by Michael Sones

Fashion can be thought of as a type of art utilizing cultural materials to transform the appearance of the natural body. It communicates things like social status and sex as well as enhancing attractiveness. While it may have evolutionary links with the flamboyant displays of peacocks and other birds it is clearly a way in which humans distance themselves from the natural world. Bodily decoration such as piercing, tattooing, scarification, teeth-filing, and foot-binding are ways of fashioning the natural body-making it other than just natural and communicating information about that person. Also, people often look more desirable or attractive when dressed rather than nude. This is not simply because clothes cover up bodily defects or blemishes. However, as well as communicating information clothing and fashion can also be used to deceive about the body which they adorn.

Clothing has been worn for tens of thousands of years. Due to the decomposition of the natural materials comparatively little evidence of clothing styles and fashion from prehistoric times remains. Near the Russian city of Vladimir there is a Middle Paleolithic site from the Streletsian culture. Burials dating back 25,000 years have been uncovered there. Three of the bodies (one of a sixty year old man and the others of a thirteen year old boy and seven-nine year old girl) were found covered in thousands of beads mainly made from ivory. Due to the placement on the bodies it is thought these beads once decorated caps and other items of clothing. Experiments have shown that each bead would have taken at least 45 minutes to make suggesting that the products of such intensive labour would only have been available to people of high status. Perforated animal teeth, which may have been worn as necklaces or bracelets, have been found on sites dating back over 40,000 years.

Corsets were used by women to constrict their waists and enhance their busts in Minoan times (1800 BC). Both the Romans and Egyptians took great interest in their appearance and were interested in fashion and style. The poet Ovid complains about how frequently Roman women changed hair styles.

The French anthropologist, Marcel Griaule, says that the Dogon people of Africa think that an ordinary looking woman can make herself more desirable than one blessed with natural beauty through dressing herself up with clothing and other accessories. For the Dogon, the idea of being clothed is intricately connected with speech in that to be naked is to be speechless and in the state of raw and dangerous nature. Note also that the word ‘infant’ is derived from the Latin ‘infans’ meaning without speech.

In psychotherapy dreams about clothing often have to do with the words-the meaning given by the psychotherapist-to the patient/clients material. It has to do with ordering, the fashioning of the natural, a way of containing and quelling our fears about the dangerous aggression and sexuality of unbridled and untamed nature.

Fashion, as we usually use the term in the sense of meaning ‘trendy’ or ‘stylish’ did not really emerge until the 1400’s with the rise of a wealthier middle class. To wear certain clothes communicated status if not occupation. From the early 1400s to 1700 the female beauty ideal in Western culture was a big breasted, plump, and somewhat maternal looking figure.

For instance, it was during the Renaissance that female décolletage became truly fashionable. Wet nurses fed the babies of the upper class and to have firm, upward pointing breasts instead of the sagging breasts of a wet nurse or peasant was a sign of status. The increasing preoccupation with the breast as an object of erotic attraction in the Western world coincided with a decline in breast feeding beginning about 1940 and an increase in the amount of bottle feeding. Some women don’t like to breast feed because it arouses them and they find this confusing. Other women say that it makes them feel like an animal. Hundreds of thousands of women in the western world have now had breast implants.

In the 1850’s women’s magazines arrived, including Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book. Each issue of Godey’s contained poetry, engravings, and articles. Mass manufacturing and marketing, a result of the Industrial Revolution, lead to standardized clothing sizes. Models walking down a catwalk were first employed by Charles Frederick Worth. These “live mannequins” dressed in the then current fashions. In the nineteenth century corsets were worn by women in America and England. The ‘typical’ Victorian woman showed off the higher social state of her husband through her fragility, paleness, and a tight, corseted waist giving the popular ‘hourglass’ figure. Some feminists feel that the corset, which uncomfortably distorted the natural shape of a woman, signified male control over women by restricting their mobility.

In 1863 Ellen and Ebeneezer Butterick created the first sized patterns for dressmakers. Before this creative invention patterns had all been same size. For the first three years they only designed patterns for only men and boys. In 1866 the Buttericks turned their attention to the designing of women’s dresses.

In the 1890’s the stage actress, Lillian Russell, was an ideal beauty weighing in at a remarkable 200 pounds.

Lillian Russell circa 1898.

Her first stage appearance had been in a light opera in 1879 but she didn’t achieve real stardom until 1899 when she performed at Weber and Fields’s Music Hall and later with her own Lillian Russell Opera Company. This fashion icon of the times was noted for both her flamboyant personality and her love of jewelry.

In 1914 World War I began and while all the carnage was taking place Mary Phelps Jacob, in America, invented the first American brassiere, made of lace patented the “Backless Brassiere” in 1914 and bra cup sizes were instituted in the 1930s. In 1918 “Diet and Health with a Key to Calories” by Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters was a bestseller.

