Fashion and Women’s Body Image

If you watch TV in the evening for any period of time – especially channels whose target audience is women – you’ll see Marie Osmond promoting the positive life changes brought by Nutrisystem dieting.   You might also see Kirstie Alley returning, yet again (how much weight has she lost over the years?  Must be hundreds of pounds)to laud the benefits of Jenny Craig.  While studies question the effectiveness of these “weight-loss systems”, and declining sales revenues indicate they are not as popular as they once were, still Americans – especially women- struggle to achieve the ideal of a slim body.   For the past thirty years, we’ve also seen thousands of women and teenagers struggle to conform to this image, some resorting to bizarre food regimens, bulimia, or anexoria.


This ideal image of a woman – slim and tall – is very much a product of the 20th century advertising industry.  Before 1900, few American women had the time or money to invest in the latest fashions;  practical clothing (a relative term in an age of long skirts and corsets) was desired, and weight was not a concern for most women who rarely had sweets and still walked a great deal as part of their daily routine.

Fashion 1880

For many women, their only attempts to remain “fashionable” was a new hat (not a gun, as this photograph implies!)

But by the early 20th century, American factories were producing large amounts of cloth;  industrial sewing machines were also turning out “ready-made” clothing, eliminating the large expense of hiring a seamstress.   Fashion illustrators found work in creating advertisements for clothing manufacturers;  one of these was Richard Dana Gibson, who created the first real image of an “American Girl” with his “Gibson Girl” (supposedly modeled after his beautiful wife).

Fashion Gibson GirlNotice what this “American Girl” is doing – golfing!   Clothing manufacturers quickly jumped on the growing middle-class interest in recreational sports;  they created bicycling outfits, tennis dresses, and swimming costumes, and the Gibson Girl apparently had closets full of all manner of “sportswear”.   Also notice that the hemline is now slightly above the ankles, allowing the athlete more freedom of movement.

However, despite the slightly raised hemline, the ideal American girl still has a narrow waistline (which showed off her bosom better).

Fashion modelling was still unknown, however.  Clothing manufacturers  provided wardrobes to famous actresses or wealthy socialites as a way to promote their clothing.   Mrs. Patrick Campbell, for example, was a famous British actress who toured extensively in the U.S. in the first years of the 20th century.

Fashion advertising Mrs Patrick CampbellNote how “heavy” she is by today’s standards;  Mrs. Patrick Campbell had big hips and heavy thighs that, fortunately for her,  long, beaded skirts hid.

But by the early 1920s, fashion images had radically changed.  Hemlines were dramatically higher, and that changed the entire look of women.   Machine-made undergarments were also popular, and many women threw out their corsets so they could move easily from home to workplace or to a golf course or later to a speakeasy (ok, a bit of an exaggeration, most women didn’t go to speakeasies).    With modern appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and vacuum cleaners, housewives no longer needed servants, but they still needed to be able to move easily to do their chores.Fashion 1920sNew technologies in the publishing field made magazines more popular than ever, and women’s magazines benefited.  Eager to lure readers, they filled their pages with advertisements for cosmetics and clothing.   European designers such as Coco Chanel and Paul Poirot saw their designs skip over the Atlantic Ocean and land in the laps of women in Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and even Elmira, New York.  Both of those designers made clothes for slim women, obviously.  No cinched waistlines, to be sure, but no hips or large breasts, either!

Movie stars such as Gloria Swanson also promoted these fashions, and movie magazines as well as magazines such as McCall’s regularly featured articles “written” by movie stars, who helpfully suggested dieting or even fasting to maintain a slim figure  (Swanson herself religiously fasted and avoided processed foods).   Other ways to keep slim?  Go to a spa, walk a great deal, or take up smoking (which was the preferred method of keeping the weight off in the movie industry).

The slim silhouette has remained the ideal image since.   In the 1950s, fashion once again emphasized small waists, and now, using wartime innovations such as elastic and polyester, women’s undergarments could help:  girdles and bras became required items in a women’s wardrobe.


Fashion 1950s

These fashions even look uncomfortable!  Women were not encouraged to walk much in these narrow skirts, and remember they were wearing stockings with garter belts over girdles and two inch heels!

During the 1950s, fashion modelling became an industry, but it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that fashion models became celebrities.  Twiggy set the bar high, but her extreme thinness also created an impossible image to emulate by most women.

Fashion TwiggyI grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, and remember despairing at my “large” hips and breasts.   Yes, I knew girls who could conform to the fashion ideal, but now that I look back, I recall that many of them had bizarre eating and exercise rituals, such as doing 50 sit-ups before they could have a bite of cake, or nibbling at a meal, then lighting up a cigarette while the rest of us were finishing our food.  At least one of those girls ended up hospitalized for some mysterious ailment (probably anorexia).

And yet women still strive to make their bodies conform to these fashion images!

Yet, there is a glimmer of hope.  Dieting programs such as Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem have seen their popularity decline significantly in the past ten years, and nutritionists believe that this is largely because many Americans have opted to eat more healthy foods – fewer processed items, more organic and fresh foods- rather than spend money on packaged low-calorie products.   Now, if we can just stop believing that weighing 120 pounds will allow us to live happily ever after!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s