Beauty is Shape
This page looks at how different societies view the body silhouette,
the body image as ugly or
beautiful. It examines some of the ways individuals have manipulated
their body image, to gain the cultural ideal of an era.
Fashion history shows the
most desirable body image of a fashion era is most often achieved by
distorting the figure by enlargement or reduction, or by flattening or moving
parts into new positions.
Fashion is a shape, a changing shape. That shape is mainly formed and
controlled by some device which affects part of the body's natural outline. What
is considered beautiful in the eyes of one race may be thought horrific in
another. Beauty then is in the eye of the beholder, and for centuries beauty has
In the Western world the outlines of women's bodies have been controlled by
corsetry and petticoat constructions. But now many consumers have their figure
faults corrected by cosmetic surgery with implants or liposuction fat reduction. Plastic surgery was originally developed thousands of years ago in India for
treating injuries and birth defects. Then just over a century ago in 1885 when
local anaesthetics were invented, surgeons began performing various cosmetic
In 1901 the first face lift was done by Eugene Hollander of Berlin. The
wealthy liked face lifts. A face lift meant they could actually buy some youth,
even though the body cells were ageing.
Body image can be adapted to accommodate changing fashions. In the 1920s some women endured breast reductions so they could wear the
flat boyish fashions. By the 1930s the breast in all its glory was soon back in fashion. The
fuller the bosom the better. Expensive surgical enlargement was often done for
people such as actresses, but not talked about much. More recently the
silhouette from various angles has been manipulated even more by cosmetic
Nowadays people with ordinary incomes view breast enlargement as their right
to satisfy emotional and fashionable needs. People of every age group have
become obsessed by their body image. Older teenage girls particularly
favour breast implants. Liposuction, tummy tucks, nose jobs, lip manipulation
and implants for fuller breasts have all become popular in search of the ideal
In 1944 Bernard Rudofsky worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where
he was Director of Apparel Research. He designed silhouette figures that were
sculpted by Nivola for the MOMA exhibition called 'Are Clothes Modern'. The
shapes belonged to different periods of Western fashion and corresponded to the
shape that supported top clothes.
A Nivola style silhouette sculpture of an Edwardian
woman alongside the corset model.
Moulding of the skull and the practice of head flattening was common among
Mayan society and has been used in Eastern countries. Protuberances such as the
nose, ears and forehead were flattened to conform to the cultural beauty ideal.
The head was flattened by putting the new born infant's head between two wooden
boards creating a mouse trap like cradle, held in place with bindings. The soft
skull slowly moulded to the cultural beauty ideal of flatness and after a few
years the boards were removed permanently.
Elongated heads have been as popular as flattened heads. A Congo woman with
an elongated head would be thought very beautiful by her people.
Similarly a Chad woman would have had her lips supported and stretched by
metal rings since early childhood. In adulthood her stretched lips would express
the ultimate in beauty. Western society has not gone quite this far, but it is
now fashionable for some women to have collagen injections and implants to
enlarge the lips.
Extremes include plastic surgery where the lips are turned
inside out and although some find this an
attractive feature on a woman, many do not and are repulsed by it.
Primitive peoples still gauge female beauty by sheer bulk and brides to be go
through excessive fattening. Hottentot women are celebrated examples of women
with excessive fat deposits in the buttocks. In contrast western brides go
through an equally gruelling slimming regime to achieve a sylph like figure
forever commemorated by wedding photographs and video film.
Emaciation has now
become the ultimate symbol of achievement and affluence.
The women of Georgian high society looked beautiful in their
satins and silks, but they hardly ever bathed. Sanitation was still quite crude
and they preferred to douse their clothes, their bodies and their belongings in
toilet waters and perfumes. They wore scented pomanders and carried small scent
bottles about their person. They had false teeth, false hair, false bosoms,
false calves and induced large eyes which they made to falsely dilate by using
Belladonna extracted from the Deadly Nightshade plant. They were a walking
Earlier in the 1600s, patches had been used to cover smallpox
scars and the fashion lasted well into the 18th Century. The patches were small
plain dots of black taffeta or velvet and the shapes developed into various
symbols such as stars and moons. These were then gummed to the scars.
During the 18th century hairstyles for women began with
simplicity. Women added a few false curls only if their own hair was inadequate. But after 1760 the demand for false hair in Britain reached a climax. The
fashion for French hairstyles grew as fast as the size of the enormous styles. It took hours to dress the hair so high and women expected the style to last for
a minimum of a week, preferably longer. Since hygiene was poor, lice in the hair
and persistent headaches caused by the dragging weight, became an acceptable
fact of life.
