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An Analysis of Women’s Dress as Related to Ideals of Beauty and Social Status

Sarah Andrews

If woman had only shown enough sense to remain content with her role as the passive human clay which man could mold according to his fantasies, to develop his perceptions concerning the structures of ideal beauty, everything would have been well. -Bram Dijkstra


The feminine form has served as the template for women’s fashion. However, often instead of the body being a canvas upon which society can paint a style of dress, it has been treated as a lump of clay which can be dissected and reshaped. This mutilation is the result of an ideal of beauty that does not coincide with the natural body. These societal standards then force women to submit to fashions, which transform the very shape of the body into new and unnatural lines. The conventionalization of this trend inhibits function of the female body and sexualizes and objectifies the feminine form.

This paper will focus on the aesthetics of form, the undergarments and costumes that mold the body, and the societal implications of form and function, which are created by fashion in four major periods. These include Greek, Renaissance, 19th Century, and present day dress. This paper will conclude that costume has not served to flatter the feminine form, but rather to change it and render it functionless resulting in the objectification of women.

Society has long dictated tenets for fashionable dress. Penny Storm defines fashionable dress in her book Functions of Dress: "Fashionable dress allows us to conform comfortably and feel integrated while safely differentiating ourselves. We gain control over situations by wearing fashionable dress" (Storm, 331). The mandates of society concerning dress are of great importance as they have a direct impact on controlling social situations or affecting status. Storm also asserts that men’s dress has been found to be a less important in social settings than women’s (110). Historically there is a great deal of advantage for a woman to align herself with fashion.

Clothes represent an art form rising out of a period and environment (Broby-Johansen, 5). These parameters are always changing the line of the feminine form to better fit the ideal of beauty in any given society. Mankind has long valued beauty in a profound manner. George Santayana declares, "There must be in our very nature a very widespread tendency to observe beauty and value it. No account of the principles of the mind can be at all adequate that passes over so conspicuous a faculty" (Etcoff, 2). Not only has man sought after beauty to posses it, but also to control it. Therefore society create a standard of beauty. This ideal is held forth as the standard by which all are judged.

Throughout history differing aesthetics have moved in and out of popularity in the fashion world.

Aristotle places emphasis on the desire for physical beauty. He says, "Beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction" (Etcoff, 30). The ideal of physical beauty has never been incarnated, and yet that does not stop people from striving towards it. Carnal beauty has long been equated with spiritual beauty. Sappho wrote, "What is beautiful is good" (40). Certainly then it is advantageous for individuals to align themselves as closely as possible with their societies’ vision of ideal beauty.

Women have historically been molded into many shapes that differ significantly from the natural lines of their bodies. Unseen beneath their garments is the culprit: underwear, which has created a foundation upon which their costumes rest. Using materials varying from wool to iron, society has sculpted living flesh into a flat, functionless, ideal of beauty. In dealing with the physical appearance the fashion world can serve as an indicator of the ideal of any given society as well as the value that is placed on women.

Ancient Greece

When asked why people desire physical beauty Aristotle responded, "No one that is not blind could ask that question" (Etcoff, 3). It struck Aristotle that the appeal of beauty was innate. Grecian art and sculpture certainly allow us to see that the Greeks valued an ideal human form very much. The ancient Greeks seemed to view the body as a whole. They found and enjoyed beauty in its entirety, and on the body their sexual focus was not limited to the genitals (Taylor, 54). Greek statues depict women as youthful and round; a tapered waist connected high conical breasts and curvaceous thighs. Women were depicted as the perfect vessels for motherhood, which was their greatest function in Grecian society (Tyrrell, xiv).

For any given object balance and unity were of utmost importance, however, Aristotle also insists that every form must be considered with its function in mind,

"Given a material, a form, and the composite of these, the primary being is this union of matter and form; therefore, its material is in a sense a part of it; but in another sense it is not, for its parts are only the elements which are stated in its definition…. At least if each being is well defined it will not be defined without reference to its function" (Aristotle 150-151).

