrymen were represented: In two episodes, American characters impregnated a seventeen-year-old, beat a farm boy, punched a woman, stole a baby, and denied black soldiers entrance to three different establishments.  If I want a reason to feel ashamed of my country, I don’t need the help of the BBC. I will watch Dance Moms.

The women of Bomb Girls possessed better clothes than the tillers of Land Girls, anyway, which is the most vital aspect of any historical production. Everyone wears feathery fascinators and petticoats and flared tweed outerwear, and I don’t think humanity has turned itself out more smartly, before or since, than in the 1940’s. This is probably how Hitler got away with what he did; everything was conducted by people in terrific boots and truly amazing hats, and, blinded by birdcage netting and sweetheart necklines, we turned a blind eye to basic humanity.  (This also might explain the medieval era:  “Look at the sleeves on this dress!” “Yes, but… that man over there is on the rack while being disemboweled for walking through the King’s hunting grounds.” “BUT THESE SLEEVES.”  “I see your point.”)

The complete disassociation between 40’s fashion and the pajama pants we throw on as we slouch to our personal armored SUV’s is one of the most compelling aspects of Bomb Girls—the constant reminder that people dressed like this, with gloves to their armpits, to ride a streetcar, all the time. Given the way we chose to attire ourselves from the 70’s right up through our current Era of Constant Offense, I cannot imagine anyone a hundred years in the future gazing upon the television of my childhood and middle age, breathing, “Look at those neon shorts. Why don’t people still dress like that?”

It’s easy enough to look the part. It’s quite another to carry off authentic period dialogue. One slip and the curtain, set, and props all come crashing down, as I discovered to my dismay when I once came upon the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” in the middle of a novel set in Regency England. Period-speak tends to sound false and alien, even amidst a film produced in the era, so when a white 40something MFA from Vancouver is writing a speech for a black gold-star mother as he clutches the Frappuccino he ordered on his iPad, one wearily acquires notion that someone’s inhaled a bit too much Casablanca. “Dames” are “doing their bit” who “outta clean your clock,” and sometimes become “patriotutes,” which I thought was such a blatantly made-up modern mash-word that I broke down and looked it up.

No. It existed, in the flesh and in the dictionary. According to Bomb Girls and the Internet, a “partiotute” was a woman who exchanged sexual favors with service members for ration coupons, silk stockings, meaty meals, and the like, and I am impressed. Able-bodied men were difficult to come by in North America in this era, so the historical revelation that a woman could finagle a dance partner who also forked over a runless pair of backseams deserves a series of its own.

The historical lessons of Bomb Girls are legion. As an American, it was interesting to discover a Canadian perspective on World War II—specifically, that there actually was one.  Part of my degree is in history; I’ve read extensively on the war, and still tended to relegate the Canadian contribution as mostly not getting in our way once the tanks started rolling. But now, thanks to Bomb Girls, I know that lesbian factory workers wore excellent kid gloves and also sometimes dabbled in women’s boxing after serving prison sentences for crimes they did not commit.

Because it was produced, in the cheerful way Canada has, of minding its own business and also not much objecting when we meddle in its, Bomb Girls projects Maple Nation as operating very much as a large-bordered, tundra-filled extension of England. The Canadian flag at this time was dominated by the Union Jack, and there it is during bond drive scenes, all red-white-and-blue with nary a red leaf in sight.  The Royal Family is mentioned with great reverence. Pilots speak extensively of the RAF. We are clearly decades away from an identity shaped by producing ice dancers and Michael Buble.

But other than this, since it’s set in the large border-adjacent city of Toronto, Bomb Girls has a distinct American tinge, so much so that I often forgot it doesn’t take place in the U.S. Entire episodes floated past as I admired the rolled hair and the jitterbugging, and then there’d be the likes of a scene in which there was a great deal of excitement over the Stanley Cup, at which point I was startled beyond comprehension:  “Why are they talking about hockey? Who was talking about hockey in the middle of World War II?  Oh—Canada.”

One common thread in Bomb Girls and what I forced myself to ingest of Land Girls was a curious showcasing of Italian distrust.  There is a great deal of internment camps this and “Eye-Tie” that, and while a Japanese character makes a Very Special Japanese Character cameo in an episode of Bomb Girls, your basic identity-battling German is nowhere to be found.

I find this odd, given that Germany is generally considered the chief instigator of the entire mess. Maybe this is because I was raised in Cincinnati, which was largely German-settled, and if an internal coup were really afoot we’d have been disappointed by the Zincinnati Hasenpfeffers in the first round of the AFC playoffs all these years. But give a Bomb Girls factory worker an Italian newspaper and the occasional plate of spaghetti (literally, the "Mangia!”-yelling Italian family on Bomb Girls ate spaghetti) and the factory matron is going to raise her eyebrows and plant a few fascist pamphlets.

However, for a woman who survived the hair-poofing of the 90s only to become a thirtysomething now desperate to roll her bangs in the other direction to mimic her grandmother’s style, Bomb Girls is more than good enough. Plus, I’ve gained the priceless knowledge that the Maple Leafs are the 1942 winners of the Stanley Cup.

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