Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, January 24, 2016

How Studying Fashion Made Me Feel Better About My Body

Like 99.99% of adult women in this country, I sometimes feel bad about my body. So fun! Being a woman is the best.

Anyway, the other day I looked down at my stomach and saw that I was developing bit of a belly. And I felt gross, because everyone knows that women are supposed to have flat stomachs. But then I remembered some things I've learned in fashion history, and I shut down that body-shaming nonsense.

Some might think that studying fashion would make me feel worse about my body. There are all kinds of studies that show that a woman's self esteem goes down after paging through a magazine full of idealized, photoshopped images. I don't doubt that. The fashion of any particular time always revolves around an ideal body, and we are always fooled into thinking that the ideal body of this time in history and place in the world is permanent and universal. If what you see in the mirror doesn't match what you see in the pictures, something is wrong with you. But once you back up and look at images of beauty across time and geography, you realize how meaningless today's ideal actually is.

Let's start with the idea of "belly fat"

It seems like every time I dress a late 1880s dress on a mannequin, I or one of my volunteers makes the same rookie mistake. The late 1880s was a period of bustles and hourglass corsets, and when padding the body, my volunteers and I envision the hourglass as having only three sides: small waist with fullness at the back and hips. Our 21st century instincts make sure the front is flat, like we think it "should" be. But the dresses always look weird and saggy when we do it that way. Why? Because Victorians didn't give a s#*t about having a flat stomach.

Madame McCabe corset, 1887-90. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When you cinch the waist the flesh has to go somewhere, and so corsets and dresses were built to bulge back out below the waist. Once we remember this, we stuff some "belly fat" onto the form and the front of the dress suddenly drapes beautifully. Victorians may have had all kinds of restrictive beauty ideals about paleness, sloping shoulders, and tiny waists, but when it came to stomachs they were basically like DUH WOMEN HAVE BELLIES IT IS A BIOLOGICALLY NORMAL PLACE TO HAVE FAT.

But it wasn't just that women's bellies were tolerated or ignored in the past, there were also times when they were openly celebrated. Remember this painting from art history class?

Jan van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

At first glance, many assume that the woman is pregnant. I mean, she has some serious belly fullness going on. But if you look more closely, you see that she is actually lifting up the front folds of her dress and creating the illusion of fullness. Why? Because that was considered a fashionable, elegant gesture at the time. The ideal in this part of the world and at this time included a full, swollen belly for women--not as a symbol of pregnancy, just for everyday fabulousness. Don't believe me? Here is a painting by the same artist of Adam and Eve:

Or this one from another artist:

Pol de Limbourg The Earthly Paradise from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Today we are also convinced that a "good" body should be toned and taut, but in the early 17th century the beauty ideal called for fleshy softness and skin full of rippling dimples.

Peter Paul Rubens The Three Graces, 1635

Anne Hollander covers a lot of this in her book Seeing Through Clothes. She discusses nudes and nakedness in western art and how you can always tell what the clothes of the period are like because the bodies are shaped the way the clothes are shaped. She says stuff like...

Barnardino Luini Venus, 1530
In general the female body of the High Renaissance appears to have been conceived as a long, large stomach stretching from the collarbone to the crotch, with breasts the shadowiest of swellings. (Hollander, pg. 104)

So basically today someone might feel bad about her small breasts and "thick" waist, but in another era artists would fawn over her perfect proportions. The point is not that these past eras were utopias of body acceptance, but that the ideal is constantly shifting. Fashion tricks us into having here-and-now tunnel vision, but fashion history gives us a way to step out of our own time and see the bigger picture. 

And the bigger picture is this: If you identify as a human woman, you have a woman's body. There is no "real" woman's body, there is no attribute that all women "should" have, there is no universal standard of beauty. Even if our culture in this time and place tries to tell you that nothing about you is beautiful, you are entitled to feel beautiful anyway. And if feeling beautiful isn't important to you, you are also entitled to not give a crap. 


  1. Great post, Clara. Thanks for the reminder, and the historical evidence!

  2. I like to believe I was built like a Greek goddess

  3. THANK YOU for writing this. And kudos to Rubens for painting the most honest butts.