Aristotle insists on form being viewed as a whole concept, not a myriad of parts, and also that it is impossible for an object to exist without relation to its function. This might explain the Grecian predilection for sculpture, which could showcase the entire body and its raiment. Hellenistic Greek sculpture reveals a new interest in the eroticism of women. Before the fourth century BC most sculpture included only female subjects who were heavily draped with clothing. The Athenians reveled in male nudity for it symbolized a distinction between Greek and barbarian, implying a superiority of the former. This "heroic" nudity as it is commonly labeled was confined to the men at Athens (Pomeroy, 142). Athenian women as a rule did not participate in athletic activities, therefore there was no occasion for them to strip (143). However, the most striking hallmark of Hellenistic art may be the development of the nude female figure in sculpture. The most common manifestation of the nude woman was Aphrodite who while sexually attractive, also embodied religious ideals. So the female form began to take on a heightened sexuality (145).

Greek sculpture allows us to examine Greek clothing and it is wise to keep Aristotle’s rule of form and function in mind as we do so. In the context of clothing it is imperative to compare the structure of clothing as it relates to its function. An analysis of a person’s clothing can lead to discoveries about their place in society. Grecian women and men alike wore the chiton. It was one long tunic draped around the body and caught at the shoulders with pins. Men often wore knee length chitons, while women preferred the ankle length (Ewing, 14). The Odessy and the Iliad both refer to the zone which was a band of material, which bound the waist like a girdle. It was hidden under the overflap of the Doric chiton to gather the garment to the figure (Abrahams, 45). Homer describes Trojan women as wearing "deep bosomed" garments, which refers to the deep hollow between the breasts, but writes of the barbarian captives as "deep girdled" which refers to the wasp-waisted ladies of Knossos (Abrahams, 15). So the predecessor of the corset constricted the women of Greece.

The difference between the men and women’s dress has much to do with their functions in society. The men, as warriors, needed the mobility afforded by the short, loose chiton, whereas the women, we can assume, were restricted to tasks that could be accomplished in a long gown and tightly wrapped torso. In fact the cultural ideal of the Greeks was the adult male warrior. This depended upon the imperative that boys become warriors and fathers and girls become wives and mothers of sons (Tyrrell, xiv). Thus the women’s role is essentially to bear legitimate male heirs, and so their dresses were not built for any other function than to look attractive and remain passive brood mares. Herodotus emphasizes this while describing, a moment of change in dress for Athenian women in 568 BC. Previously the chiton was attached at each shoulder with a large pin made of bone or metal. However, Herodotus tells of a failed war effort by the Athenians after which only one man was left alive to bring the news home. The distraught widows of Athens were so enraged that they stabbed the messenger to death with their brooches. The women were punished and compelled to adopt the Ionic form of dress, which features a chiton with no pins (Abrahams, 40). The pins on the chitons had allowed the women to rise up in anger and take action, and so their dress was modified. The dress of Grecian women seemed dictated by their perceived societal role.

There was exception among Greek women however, the short chiton is sometimes found on Greek monuments of women as well. It follows the longer style in its pinning and arranging but is not as full and reaches only to the knee. It is worn by women or girls engaged in exercise or by the warring Amazons. It is often adapted to reveal the right breast which allowed an Amazon warrior greater freedom of movement to use her bow (Evans, 34). The difference in dress is reflected in the cultural role of the Amazon. In the Greek imagination Amazons reflected the destructive forces unleashed when women abandoned their roles as nurturers of men and appropriated virile attributes instead (Yalom, 23). The Amazon myth is the reversal of the cultural imperative: women who go to war and refuse to become mothers of sons (Tyrrell, xiv). These women gain power by adopting the actions and dress of men. The practice of uncovering and unfettering the right breast, or in many cases removing it all together, announces their unwillingness to submit to a male dominated culture which demands the modest covering of life giving breasts. On the other side of the spectrum is the example of the Greek Hetairai who were known to bare breasts for a different reason; prostitution (Yalom, 160). The word hetairai means companion to men, and the Greek courtesans enjoyed the unique privilege of education which fostered their intellectual and artistic abilities (Pomeroy, 89). The Hetairai were notoriously mercenary. They were the only women in Athens to exercise financial control over their money. From the time of Rhodopis, an Egyptian courtesan freed by Sappho’s brother, prostitutes were credited with dispensing of their fortunes in extraordinary ways. Rhodopis was reputed to have supplied the funds to build a pyramid (91).

