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IWD: A Historical Obsession With The 'Ideal' Woman

IWD: A Historical Obsession With The 'Ideal' Woman

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The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York boasts an incredible collection of historical women's garments that undoubtedly have fascinating tales behind them. However, according to the museum's associate curator of costume, Emma McClendon in an interview with CNN, rather than being intrigued by this history, "People come and always want to know what size something is,". Having organised the exhibition "The Body: Fashion and Physique," McClendon expressed her amazement at the prospect that "Whether it's contemporary or 19th century, they want to know what size it is or what size it would correlate to, or what measurement it is," she said. "We as a culture, as a society, are obsessed with size. It's become connected to our identity as people."

And the "ideal", as with our identities, are ever-changing.

Indeed, take how our culture has gone from celebrating the stick-like figure of Twiggy in swinging 60's, to pining over the tomboyish, slim frame of Kate Moss during the 90's, to finally wishing to liken our bodies to the extreme curvaceousness and hip-waist ratio of figures including Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner.

Idealisations of full-figured bodies, pre-1900's

Venus figurine
Venus figurine

The Venus figurines, depicting voluptuous women's bodies from 23,000 to 25,000 years old, to the multiple statues of the curvaceous Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and sexual love, has long been debated as being symbolicof fertility and/or beauty.

To achieve these fictitious images however, often required a literal warping of the body, something that was achieved by the introduction of the corset.

"There was an emphasis on under-structure to shape the body. That's true for skirts as well," McClendon stated.

"Whether it be hooped or caged or padded, under structures were worn around the lower body to create a specific volume," she said. "In the 18th and the 19th centuries, the idealized fashionable body -- so this is talking specifically about what is promoted in the fashion industry itself -- was much more voluptuous."

"Then in the 20th century, there's a very defined shift towards an increasingly young and increasingly kind of athletic and slender body," McClendon said.

1920's - 50's: The media and the rise of the eating disorder

1920's Flapper girl
1920's Flapper girl

One study suggests that "The highest reported prevalence of disordered eating occurred during the 1920's and 1980's, the two periods during which the 'ideal woman' was thinnest in US history,"

"Such findings would constitute empirical support for the hypotheses that the mass media play a role in promoting the slim standard of bodily attractiveness fashionable among women [...] Through this standard perhaps the eating disorders that have become increasingly common"

1960's-70's: The supposedly liberated body

"People talk about the 60's, even the 70's, as this moment when the woman's body is freed," McClendon said. "But that notion that women were all of a sudden completely free in their bodies after that point is a complete fallacy."

"Foundation garments were replaced by diet and exercise," McClendon said. What remained was the "notion that in order for your body to be truly fashionable, you had to probably change it some way," she said. "You had to maintain it in some way."

1980's - 90's: The rise of body icons and obesity

Naomi Campbell Cannes 2017
Naomi Campbell Cannes 2017

"We do see an interest in a fit, toned, strong body -- still lean but athletic. So this is where you get the emphasis on those classic supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell," McClendon said.

By the 90's however, the skinny, waif-like figures had come back in vogue once again.

"The term that gets so much associated with that decade is the 90's is the moment of the waif," McClendon said. "Kate Moss is the epitome of that. Her nickname was 'the waif'. She became a household name from Calvin Klein ads in the early 1990's."

"We begin to see a stark divide in the way bodies are presented across the media, with extreme thinness celebrated in fashion imagery while larger bodies are highlighted as 'unhealthy' and bad in reporting on obesity. And we begin to judge our own bodies through the same binary lens," she said.

2000's: The media and body insecurity

Girl looking at phone

One study found that eating disorders for people aged 10 to 49 escalated from 32.3 per 100,000 in 2000 to 37.2 per 100,000 in 2009. The most likely age for an eating disorder onset was between the ages of 15 and 19, according to the study.

"When kids are entering adolescence, they're developing their own identity and trying to figure out what's socially acceptable so when they're inundated with images of a particular body type in appealing scenarios, they're more apt to absorb the idea that that particular body type is ideal," said Sierra Filucci, executive editor of parenting content and distribution for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organisation that aim to aid children, parents and educators to understand the world of media and technology.

2010's: Celebrating diversity

Mattel introduces plus-sized doll
Mattel introduces plus-sized doll

"Over the course of the last 50-plus years, the American ideal has shifted from curvy to androgynous to muscular and everything in between," Filucci said.
"As these ideals change, they are reflected and reinforced in the culture through media -- whether it's fine art or advertising billboards or music videos."

Indeed, media attention that has been given to the bodies of the Kardashian sister's following the 2007 airing of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" lead to the growing idealisation of the curvaceous figure.

The fashion designer, Christian Siriano, in 2016, included five plus-size models in his show during NY Fashion Week.

Simultaneously, Mattel debuted a line of Barbie dolls displaying a diverse array of body types, including plus-size shapes.

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