Georgian wig after 1760.
Women often slept sitting up to keep the style in place and
scratched their itching scalps using the misnamed long handled backscratchers of
today. These were carved from ivory or made of silver or combinations of Mother
of Pearl. This vanity has often been recorded in contemporary cartoons.
Hair was initially built up over horsehair and wool padded frames beginning
with the natural hair. Then vast amounts of false hair was added, sometimes
building the hair up to reach 30 inches. This was about half the height of the
average female of the day. Hair was worn so high that the chin was halfway
between the top of the head and the feet. Frequently ladies would have
difficulty getting through doors and riding in carriages.
Women had to be careful in ballrooms not to get their
hairstyle caught in the candlelit chandeliers. More than one head of hair went
up in flames and the roof of St. Paul's Cathedral in London had to be raised
four feet in 1776 so that the gentry could enter without mishap to their
Left - Ship scene ornament for the hair.
These flamboyant hairstyles were often topped by scenes
depicting farmyards or ships or floral and jewel ornamentation. Frequently they
were finished off with lavish wide brimmed hats later known as Gainsborough
Until about a hundred years ago a small dainty foot was considered essential
to make a Chinese woman eligible for marriage. Small feet are a racial
characteristic of Chinese women. The desire to make the foot smaller in the name
of beauty was strong enough for the Chinese to mutilate female feet for nearly
- Underside of reshaped cut foot after deformation by binding and
appearance of organically grown heel.
The feet were cut and bound tightly with cloth. The main purpose of
foot binding was to introduced an organically grown heel which made the woman
hobble when she walked. Her desirability as a love object was in direct
proportion to her inability to walk.
The smallest female feet to be found in the UK today are in Pontypridd in
South Wales, UK, where women there often have feet UK sized 2 or 3.
The 20th century film icon Marylyn Monroe deliberately had the stiletto heels
of her shoes adjusted. One heel was made shorter than the other so that she
swayed and sashayed as she walked.
Her swaying hips helped make her appear more
vulnerable, increasing her sexual appeal
Marilyn Monroe - Her perfect natural hourglass body
was perfect for
the 1950s where womanly curves made for the desirable body image of the
Her body ideal would today be considered too heavy for today's icons
Although foot binding seems cruel in the 21st century, modern shoes
frequently deform the foot. Shoe lasts often show an evenly pointed shape around
which modern shoes are built. The foot that fits the shoe made from a pointed
last should have its big toe in the middle, flanked by two smaller toes on
either side. Platform shoes which elongate the leg, but place the wearer in
danger of ankle twisting, have come in and out of fashion several times in the
last fifty years.
In the 1990s a famous incident occurred with platform soles,
when Naomi Campbell slipped during Vivienne Westwood's fashion show whilst Miss
Campbell was wearing very high platform shoes.
Left - A platform shoe by Vivienne Westwood.
One of the greatest restrictions placed on women has been corsetry. Severe
lacing restricts movement and can damage internal organs and impair health. Female emancipators of the early 20th century used pictures which showed the
position of the female internal organs with and without corsetry. Pictures of
deformed rib cages were also used illustrate how breathing was impaired. They used the
evidence to support their arguments for condemning the corset. There is
considerable thought that such images of wasp waist were enhanced by artistic
Small waists did exist, but were usually on young girls and needed
'training'. Today when women take to corsets it can take about 2 years to
achieve a gradually smaller waist using lacing methods. Goths are very fond
of corsets in their fashion style.
Right - The unnatural hourglass figure.
Typical images used in medical books and which suggested a woman's internal organs before and after restraining in tight
corsetry in the Victorian era. Please note that even the
Victorians were capable of manipulating pictures to their own end if it
served a purpose.
Recent medical examinations of females corseted today in actual Victorian
corsets show how the women had no energy and lacked breath when given lung
tests. Once the corset was undone the women felt energised again.
The test is not
a fair test as women did not simply lace immediately to a 16 inch waist, they
trained the waist over a period of years. Over 2 years a 22 inch waist can be
gradually reduced to a handspan by gradual increments of the lacing. It would
take about a year of not wearing a corset for the internal organs to settle back
to the natural position. But back they would go.
Corseting has existed for thousands of years. The first recorded corset came
from Crete. The Cretan woman stands proudly bare breasted and the corset is
obviously a decorative part of her underwear. Madonna's imagery and use of
bustiers is not new, it is merely a revived fashion which has had mass media
coverage and so become universally adopted. However she was astute enough and
clever enough to put the style across in the 1980s and make it her own in the
Corsetry and body contouring is so important to fashion that we have a whole
section devoted to undergarment history.
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