These women provide two wonderfully divergent examples of female power. The Amazon found power in living apart from men completely. In their purely feminine society it was a badge of honor to remove one breast to increase physical prowess. The Hetairai, however, might gain her own sort of freedom. A woman could choose to be a prostitute by exploiting her body. If she was wise she might save enough money to open her own brothel and reach financial independence separate from a man (Pomeroy, 91). This is an ambiguous type of power however, and in this case the women themselves perpetuate lowered status for women. Unfortunately in a male dominated society the exploitation of the female body is a profitable business. In the end both the Hetairai and the Amazon claimed a higher status in their society than the citizen wife did, and this is exemplified in their dress. However, the objectified prostitute gained power only through the misuse of her body while the Amazon gained power by creating a society without men, so neither of them attained true equality in normal society.

The Greeks invented the predecessor to the corset, the zone, which served as a constricting force upon the body of the docile citizen wife. However, Amazon women rebelled against this completely. They wore the shorted chiton and often left their right breasts uncovered, (if it was still in place, as many removed it to improve their use of a bow). They were the antithesis of the proper citizen wife and their clothing was purely functional (Houston, 50).


In the Renaissance period beginning in the 14th century, we stumble across a large paradigm shift in thought and art, including the art of dress. It was in the Renaissance that the nude bust appeared in art, corresponding to a new sense of feminine beauty. Many portraits of well-known courtesans were hung alongside portraits of kings and popes. Often an uncovered breast was made to look as if it had slipped out accidentally adding a heightened sense of eroticism (Yalom, 58-59). Elite women were idealized in art and sumptuously decked out in court. However, the Renaissance was also a time of persecution of women, for with its brilliant high culture, it was also a time when witchcraft was arduously pursued by both Catholics and Protestants. Most of the witched condemned to burned at the stake- estimated at between 60,000 and 150,000- were women (60). The Renaissance glorified the young and nubile, while pictures of witches show them with hanging dugs, symbolizing advanced age and infertility. It was the flip side to the high-culture homage to female erotic beauty (61). One of the most famous burning of the period was of Joan of Arc in 1431. One of the charges brought against Joan of Arc was that she committed heresy by wearing men’s clothing. In the end she probably did so in order to preserve her modesty on the battlefield, but nevertheless her choice of dress aided her captures in finding an excuse to burn her at the stake (Knight, pars.19-22).

In the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, the Church dictated much of what constituted acceptable dress. The Bible implies that dress originated out of an instinctual desire to be modest, and this was taught by the Church from the days of ancient Rome until the early twentieth century (Hiler 4). In 14th Century Italy the Chevalier de La Tour Landry wrote a book for the education of his daughters citing examples of virtuous women known for their modesty, meekness, obedience, patience, forgiveness and charity. – traits he related to the supreme model of womanhood: the Virgin Mary (Yalom, 40-41). And yet this very reverence and imitation of the Holy Mother lead to a fashion revolution. In the early fourteenth century an alarming image of Mary sprung forth form the brushes of Italian painters near Tuscany. The Virgin Mary was depicted offering her bare breast to the infant Jesus. There are earlier isolated images of the nursing Virgin, but the Early-Renaissance proliferation of nursing Madonnas was a unique phenomenon which captured the Western imagination for centuries to come (Yalom 40).

It is not surprising that at the same time that fashion grabbed unto the ideal of the bared breast. The fourteenth century poet Eustache Deschamps favored the wide-open neckline and tight dress with slits on the sides, "through which the breast and the throat could be more visible" (Yalom, 39). Not only was the breast revealed in increasing measure, but also undergarments within the dress served to displace the bosom. The natural lines of woman became a forgotten ideal, and the body was no longer viewed as a whole piece as in the Aristotelian manner, but rather was divided with a particular emphasis on the breasts. The overt sensuality of the Renaissance woman certainly suggests she had power, at least of a sexual sort.

