Fashion is directly correlated to the shape of the body. In fact, clothing attempts to alter the shape of the body. But what do we see when we look at clothing? Are we seeing the clothing, the body, or a social construct of beauty of the time?
noun 1. Sociology. the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period.
When we look at clothes, we actually see the ethos of a culture or time period and what the ideal body of that culture or time is/was. The term natural really has no place in fashion.
If you were to remove all the clothes, you will not find a ‘natural’ body but a body that is shaped by fashion: the body is no more ‘natural’ than the clothes it wears. (Hollander)
If I had to summarize the ethos of the ideal body shape from 1995-2009, I’d have to say it’s “Pin-Thin and Pissed Off”. (Thank you for such a concise philosophy, Rachel Zoe!)
For the first time in recorded history, visible bones and sagging flesh were the desired ideal bodies in the fashion world. Philosopher Lars Svendsen discusses this unique ideal body in his book, Fashion: A Philosophy
One ideal of beauty that is quite unique to our age is visible bones. A constant feature of all ideals of beauty until the First World War was that a beautiful body had to have enough fat and muscle for the skeleton to remain hidden beneath them. Visible ribs and hips were ‘unnatural’ and ugly. (85)
But really, the idea of natural is dictated by the ethos of the time. Some eras idealize the a body that is more realistic for women to achieve or maintain, but really the idea body is mainly out of reach for most. (Hence the term ideal.) Most models even fall short of this, that’s why Adobe invented Photoshop and plastic surgery is a booming industry. According to Svendsen, a Pre-Modern society nature as the norm. A Post-Modern society individuals establish their own norms. (80)
So let’s take a look at ethos through time and how the ideal body has changed. (And I’ll take a gander at where it’s headed for the future!)
- The Visitation (1506) Tempera on limewood, 139,5 x 94,7 cm Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest
The Visitation shoes the Late Gothic ideal body: small breasts, a round swollen belly, light skin and long lithe extremities. Ethos: Fertile, and ready for maternal duties.
1600s: The early 1600s ideal body had changed. A long, narrow torso was ideal, and held in place by a corset. The length of the torso was emphasized by a stomacher – a triangular piece of fabric covering the torso. You can clearly see this in Anne of Denmark’s portrait above. Wide, rounded hips were also desirable. This shape was kept in place by a farthingale. (see below). Large, standout collars were worn, drawing attention to the face. Long sleeves terminate at the wrist.
Ethos: Wide hips are a great armrest.
1700s: Dress becomes somewhat less constricting. The torso length is still elongated by the stomacher, but less so than the 1600s. Hips continue to be accentuated, but become fuller and wider. The emergence of the sac(que) gown occurs during this time. The outter skirt is loose in the front and back, to allow easier walking. It’s more formal version is known as the robe a la française. See the billowing fabric in The Two Cousins? Petticoats and hoops made the skirts full. Later, panniers were worn to give additional width to the hips. Necklines were lower, and sometimes covered with light-weight cloth, called a fichu. Fichu were typically made of fine linen, and sometimes lace. Long sleeves are still common, but some forearm begins to be exposed. (How racy!)
Ethos: Bigger, longer, fuller!
1800s: The French Revolution & The Reign of Terror (1789-1799) changed fashion drastically. Paris secured it’s global dominance in the fashion arena under Louis XIV (1638-1715). Louis goal as king was to create a centralized state governed from the capital and to assert his absolute power. Feudalism had given power to local rulers, which diminished the king’s power.
Louis’ strategy was to invite the local rulers to live with him at his palace in Versaille. Once at Versaille, Louis (portrait at right) organized continuous banquets, parties, and social events, each of which had a lavish dress code . The nobility could never wear the same outfit twice. The local rulers would spend exorbitant amounts of money on new clothing, making them financially weak. They were also so absorbed on their social lives that their political power diminished.
This extravagance continued until the reign of Louis XVI (1754-1793). Queue the images from Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola. Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI’s wife, became the target of the French revolutionaries. Anyone wearing extravagant garments became a target, ensuring a trip to the guillotine. The French Revolution made dressing down, or “undress” very fashionable. (And for reasons other than looking stylish.)
The court had become completely self-obsessed with displays of conspicuous consumption. So self-obsessed that they ignored that France was in an enormous financial crisis and was nearly bankrupt. (Sound familiar?)
Marie Antoinette had started a small movement amongst her closest friends of dressing very simply. She would often wear simple white muslin dresses, and even wore it for a public portrait. The portrait was met with criticism, as the dress was very similar to undergarments of the day and thought to be improper for the queen.
A series of riots occurred, and the monarchy was overthrown. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed at the guillotine, which marked the beginning of the Reign of Terror. Anyone who appeared to support the monarchy, by action, dress, or relationships, were sent to the guillotine. Women adopted simple fashion to avoid death. Ironically, most women dressed in white muslin dresses like the one Marie Antoinette’s (left) had received criticism for.
Undergarments are considerably less restrictive. The chemise, a loose linen “slip” worn to protect the outer garments from persperation, continue to be worn. The corset is short, and looks like a proto-bra. Shorter sleeves are now in fashion. The look is usually pared with gloves, like this dancing gown from 1809. Ethos? Shabby Chic.