In the 1920’s the fashion designer, Paul Poiret, developed the famous “flapper” look. The flapper threw away her constricting corset and wore short skirts and dresses that exposed arms and legs. The style had much in common with the look of French prostitutes who had provided company for many American doughboys during World War I. ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ was a highly regarded story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about the competition for social success. It was based in part upon his advice to his younger sister Annabel: in order to be popular with the men “Cultivate deliberate physical grace.” After the covering-up of the Victorian and Edwardian eras this led to a greater body consciousness and perception of other’s bodies. The flapper wore her hair short, or bobbed, and used more make-up than women ever had before in Western culture.

The first Miss America beauty pageant was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1921. From the early 1930’s to the 1950’s the film industry played a leading role in portraying the ideal woman and so in defining women’s fashion. The ideal woman’s figure emphasized busts, legs, and the full curvaceous form typical of Marilyn Monroe. In the 1950’s magazines, like Ebony, targeted at black women began to extol the advantages of lighter skin. Training bras and girdles become common. This was Marilyn Monroe’s era and she epitomized beauty standards. The focus shifted to a feminine figure with large breasts. The famous Barbie doll was introduced in 1959 with her long legs, big breasts, no hips and tiny waist. A far cry from the Venus of Willendorf (photograph to the left) which is over 20,000 years old. Yet, during the same era, in 1959 the US Federal Drug Administration Phentermine (Phen) which is an appetite suppressant that increases the body’s metabolism to help speed weight loss.

Skirt hems rose in the 1960’s and pants (trousers) became acceptable wear for women. In 1965 the average fashion model weighed eight percent less than the average American woman. Then in 1967 London’s Carnaby Street arrived upon the US fashion scene with the arrival of, Twiggy, the British fashion model. She was appropriately named as she weighed in at 91 pounds on a 5 foot 7 inch frame. Her advent on the scene triggered a shift in average sizes for fashion models. In 1968 there were riots in Chicago at the Democratic Convention, there was near revolution in Paris and feminists burnt bras, make up and high heels to protest the Miss America Beauty Pageant.

In the 1970s the ‘toned look’ of the fit body became popular in contrast to the former thin ideal and this trend continued into the 1980s with exercise tapes promoting fitness. In 1971 there was the first serious look at images of females in advertising and four main stereotypes were found:

a) a woman’s place is in the home

b) women do not make important decisions or do important things

c) women are dependent on men and need their protection

d) men regard women as sex objects.

These advertising stereotypes were successful, not because they created these images, but because they resonated with innate human psychological preferences which had evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and were suited to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This is not to say these stereotypes are “right” but to explain their influence. The images of beauty everywhere are not the average man or woman. Few ordinary people can aspire to look like the images of the exceptional beauties the media present us with. The models, actors, and actresses are selected from the thousands who apply. They are statistically exceptional in their appearance. Then professional stylists and make-up artists spend hours doing their hair and make-up. They spend hours in the gym. However, in films, soaps, and sitcoms they are often placed in ordinary situations so that we all feel that they are our competition. However, as Cindy Crawford says, “Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.”

In 1992 Working Woman magazine reported that 65 million Americans were on a diet. The female beauty ideal now seems to be tall, muscle-toned and large breasted women.

Human fashions in civilized societies can be very dangerous to the natural world. During the height of the feather trade, between 1870 and 1920, tens of millions of birds were killed mainly white egrets/herons and small terns. Many birds became extinct by the end of the nineteenth century such as the Eskimo curlew, passenger pigeon, great auk, Labrador duck, Carolina hen, and health hen. In previous centuries the fur trade, when trappers had hunted beaver, fox, wolf and many other animals for the European fur markets, had led to the depletion of many animal species and the destruction of Indian cultures. The prominence of corsets in eighteenth and nineteenth century fashion led to a great need for whalebone. Whales were hunted for their oil for fuel and their whalebone for corsets. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the demand for arctic fox fur led to a radical change in the Inuit culture and way of life. Inuit society had traditionally been cooperative and trapping is a solitary activity. Hunting was traditionally considered manly while trapping had been for women and children. In the twentieth century the jaguar and leopard were hunted for their fur for fashionable coats. Pictures of baby seals being clubbed to death for their fur coats on the ice by Newfoundland fishermen outraged the world.

Now, to be in the height of fashion, is often to dress outrageously knowing that this will soon be adopted by the masses as a style. Why this great interest in status and dressing like the aristocracy? Well, one theory is that it signifies wealth and resources. It shows exclusivity-others have to feel left out- and it also provokes envy and attracts attention.

The Fashion of Ancient Egyptian Women


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