In the early 15th century the poet FranV ois Villon places words of lament on the tongue of an elderly prostitute who mourns the loss of her former charms, "Those sweet little shoulders, those long arms and nimble hands, little breasts and fleshly hips." The standard of beauty for breasts was that they should be small, white, round like apples, hard, firm, and wide apart. The standard for hips was soft, round, and fleshy (Yalom, 54). It is understandable that she should lament, for youth was highly prized, and older women were shunned as reminders of mortality. The Italian writer Agnolo Firenzuola imagined "fresh and leaping breasts, moving upward as if unwilling to remain forever oppressed and restrained by clothing, demonstrating their desire to leave their prison" (Firenzuola, 76). This quote reveals the new eroticism attached to clothing, which seductively constrained the most interesting parts of a woman’s body. Not only is the waist emphasized but also the tapering of the waist in girl-like, youthful fashion. Tight lacing is in vogue through the second half of the 14th Century (although the Italian women had displayed their figures much earlier). The waistline is sharply curved and accented by an excessively full skirt, which splays out from the hips. Sleeves are tightly fitted and extend almost to the knuckles. The necklines are increasingly low (Brooke, 52). For droopy breasts, there was the remedy of sewing into the top of one’s dress " two pouches into which the breasts are squeezed so that the nipples are thrust upwards" (Yalom 39) Again the foundations beneath costumes urged the feminine form to retain it’s youthful appearance.

Women’s breasts were extremely marketable as well as fashionable. It is no wonder woman began to use foundations to uplift and display their wares. Venetian prostitutes often floated in gondolas down the canals garbed in costumes that revealed the breasts completely. The wet nurse could earn at least as much as her working class husband. Her breasts served a two-fold function, they nourished the young as well as preserved the youthfulness of the higher-ranking wives who would not sacrifice their high, tight breasts as dugs to be milked. But by being a commodity she invited ill treatment. In a home a wet nurse might expect to be treated little better than a cow who might grant sexual favors. (Yalom, 160).

The Renaissance brought a change in the way women’s bodies were perceived. The body was dichotomized into pieces with the breast becoming almost an entity of their own. In many cases newly eroticized costume became a way for women to display their breasts as commodities for sale; gaining women a rather ambiguous lever for social elevation. While certainly this type of dress was functional in the sense of putting bread on the table, it nevertheless remains functionally rooted in objectification.

The 19th Century

The fashion of the 19th Century can be divided into four periods: the Empire Period (1790-1820), the Romantic Period (1820-1850), the Crinoline Period (1850-1869), and the Bustle or Victorian Period (1870-1900). The Empire Period is noted for its high waistline and translucent, clingy fabrics that revealed the body (Eubank, 210). The most fashionable of women embraced the freedom of the tubular, highwaisted gowns and went about uncorseted. Most women, however, continued to use the corset cut in a straight line so as to push the breasts out; the use of false bosoms made of wax or cotton is noted (211). In fact the corset prevails throughout the century, but shifts its focus in the Romantic Period. The stays become smaller as the waistline moves down and claims dominance. Women begin to wear drawers or bloomers underneath their skirts, which begin to blossom into fuller sizes shaped underneath by voluminous petticoats (222). The skirt can only be widened so far before a new mode of supporting it is necessary. The Crinoline Period is so named after the cage crinoline, which was worn underneath the petticoat. The crinoline was much favored by cartoonists at the time who found it to be an irresistible target of ridicule as women of fashion often found themselves in quite a predicament when it became necessary to board a trolley or carriage (240). Finally, in the Victorian Period, the crinoline gave way to the bustle which was suspended above the buttock like a cage between the skirt and underskirt (Contini, 252). The overwhelming feature of the 19th Century was the waist, which was whittled away by the corset into the space that could comfortably fit between the two hands of a man.

The traditional corset included a heavy busk, which was a piece of wood or whalebone that was inserted between the breasts and ran down over the stomach to insure perfectly straight posture. It was then impossible to bend the waist (Waugh, 132).

