(Credit: FIT)

What is the ‘ideal’ female body shape?

A new exhibition explores how for centuries fashionable corsetry and clothing styles have dictated to women how their bodies should look, writes Cath Pound.

Fashion has long seen the female body as a malleable entity, something to be moulded according to the dictates of complex social codes or the fickle whims of the fashion industry. By analysing the changing fashionable silhouette from the 18th Century to the present day, a new exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (FIT) argues that the fashionable body has always been a cultural construct and one that needs to be challenged if we are to reach a greater acceptance of body diversity.

In the 18th Century the notion of a fashionable body was of concern primarily to the elite. The wearing of stays (laced underbodice) was considered essential, but as curator Emma McClendon points out, this was not simply to make the wearer appear more slender. Their widespread use was, she explains, “much more complex and related to cultural notions of propriety, class and a woman’s physicality.”

There was a prevailing belief that women’s bodies were inherently weak and in need of support – Emma McClendon

Being ensconced in stays created a uniquely rigid carriage. By mastering an elegant gait whilst constrained in such an uncomfortable garment was a sign of breeding. “There was also a prevailing belief during the period that women’s bodies were inherently weak and in need of support,” says McClendon. These ideas were challenged by some of the leading writers and thinkers of the day, with the philosopher and writer Rousseau seeing stays as a particularly apt metaphor for the social institutions constraining the individual - but his views had little impact.

It wasn’t until the aftermath of the French Revolution, when appearing aristocratic was decidedly frowned upon, that stays briefly lost their hold on the female imagination as they embraced the more forgiving, high-waisted empire line. However, even then some form of support garment would be worn.

The return to a nipped-in waist, shown to its best advantage by the voluminous crinoline, in vogue from 1845 to 1870, drew attention to the upper body, which was considered “the most precious,” according to Denis Bruna, curator of the fashion department of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. “In Western culture the lower parts of the body are not considered worthy, which is why women’s legs have been hidden for centuries under skirts and petticoats.”

The style was also the perfect way for the rising bourgeoisie to show off their wealth. Men’s attire was relatively subdued at the time but if a man could afford to dress his wife in a crinoline, which required vast amounts of fabric and the help of a servant to put on, it would indicate access to a substantial income.

Pressure to conform

The appearance of the bustle, which gave prominence to the rear, from 1870 onwards coincided with an era in which fashion was becoming progressively more democratised, as technical advances and the rise of the department store meant that different social classes were buying similar styles, thus creating a certain standardisation of the ideal silhouette and creating a pressure to conform among all social classes.

So although dress-reform activists and doctors had been warning against the harmful effects of corsetry for decades, when it became available to the masses, women flocked to buy them. However the fact that many advertisements offered them in sizes from 18 – 30 inches (45.72 – 76.2cm) makes it clear that many women did not meet the slender ideal.

The early 20th Century saw the aesthetic dress movement, typified by elegant flowing gowns created by the department store Liberty, attempt to liberate women from the confines of the corset.  It was a style favoured in artistic circles but considered eccentric by the general public, and even those who chose to adopt the fashion rarely wore it outside the confines of the home.

However much the fashion press wanted to ignore them there have always been stylish larger women

It wasn’t until the flapper styles of the 1920s came into fashion that conventional corsetry began to lose favour. Although McClendon is at pains to point out that it is “a common misconception that women stopped wearing corsets and were suddenly ‘free.’”  The new styles required a lithe androgynous body achieved by wearing a hip-slimming girdle, which although certainly more comfortable still created an artificial body shape.

Women for whom the look was impossible to achieve found other ways to be fashionable. The exhibition features a pair of purple-and-orange crepe pyjamas that have a 40-inch (101.6 cm) waist, proving that however much the fashion press wanted to ignore them there have always been stylish larger women.

And although the 1930s heralded the return of the waist with body-skimming bias cut gowns, it is clear that some designers were catering to women who were larger than the fashion images of the day may have us believe. A stunning metallic-silk dress by the House of Paquin has a waist measurement of 31 inches (78.74 cm).

Embracing diversity

During the 1940s broad shoulders and narrow hips were popularised by the film costume designer Gilbert Adrian and the silhouette dominated the decade, until Christian Dior dramatically broke away from it with his ‘New Look’, which emphasised a prominent bust and nipped-in waist and required up to 20m (65.62ft) of fabric. “He wanted to create dresses that were a response to the poverty of the war period,” says Bruna. This ultra-feminine aesthetic came to symbolise the 1950s.

The 1960s saw the return of the boyish, androgynous figure epitomised by the coltish model Twiggy but, unlike the 1920s, the more revealing clothing of the period, such as Rudi Gernreich’s shift dress with plastic side panel, made the wearing of support garments virtually impossible.

Corsets and girdles may have fallen out of favour, but women faced a new set of constraints as increasing emphasis was put on diet and exercise throughout the 1970s and 80s in order to maintain the fit, toned body required for the fluid sensual designs of Halston or the body-conscious dresses of Thierry Mugler. Fashion magazines championed slender bodies with paradoxically large breasts in the 1980s, a look achievable to most only via surgery, and then the waifish extreme of Kate Moss in the 1990s.

The rise of social media has gradually begun to change the way people consume and engage with fashion

Although a slender physique still dominated much of the fashion industry at the beginning of the 21 st Century, the rise of social media has gradually begun to change the way people consume and engage with fashion. Personal style blogs and platforms like Instagram and Twitter are opening up the industry to an ever-greater cross-section of people.

Certain brands have enthusiastically embraced a more inclusive view of the fashionable body. Designer Becca McCharen-Tran’s label Chromat has some of the most diverse catwalk shows in the industry with models spanning different races, sizes and gender identities. An outfit from 2015 wittily plays on the construction of historic undergarments emphasising McCharen Tran’s interest in ergonomic bodies of all sizes.

Christian Siriano includes plus-size models in his catwalk show and makes clothes up to size 26.  When the actress Leslie Jones complained on Twitter that no label would dress her because of her size, Siriano said he would be proud to do so and created a stunning red gown.

This episode sparked a debate about the marginalisation of certain body types by contemporary brands, and it is a debate McClendon clearly believes needs to continue.

“It is not our bodies that are wrong, it is the sizing system that is wrong,” she says. “Until we acknowledge the problems in the current system, we cannot begin to fix it.”

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