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An Analysis of Women’s Dress as Related to Ideals of Beauty and Social Status PT V: The Present

by Sarah Andrews

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).

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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).

Conclusion

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

Works Cited

 

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Copyright Sarah Andrews. Reprinted at www.beautyworlds.com with permission.

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