In 1811 this quote, describing the shift from the Empire Period to the Romantic, appeared in Myra’s Journal, a popular magazine for women:

When the arts of sculpture and painting, in their fine specimens from the chisels of Greece and the pencils of Italy, were brought into this country, taste began to mould the dress of our female youth after their more graceful fashion. The health-destroying bodice was laid aside; brocades and whalebone disappeared; and the easy shape and flowing drapery again resumed the rights of nature and of grace. Thus for a short time, did the Graces indeed preside at the toilet of English beauty. But a strange caprice seems now to have dislodged these gentle handmaids. We see immodesty on one side, unveiling the too redundant bosom; on the other deformity, once more drawing the steeled bodice upon the bruised ribs (Waugh, 133).

The author remembers a time when a more natural form was rejuvenated for a moment in fashion. However, the results of this brief respite was a fashion that swung far in the other direction culminating in the caged birds, which posed as women, beginning in the middles of the century. The exaggerated hourglass figure required that the waist be laced in so tightly that some women reputedly died from the strain. A waist measurement of seventeen to twenty-one inches represented the ideal (Yalom, 166-167).

The appearance of a fashionable lady is detailed in Modes and Manners by Fischel and von Boeke:

"In 1856 the underclothing of a lady of fashion consisted of long drawers trimmed with lace, a flannel petticoat, an under petticoat three and one half yards wide, a petticoat wadded to the knees, and stiffened on the under part with whale bones inserted a handsbreath from one another, a white starched petticoat with three stiffly starched flounces, two muslin petticoats, and finally the dress." There would presumably be a chemise and severe corset under all of that (Ewing, 69).

The weight of the underwear alone must have been over whelming. The most amazing thing about 19th Century fashion is how it consistently it defies the function of a woman in her society. She was to be a wife and mother and yet the waist was constricted to a degree whereby sustaining a pregnancy would be truly difficult. And yet that same tapered waist was considered the definition of womanhood.

The Victorian woman did not as a rule actually expose copious amounts of breast. What defined her femininity was a tapering wasplike waist. Whalebone stays were a most popular commodity which allowed the body to be reformed. The Victorian corset allowed for a flat line from just under the bust to the knee when viewed in profile. The derriere and hips were thrust out from under a woman’s torso as the waist was whittled down to a size that a man might be able to circle with his fingers. (Waugh 109).

A body constricted in that manner is almost obligated to remain passive.

In 1892 Mrs. Eric Pritchard’s The Cult of Chifon was published declaring the importance and beauty of underwear, "Exquisite lingerie forms the foundation of the wardrobe of a woman of refinement." She advises that a woman with a dress allowance of only 200 pounds (about 320 dollars, a very considerable amount for the time) should allot one fifth for lingerie and corsets (Ewing, 108).

This quote from Myra’s Journal in June of 1882 illustrates the lengths to which women might go for fashion:

"Yes, the ladies do chose to be shaped by the staymaker, and in these days of wondrous corsets the ladies are, as usual, right; but right or wrong they will follow their own sweet will as surely as water runs down the hill- Well made stays which measure round the waist two inches less than the nude waist will generally be found perfectly fitting and pleasant to wear. Some figures require more hip room than the ready made corsets allow; in this case the wearers must either have their corsets made for them or else wear them a little open in the back. If the hips are not well developed it is not difficult to place a little cotton wool inside the corset and fill the space with this soft material" (Waugh 109).

It is interesting to note that this passage asserts that wearing a corset is the rational choice of every woman. Although her society is male dominated and her reason for wearing current fashion is probably directly associated with catching a man, in her literature she is assured that she has chosen her ill- suited garment irregardless of how constricting or unhealthy it may be.

In 1876 this poem was published in the magazine Punch,

"Lines Picked up at the Brixton Rink"

Upon the Rink the Lady sat,
Beside her lay her dainty hat,
All crumpled;
She looked the picture of distress,
So dusty was her pretty dress,
And rumpled!
"I can’t get up, " in faltering tone,
She said. I thought that perhaps alone
She could not.
I picked her up. She was not hurt
‘Twas but the tightness of her skirt-
She could not!

