There’s a famous scene in “The English Patient” in which Count Almásy, played by Ralph Fiennes, tells Kristin Scott Thomas’ Katharine Clifton to “Swoon, I’ll catch you.” She does — as did millions of theatergoers in 1996. It was a rapturous moment, one oft-confined to fiction. After all, who swoons outside of Shakespeare and the silver screen? Mention the word today and you’re as likely to conjure up the New York street artist, Swoon, as you are “a state of hysterical rapture or ecstasy,” as dictionary.com puts it. But in 1931? According to WWD, swooning was all too real. In a story on May 19, titled “If Women Want to Swoon, Style Won’t Sway ’Em,” the paper reported on a fainting trend with all the journalistic gusto usually attached to hemlines and union issues.
“A professor attached to the City College of New York says that women are headed back toward mid-Victorian days when swooning was one of the seven lively arts,” wrote WWD. “Long skirts and corsets, said the professor, are sign posts on the high road toward the era when it was unnecessary to sweep the sidewalks because skirts functioned to perfection.” The paper, however, made very clear its position on this so-called trend; a return to midis and corsets did not signal a return to blacking out. “Ladies will always swoon,” it argued. “Why does the professor think emergency hospitals are maintained in department stores if the ladies have stopped fainting? Collapsible queens have always been present and accounted for. They buckle in the subways and they fold up in the theatres and they fall head first into the piles of merchandise on bargain counters.”
The paper, perhaps exposing the reporter’s misogynistic tilt, went on to note that “the faint, real and simulated, is one of the greatest alibis open to women.…Faint and all is forgiven.” It also outlined three kinds of swooners: the professional, semiprofessional and the amateur. “The amateurs faint in theatre aisles and interrupt $5 shows,” explained WWD. “Professional fainters make high drama when somebody shouts in a stirring manner: ‘Everybody be calm!’” Those in the middle, meanwhile, were the most worrisome. “[Semipros] are likely to drop in the middle of Fifth Avenue at 42nd street and are known to be very inconsiderate,” WWD concluded.