Fantasy and reality . . . are they really so different? Both are products of our own thinking, fears, and desire. The subtle difference boils down to audience. Reality is the act we play before our family, friends, and other people. Fantasy is the private movie that replays in the minds, shrouded in secrecy.
A few weeks ago, I saw Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides. What really caught my attention were the casting choices for the mermaids. At first, it struck me as a bit unusual. The mermaids looked natural. (Tails aside) No breast implants, no collagen-injected lips. They didn’t seem to be wearing much makeup, either. What was going on here?
Normal standards of beauty call for extreme artifice: plastic surgery, caked-on makeup, hair extensions. In America, we tend to subscribe to the more-is-more ideal. And if you’re going to get plastic surgery, you’d better make it obvious. Why make an investment that no one will recognize? W Magazine highlighted the plastic surgery epidemic among young women last September, in the article Prematurely Plastic. In the article, New York plastic surgeon Douglas Steinbrec was interviewed, stating:
“There’s this new mentality that if you do not look a little bit fake, then the surgeon hasn’t done his job. This used to be a much more prevalent idea on the West Coast, but now you walk up Madison Avenue, and you see these young girls with that cloned, cougarlike face. Either they don’t know what they look like, or they want to look like they’ve had something done.”
Having lived in both Manhattan and Los Angeles in the past 4 years, I completely agree with Steinbrec. Plastic surgery among the 20-somethings is commonplace. Almost unavoidable. It’s so pervasive that seeing natural-looking actresses left me flabbergasted.
It reminded me of when I was looking at a photography exhibit at the Hammer Galleries in Los Angeles. There were lots of nude photographs of women, and something wasn’t quite right about them. The women just didn’t look normal. Perplexed, I took a few laps around the room, trying desperately to discover what was wrong with them. Then, it hit me. They didn’t have breast implants. The victory of solving the riddle stung. I had become so entrenched in the prosthetic ideal beauty of our time that I thought there was something wrong with natural breasts.
Standards of beauty change all the time. And the ironic part is that the standard is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. That’s why fashion changes so frequently – to accommodate and fashion the body. Anne Hollander, a fashion historian, devotes an entire book examining this phenomenon in art history. The book, Seeing Through Clothes, illustrates that all art forms (painting, film, photography, etc) portray nude models as if they were dressed. This means that clothing rewrites the body completely, and our idea of “normal” or the ever elusive ideal are social constructs that change with time.
Let’s take a closer look . . .
(Full disclosure – there will be nudity in the rest of the post. You have been warned! Please proceed accordingly!)
Gemma Ward and Astrid Berges-Frisbey are two of the actresses that played mermaids for On Stranger Tides. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer required anyone interested in auditioning to have natural breasts. He included the proviso, “Must have real breasts. Do not submit if you have implants. The impetus? People from the 1700s didn’t have implants.
Notice the difference in build between Ward and Berges-Frisbey compared to Heidi Montag. Bruckheimer clearly made a great casting decision. Could you imagine Montag as a mermaid? (She would have floated to the top of the ocean with those implants!)
But what is really central to this matter is that the plastic surgeon has surpassed the couturier. For centuries, women relied on the masterful tricks of well-constructed clothing to mask imperfections and highlight assets. Fashion has not been done away with, but it seems to be losing the battle. Hoping for more cleavage? Instead of a Wonderbra, you could just get a breast augmentation. The payment plan would give you monthly installments that are like buying a bra every month. The financial accessibility of plastic surgery has converted many.
I’m not here to pass judgment on plastic surgery. In fact, I’ve considered it in the past. I’ve never gone though with it because the idea scares me. What am I willing to risk to obtain the ideal? And is obtaining the ideal worth the risk when in a few years it will be outmoded? I prefer the assistance of the couturier. And I wait for the ideal to change.
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!
Graffiti can cause strong reactions. I engaged with a person recently who felt thought there could be little meaning from street art, and that graffiti was an offense of the worst kind. His direct quote, is as follows:
The graffiti pictures, you just love the color blends and the risk they took and the rebellious attitude. Maybe if someone put graffiti on your house or on you directly you would also find such pleasure in that.
Some people do put graffiti straight on their bodies, and I think it’s pretty cool.
This gives me some great ideas for Halloween . . . .although it’s doubtful I’d make it out of the house with at least some clothing covering me.
So when does graffiti meet fashion? While I wish I could say I was the first to be inspired by the Urban Landscape and graffiti, I certainly am not. One of the most iconic designers to use graffiti was Stephen Sprouse (1953 – 2004). A fashion designer and artist, Sprouse infused elite, Fifth Avenue culture and their wardrobe with street style. His signatures? Day-glo colors and graffiti-printed clothing.
His first major success was in 1983, and his cloths sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, and swanky boutiques. Interesting that suck ritzy clientele would adorn their body in wearable graffiti.
Part of the allure was high quality, expensive fabrics that were custom dyed and hand painted by Sprouse himself. It was a disheveled, deluxe chic. Other characteristics of his clothes included the Day-Glo colors, all-black palettes, mirrored sequins, high-tech fabrics and Velcro attachments.
In 1987-8, Sprouse produced a line that used Andy Warhol’s Camouflage as a screen print as well as abstract graffiti prints of Jesus Christ that were a collaboration with artist Keith Haring.
His biggest success was a collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton in 2001. The collection was Sprouse’s graffiti sprawled rendition of the Louis Vuitton logo and name printed over the classic monogram design. The fashion world went gaga, and the pieces sold-out instantly.
Posthumously, his success continues. For both Fall 2006 and 2008, Marc Jacobs utilized Sprouse’s graffiti images for handbags, shoes, and scarves for Louis Vuitton, which sold-out instantly. This tribute to Sprouse garnered worldwide press, and a cult-like following.
Marc Jacobs went on about Sprouse and how, with his graffiti infused clothing, has changed the landscape of fashion. Jacobs wanted to deface the traditional LV monogram with graffiti, which he says:
has always viewed and a defiant act, a rebellious act but that creates a new surface with, giving new meaning to something old.
Mr. Jacobs is such a fan that he appeared in several magazine editorials naked and painted in Sprouse’s graffiti.
Apparently, so does LVMH, the mega conglomerate that owns Louis Vuitton, They graffiti-ed all of the store fronts for the collection debut, and are still pulling profits in this economic downturn. I guess graffiti can be genius after all.