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Style Reflections: i. Body Shapes in Fashion

  • The ideal body shape of any time reflects the culture and aspirations of the zeitgeist and is synonymous with the style of art, architecture, film, photography, dance, interiors and clothing.

  • The ancient Egyptians (1292-1069 BC) preferred tall, slim women with angular, symmetrical faces. Angular shapes were seen in the pyramids and royal palaces. The simple sheath dresses, heavy headpieces and graphic make up were the perfect adornments. Women were relatively independent and able to marry and divorce. Queen Cleopatra of Egypt was worshipped as a goddess and known for her style and beauty.

  • The ancient Greeks (500-300 BC) worshipped the pantheon of gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus, heroes, masculine beauty and the ideal of a muscular, yet lithe Greek god. The ideal female body was rounded, soft and muscular. Men and women wore a garment called the 'chiton', draped over the body and fastened at the shoulder or the 'peplos', secured at both shoulders. This heavy draping can be seen in surviving ancient Greek statues and is harmonious with the strength and beauty of these body types.

  • The Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) preferred women to be small and slim with ultra small feet, which led to the practice of foot binding. Doll like facial features and light skin were accentuated with bright and pale make up. Modest, brightly-coloured dresses showed off the desired slim waist. Colour of clothing denoted season and social rank, delineating social position in an ordered and hierarchical society.

  • The Italian Renaissance (1400-1700) preferred a rounded, full body with light skin, dark brown eyes, a high forehead, rosy cheeks and golden, wavy hair. The flowing dresses and voluminous sleeves allowed room for a larger body and the tightly bound corset emphasised the waist. The look was rich and heavy, yet angelic, reflecting the aesthetics of Renaissance art.

  • The Victorians (1837-1901) idealised an even smaller waist and sloped shoulder line. Tight corsetry was used to keep the waist as small as possible. The figure was covered by voluminous skirting as modesty was prized - middle to upper class women were idealised as the, 'angel of the home.' Make up was forbidden and only worn by prostitutes, although some women created their own recipes or bought very natural make-up under-the-counter at chemists. Victorian women who chose to wear it, were skilled in the 'no make-up look'.

Renaissance Feminine Body Ideals in Art

  • In the 1920s, the ideal body shape was boyish: slim and narrow with a flat chest. Clothing was likewise straight and narrow and larger breasts strapped down with a 'corselette' - a flattening corset. Hair was short and bobbed and hemlines rose to show more leg. The look reflected the geometry of Art Deco and Modernism. Women, many of whom had worked during World War I (1914-1918), began to show their new independence through dress. The straighter, shorter hemlines also allowed fashionable women to get in and out of the new motorcars easily.

  • The Golden Age of Hollywood (1930s-1950s) returned to the hourglass shape. Tight corsetry and bullet-shaped bras were used to exaggerate this shape. After women worked in factories, offices and farms in World War II (1939-1945) and men returned from fighting, young people returned to more traditional roles as they began to raise families. Femininity was valued and Dior's 'New Look' (1947) showcased a sharp hourglass silhouette.

  • In the 1960s, an adolescent shape with long, slim legs became fashionable. The 'Youthquake' and relative spending power of teenagers led to an explosion in availability of bright, geometric and slim-fitting clothing and the mini-skirt became popular. The look was youthful, fun and cool.

  • In the 1980s, a tall, toned, athletic figure, which was also slim and curvy, was epitomised by the era of the supermodel. This reflected the phenomenon of aerobics, gym membership and fitness, as well as the growing independence of the career woman.

  • By the 1990s, heroin chic idealised a waif-like, androgynous body type. Models became very thin, sometimes skeletal looking. Clothing became looser and more dishevelled-looking. They reflected the music culture of Grunge, relative economic depression and drug-taking.

  • Today's body standards are once again changing. The popularity of Instagram, social media, video games, photoshopping and camera apps with filters mean that very curated, edited and altered body images can blur the line between fantasy and reality. At the same time, scientific developments have led to an explosion in plastic surgery, as well as extreme diet and exercise regimes. Perhaps, this is why the body shapes in fashion now reflect an exaggerated silhouette - part-fantasy, part science.


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