Obviously even people at the time could recognize the lunacy of women garbed as mobile tents.

The Queen- a recorder of socially acceptable fashion expressed this sentiment on the topic of fashionable clothing in 1880:

One sees, with a feeling of profoundest pity, the waists which would otherwise well-grown young women are not ashamed to exhibit in public places, to the amazement of all who know what compression has been by which they were produced. Waists, which ought to be 25 or 26 inches in circumference, are reduced to 19; and when sensible dressmakers objects (as sometimes is done), the answer is given, "Oh, you make the waist of so many inches, and I’ll engage to get into it." How the ‘getting into it’ is effected, is one of the ‘secrets of the prison house’, which we are glad not to be called upon to divulge. But we do not wonder at nervous headaches, feelings of ‘sinking’ which call for strong tea or coffee, or sherry; backaches and pains in the sides, indigestion and poor appetite, short breath and imperfect circulation, cold hands and feet (and even red noses), not to speak of other maladies, of a less directly evident, a more painful and more deadly kind. One does not wonder at the sharp tempers of the young ladies with the wasp waists: but one is glad one is not obliged to associate with them. (Waugh, 145-146).

It is clear that young women were willing to sacrifice their health as they submitted to the cultural ideal of the weak, flowerlike woman.

Certain art movements began to question the beauty of these unnatural forms and pointed back to the Greek model of form following function. Behind this a movement began to improve the status of women and their attainment of personal freedom as well as political recognition. In 1880 Lady Harberton led the Rational Dress Society which promoted health, comfort, and sense in dress. It condemned tight lacing, high heels; all garments which hindered movement. It was specified that a total weight of undergarments should not exceed 7 pounds (unimaginable today). The Society also fought against changes in fashion, calling instead for a return to natural beauty. Society had gone so far in its dictates for fashion that people began to protest. They began to search for the natural, functional form of the female body, and for clothing that enhanced these ideals (Ewing 104). It is no surprise that these issues were being raised at a time when women were moving into the work place and the seeds of women’s suffrage were being planted. However, in 1895, Mrs. Douglas in her widely read The Gentlewoman’s Book of Dress, made her stance on breeches clear, "How could a mother in Knickerbockers inspire awe in the hearts of her peccant brood?" ( Ewing, 105). In this case the function of the mother was considered to be impeded by functional clothing and indeed the thought of women being accorded the freedom of pants was considered abhorrent.

The Present

Modern people tend to conceive of the body "as composed of interesting pieces and dull pieces: bits to be exploited and bits to be suppressed" (Cunningham, 20). So the body is seen in segmented, functionless pieces, which of course leads to their objectification. "Stripped to its essentials, fashion is no more than a series of permutations of seven given themes, each...a part of the female body: the breasts (neckline), waist (abdomen), hips, buttock, legs, arms, and length (or circumference) of the body itself. Organs ‘appear’ and ‘disappear’ as the theme of fashion changes, and one and then another part of the body is emphasized by succeeding styles" (Bergler, 117). The mythological ideal of the female body has evolved from the Greeks’ image of balanced maternal wholeness to a body, which is segmented into sexy, bit size, consumable parts.

The ideal in female form is currently realized with the supermodel. Photographer Holge Scheibe states, "The Barbie doll was the role model of generations of Cindys, Lindas, and Christys; the embodiment of blond, sexy and long-legged. With her long blond hair and her voluptuous figure, Claudia Schiffer actually posed in Italian Vogue (July 1994) as ‘the real Barbie’ (Steele, 143).

Penny Storm points out in her Functions of Dress that the cultural ideal still holds sway over the lives of modern women,

"The paradox of being a subject (mind) and an object (body) has created much anxiety in the modern woman. While she may exercise her mind (subject) options while attempting to create a more "meaningful" lifestyle, she will still generally experience anxiety about her basic sexual desirability, herself as an object. This anxiety can be allayed only by successfully attracting and keeping a man. Thus, the American female continues to try to enhance her physical attractiveness through her selection of clothing and her use of make-up. Her efforts are designed to make herself, as closely as possible, into a stereotype of the cultural ideal of feminine beauty rather than to enhance her own unique physical appearance" (Storm 161).