1830s-1860s: Puff sleeves expose the arms in their full glory. Necklines also begin to expose the neck and shoulder, emphasizing delicate areas as well as the decolletage. The skirt becomes full again, mostly with starched petticoats, but crinolines become popular with advances in technology c. 1850. Skirts get wider and wider, to almost ridiculous ends. Critics ridicule the woman wearing the massive crinolines, noting how they make normal tasks like walking and shaking hands very challenging. Ethos: Looking good is more important that being mobile.
1870s-1880s: My personal favorite! The bustle becomes the latest style. All of the fullness that was present in the skirt is pushed in the back, accentuating the derriere. The overskirts were elaborate with lots of trim, flounces, ribbons, and pleats. The corset became very structured, and making the torso take an S shape (cuirass corsets). Day dresses have sleeves, evening dresses have either short or no sleeves. Off-the-shoulder gowns with a low neckline were very common. The overall silhouette is very form fitting. Ethos: Baby got back!
1890s: Women take to a more active lifestyle, and abandon the extreme ornamentation of previous decades. Corsets are still severe, but women are becoming more active.
Mr. & Mrs. Phelps by John Singer Sargent, 1897
Bicycling, tennis, swimming, horseback riding – woman wanted to do it all. The skirts were a-line, allowing the legs to have a greater range of movement than in long, bustled skirts. Leg-of-mutton sleeves become popular. Even non-athletic women are interested in the new sportswear. The engraving below shows two woman talking about bicycle suits. The original caption reads:
Gertrude: Dear Jessie, what on EARTH is that bicycle suit for?
Jessie: Why to wear, of course!
Gertrude: But you haven’t got a bicycle!
Jessie: No, but I’ve got a sewing machine!
Ethos: Anything men can do, woman can do more stylishly!
Bicycle Babes, 1895
1900-1919: Narrow skirts, high waistlines, and low necklines are the rage. Styles tend to be off the shoulder for evening, worn with long gloves. The Gibson Girl look is very popular, best illustrated by the portrait of Elizabeth Wharton Drexel, below:
Paul Poiret begins to make radially new fashion – innovation in fashion design. His hallmarks are the harem look, the hobble skirt, and the lampshade tunic. Ethos: Romantically exotic.
1920s: Yes, the era of the flapper and beginning of Chanel’s empire. Taboos are thrown out the window: women cut their hair short, wear short skirts, and abandon the corsets. Caminols and lightweight bralettes were worn instead of the restrictive corsets. Really daring women even wore pants. The ideal body was very boyish – small breasts, no hips, short hair. Chanel was a great pioneer of sportswear, and used lots of jersey in her designs. (I’ll talk more about her in a future blog post.) Ethos: Burn your bra (and corset)!
1930s: Women return to a more glamorous style. The unrestricted female form is shown, without smashing the breasts down. Longer skirts were worn: daytime lengths were mid calf, evening were floor length. Nylon and the zipper are used in the mass market. Since women are becoming more active, there is a bigger distinction between daytime and evening wear. Ethos: Liberation is great, but glamor is better!
1940s: World War II reduced high fashion down to a trickle. America was shut off from Paris, making manufacturers higher American designers.There were several years of altering old clothing. Then it came. The New Look. Dior changes the length of the skirt, starting a fashion revolution. (Mainly because women couldn’t alter their skirts to get the new length, causing them to have to buy a new wardrobe!) The small waist was idea, and jacked included boning and light corset structure to achieve that architectural look. Ethos: Time for a shopping spree . . .
1950s: The glamor continues. Silhouettes are generally within the following types: A-line, Trapeze, The Sac, & the Empire Line. The hourglass figure is the ideal, with emphasis on a very small waist. Ethos: Womanly and elegant, but idealized by clothing.
1960s: The decade started out demure, with the ideal of Mad Men and Jackie Kennedy, but ended up with a youthquake! Mini-skirts, colorful prints, and experimental fashion were prevalent. Unusual materials, like paper were used – stressing the ephemeral nature of fashion. Super thin model Twiggy becomes famous, ushering in thin as the ideal Ethos: Thin is in.
1970s: Characterized by anti-fashion. Androgyny is common (not being able to tell if it’s a man or woman). Leisure suits are huge, and Hippies are everywhere. Ethos: Is that a man or a woman?
The late 1980s and beginning of the 1990s had been the period of the Glamazons: Christie Brinkley, Elle Macpherson, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington (my favorite!), Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, and Laetitia Casta.
- Christie Brinkley
- Linda Evangelista
- Christy Turlington
- Naomi Campbell
- Laetitia Casta
The Big Six were: Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. The ideal body is very feminine, curvy, yet fit. Definitely a more sensual idea, and more attainable than the 60s focus on Twiggy. Ethos: Curves for miles.
Late 90s: Ushered in “heroine chic” and the use of painfully thin models. The most notable was Calvin Klein’s choice of Kate Moss, who at one point weighed around 95 lbs. Ethos: Pin thin and pissed off.
Recently, a more realistic ideal body has been taking the fashion world. Similar to the early 90s, a curvier, more feminine body is becoming accepted. This month’s Harper’s Bazaar featured an article on Christina Hendricks, from Mad Men. The article compares her to Marilyn Monroe, stating that her sexy curves and stunning self-confidence made her a star.
Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks
Other stars pioneering the more realistic ideal body are Kim Kardashian and Crystal Renn
By the looks of the runways, it seems fashion is headed for a return to the ideal. Stay tuned . . .
Ethos: Embrace your curves!