Beauty Through The Ages

When I was in high school I wrote an essay on the fashion industry and the link with anorexia and bulimia.  I was pretty passionate about how wrong it was to encourage skinniness to be seen as attractive, and still feel this way today.  I now find myself looking back to the old me and wish I still had that essay to hand!  I never thought I would become a fashion designer, it's strange now to look back on it.  I thought I'd become a fashion journalist and put the world to rights!

I have recently been looking at my old college notes on the history of fashion.  I adore all the different fashions of the ages and to have a giant folder covering fashion from egyptian times to the 1990s is incredibly fascinating.  But after delving into it I thought of the female body shape and how it changed so often throughout the ages in the western world.  Why did silhouettes change so drastically?  And in particular the last 100 years!  The silhouette would change to reflect what was thought of as beautiful, why do we continuously change our minds on what we perceieve as beautiful?


Rogier can der Weyden, Portrait of a Lady, ca 1460.jpg

I'll go back to the earliest time I can: medieval times - the look was to have a swollen belly to give the illusion of pregnancy but to also look like a virgin....yip that's what those girls had to work with!  Small breasts set high on the chest, light hair and paleness were desired.  Women would pluck their hairline, eyebrows and even their eyelashes to give more emphasis to the forehead.  The painting 'Portrait of a Lady' ca 1460 by Rogier can der Weyden shows an example of a lady - I don't see eyebrows or eyelashes here, do you?

titian venus and lute player

Renaissance period - curvy bodies with round faces and flushed cheeks.  Pretty different to the earlier attractive qualities, but what stayed the same was the paleness of the skin.  Raphael painted women nude and of these body characteristics.  He had admitted that he painted beautiful women he imagined and made up in his head.  Other painters followed suite and perhaps this was the origins of what was considered beautiful in this time?  The painting here is by Titian 1565–70 titled Venus and the Lute Player.

Sarah Campbell by Sir Joshua Reynolds

1700s - The corset had been introduced a couple of hundred years prior, which allowed women to change the appearance of their bodies.  The desired shape was a small waist and large hips, which were exaggerated by the corset and padding.  They got very elaborate with the hips being so huge, women had to go in sideways to get through a door!


19th century ladies dress painting

1800s - The corset remained an integral part to ladies shapes.  For the 19th century it was still used to achieve the small waist, but the corset was longer so it covered the hips to show lumps or bumps!  A large bust, small waist and hips were what women wanted.  At this time dieting was happening - women were very body conscious.

Edwardian corset.jpg

1900s - At the turn of the century, the figure changed a little from victorian times. The 'skittle skirt' was introduced but was called the 'hobble skirt' due to the fact that women could BARELY walk in it and hobbled.  The desired shape was a large bosom, small waist - the figure looking like it was going to topple on itself.



1920s-lovely-ladies flappers.jpg


In the 1920s - the body shape radically changed.  What was considered beautiful was to have a shapeless boyish body.  The years of curves and corsets were thrown out the window and styles became looser and thick eye makeup was worn.  


marilyn monroe bombshell


Skip to the 1950s - small waist and pointy breasts, was the introduction of Christian Dior silhouette.  The UNDERGARMENT girdle was worn to try and get that S shape, which was very much desired.   Marilyn Monroe was the big star at this time, along with her measurements 35 inch bust; 22 inch waist and 35 inch hips.


1960s fashion.png


1960s was the era of twiggy, the skinny model - slender, petite and doll faced.  Pretty different to the curvy shape of the 1950s!


fast forward to the….


1990s - thin, waif look with youthfulness which seems to hark back to the twiggy days.  This look still permeates today's runway.

Nowadays the desired silhouette is still one that cannot be achieved easily.  Large breasts, large bum however toned, with a flat stomach.  More and more women get surgery to achieve this look as it's impossible to have this body shape naturally.  Famous people, including some well known reality stars have admitted getting implants.  I think computer games, comics and Japanese Anime contribute to what is thought of as the ideal female form in today's society.

It's difficult to tell how the silhouettes are defined as the desired shape over the years.  It's down to a lot of contributing factors - From before the 1600s it would be an artist painting the female form of what they thought was beautiful to them. Are we to assume that through the ages its been men who decide what is beautiful?  Well, that just makes me mad!  How women would force their bodies to reflect the desired silhouette using corsets, bustles etc was incredible.  We are so lucky we can really wear what we want now, there are no rules.

Writing this has been such an eye opener, making me see that as corny as it sounds, it's who we are as people that is our most attractive quality.  Desired looks are always changing, so just because we don't fit the mould of what designers, artists, and now social media tells us, does not mean we're not beautiful.  Why should this be decided by others in power?

lady looking at herself in mirror tartan waistcoat lorna gillies scottish fashion

For a prediction of where I see the next beautiful silhouette to take place, I think the false look of computer inspired characters for women is going to fade and the healthy look will be what is seen as attractive.  I believe that healthy eating is getting more and more 'fashionable', as well as the healthy lifestyle  Even to look back 50 years ago, smoking was seen as glamorous, but today it's looked on very differently.  I think the body ideal will be a stronger shape, flat stomach and smaller breasts, but not the skinny frame.  That's just a hunch I have, I could be drastically wrong!  but one thing I know is the fashion industry body ideal is dated and will need to change very soon.  The skinny look is gone, and we shouldn't be pushing this look of a malnourished, bony young girl as the desired body.  We should be encouraging people to be happy and healthy and comfortable in their own skin.  

L x



Interesting Links:

Women's Ideal Body Shapes YouTube

Dressed Podcast - Fashion & Physique with Emma McClendon