So it would appear that even the liberated woman of today still finds it advantageous, if not necessary to submit herself to conventionalized ideals and that she is willing to forgo respecting the very integrity of her natural body because doing so can lead her to increased social status.

Present day fashions are highly divergent, but trends on the catwalk are considered to be comparable with high court fashions of earlier ages. In 1993, Women’s Daily Wear reports that fashion had shifted from the convent to the cathouse and by 1994 the keyword was the power slut look. Femininity's new mantra was "strong and sexy". The look was one of steelely femininity and hard core glamour. Harper’s Bazaar declares that fashion’s new woman was adopting "a killer arsenal of old fashioned female weaponry." Upswept eyeshadow, dark red nail polish, vinyl glossy lipstick, and sexy spiky heels defined the extreme beauty of a modern woman (Steele, 146).

In addition, traditional forms of lingerie have been creeping back into the market place. Victoria’s secret has brought affordable underwear to the masses. Highly feminine brassieres in a dazzling array of cotton, lace, satin, nylon, and Lycra have created a frenzy, which certainly rivals the old corset industry (Yalom, 181).

In December of 1988, The Wall Street Journal announced that, "Breasts are back in style." The article points to the push –up bra, the foundation wear of the moment, which currently enjoys multi-million dollar sales (Yalom, 180). However, women no longer have to depend on undergarments to change the line of their bodies. The innovation in fashion today is plastic surgery. No longer is a woman bound to change her figure with external foundation wear, but now has the ability to make rather permanent changes to the line of her body with lipo-suction and breast augmentation. In the United States breast augmentation is second only to liposuction as the most common form of cosmetic surgery. In 1992 a study done by the FDA concluded that implants could be unsafe -that they sometimes leaked or ruptured and bled silicone into the body, possible causing such problems as chronic fatigue, arthritis, and damage to the immune system (237). Additionally larger breasts hamper physical mobility and may cause back and shoulder pain. But they are revered by men and therefore are considered advantageous by many women. A female psychologist referred to the breasts as a status symbol, implying that a woman can buy a perfect body the same way she can buy anything else (181).


Society has long dictated rules of dress. Being clothed fashionably has many advantages. It allows the wearer a sense of control in social situations as well as conferring social status upon the wearer. For women, clothing has been a means to affect power especially of a sexual nature.

According to Nancy Etcoff, the author of Survival of the Prettiest, "Fashion may chatter about many things, but the conversation is mainly about sex and status" (Etcoff, 209). However, as society has defined fashion it has apparently ignored the aesthetics of natural beauty and in some cases has so far exceeded practicality as to dip into the ridiculous. The feminine form has become a mere lump of clay which society feels free to mutilate, reshape and segment.

In ancient Greece, ideal beauty was described when one observed the form as a whole. However, women’s fashion made popular the predecessors of the corset which molded the shape (Abraham, 45). It is interesting to note that the legendary Amazon women adopted less constricting costumes which seemed to reflect their increased freedom in society (Evans, 34). It is doubly interesting when one considers the Amazon’s roles in Greek thought. She was a fierce warrior who not only rejected the role of men in her society but also created a society free from men altogether. She was the antithesis to the ideal wife. A societal code of dress might thus serve to remind each person of his or her place in that society. A woman who desired to advance herself in normal Greek society had to conform to the desires of men in her dress as well as her action. This meant casting herself in the role of the dutiful, childbearing wife. And this meant surrendering her body to the ideal.

The Renaissance was a time of sweeping change in thought and art. The focus was on youth, and lush high-breasted young women were prized while old gnarled women were shunned as a reminder of mortality (Yalom, 57). In Italy there was a shocking dichotomy to women’s dress. On one hand, wives of influential men were kept secluded and veiled. Their roles as mothers of legitimate heirs could never be compromised by any allusion to sexuality. On the other hand the elegant and educated Venetian courtesan was a highly sought companion. The courtesans were bedecked in saturated colors, and they were proud to be seen in public in deeply cut gowns, many of which bared their breasts completely (56). Famed poetess and courtesan Veronica Franco was able to rise from poverty to be a published author and courtier (55). Her provocative dresses served only to distinguish a body which contained a provocative mind. Thus in a society where most women were denied education and access to government, a woman’s only hope of advancement was to learn the ways of a courtesan and robe herself in gowns designed to seduce. Therefore, breasts were molded and perched atop foundation wear which was necessary to give them the appearance of constant youth and upward motion, the male designated ideal.

The Romantic period created an ideal which preferred the unmarred and untouchable. Women were delicate flowers and least they be plucked, they were arrayed in suitably dissuading armor. If a forward gentleman did find a young lady to be amicable he must needs first fight his way through a steel cage crinoline, layers of petticoats coated in starch, and a formidable corset (Eubanks, 222). Underneath the strain of tight lacing the woman’s body was in peril as her lung capacity was decimated and her movement constricted. Her need to attract a mate created her need to protect her virginity, thus her dress exuded an air of "touch me not". The best hope of social advancement for a woman was that she might attach herself to a rich and benevolent husband who might bestow his status upon her.

In Renaissance art and poetry, small tight breasts and large fleshy hips were all the rage. Now the ideal shape of the body has come full circle. Thin boy-like hips and an imposing bosom rule the day. And although the modern woman often resorts to changing the line of her body with foundation wear and costume, she has even more permanent options. Cosmetic surgery has replaced anything the fashion world might have to offer. And although in today’s society it is no longer necessary for a woman to rise to power by the means of attracting a man, there are reportedly one to two million women who have undergone breast augmentation (Zimmerman, 12). These women pump their breasts full of silicon in order to conform to the ideal. Even more threatening is the proliferation of eating disorders by which young women control the shape of their bodies through starvation or bingeing and purging. According to Mary Pipher, Ph.D. in her book Reviving Ophelia, "Anorexic young women tend to be popular with the opposite sex. They epitomize our cultural definitions of feminine: thin, passive, weak, and eager to please. Oftentimes young women report that they are complimented on their appearance right up until they are admitted to hospitals for emergency feeding" (Pipher, 175). These girls are so eager to fit the cultural ideal that they are willing to starve to death. Of all the psychiatric illnesses, anorexia has the highest fatality rate (174). The presentation will address young women in our culture and how they are affected by ideals of beauty.

What is the natural body? It is no longer easy to define. It has disappeared in a mislead attempt to conform life to art. The idealized female form has been deified to such a degree that we no longer accept the unaltered form as normal. When the body is revealed, it is altered cosmetically and airbrushed. When it is covered with clothing, breasts are lifted in the miraculous wonderbra and imposing high heels serve to lengthen the legs. Society has obliterated a naturally beautiful ideal, instead maniacally insisting that the female body be reformed and sectioned into manageable, consumable pieces.

Sadly, most women have embraced the preferences of their male counterparts and the dictates of society in their costume and the results are not positive. If dress is used to recreate and segment the human figure then the woman becomes an object rather than a person. The reward of objectification is a type of limited power rooted in female sexuality. This dubious power is achieved through the sacrifice of health. The very fact that a woman’s self image and physical health would ever be placed second in value to her ability to conform to an unreasonable ideal is contemptible. If nothing else the prevalence of this attitude would suggest that women’s status in society is still not on par with men’s. If a woman feels compelled to align herself with the social norms in order to advance herself in society, and these social rules cause harm to her body and psyche then the society must exam this norm as inherently flawed. A body that is tamed and restricted can never reach its wonderful potential.

The collective imagination of mankind seems driven to uphold the ideal of beauty. The ideal for the feminine form has deviated far from the natural form. These societal standards can lead women to submit to fashions which grossly transform and limit the human body. The widespread acceptance of these fashions confirms that the societally acceptable woman is objectified and sexualized. Society has conventionalized dress that inhibits a woman’s freedom to function and instead depicts her as an object.


By beauty I mean the promise of function.

-Horatio Greenough

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