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Shapeshifters: our changing silhouette

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As the definition of femininity has evolved through time, so have the fashions used to express it. Stylist examines our changing silhouette and the statements they've made

Words: Lou Stoppard

What comes to mind when you think of feminine dress? Classic bouclé skirt suits? Elegant silk shifts? Huge taffeta ballgowns so beloved of the Eighties? Or just a simple oversized white shirt and rolled-up jeans? Of course, it can be any of the above. What we now regard as feminine is plural and multi-faceted. Women’s shapes and clothing have endured so many changes that we now freely plunder from decades of different styles and interpretations of what it means to look and feel like a woman.

Take the s/s 2014 shows, for example. Accessories star Sophia Webster showed sugary sweet pastel shoes and clutches decorated with flowers, while Ryan Lo’s models could have been channelling child beauty pageant stars with frilly, frothy tutus and cartoon prints. But the catwalks also threw up a tough tomboy. She was sporting frayed denims at Marques’ Almeida and a boyish bomber thrown over her party frock at Jonathan Saunders. A glance at Stella McCartney’s runway revealed a mature vixen in lace, while nearby there was an artistic, cultured intellectual clad in a Prada mural dress.

Today, femininity can be whatever you want it to be, but it wasn’t always thus. Fashion is intrinsically linked to the society in which it’s created, and time was when we weren’t all so open-minded. For centuries, looking feminine meant letting your clothes whip your body into shape, because, traditionally, female bodies were dressed to appease men. The long-standing use of corsets highlights that, until recently, the female body has been treated as something that can be manipulated at others’ whims. From the bottom to the breasts, the curves of a woman’s body, which suggest fertility and childbirth, have been accentuated to respond to the inclinations of the age.

Suffragettes adopted practical uniforms to march in - as seen here in London 1908

Compare the empire-line styles of the 1790s against the tight-laced versions of the 1850s that reduced women’s waists to 14 inches, as the ideal position of the waist moved up and down. Likewise, the trends for displaying the breasts oscillated between rounded and prominent like a shelf during the Edwardian era to more discreet and flattened in the Twenties. Then there were hip-enhancing devices such as crinolines (cage-like structures to give overskirts the impression of being supported by countless petticoats), bustles (a structure to lift up a woman’s dress at the back) and even steel-framed panniers, a fashion of the early 1700s that expanded women’s hips up to several feet either side to give an exaggerated feminine silhouette, forcing them to walk though doors sideways. (At one point, women took up three times as much space as men.)

Notably, the head – where our biggest asset, the brain, sits – has been the most overlooked part of the female form when it comes to the sexual male gaze. The battle for equality and feminine dress have never been comfortable bedfellows. Oriole Cullen, fashion curator at the V&A, explains: “Feminism and femininity traditionally struggled against each other, from the Suffragettes protesting in their practical ‘tailormade’ suits and later on with the notion of bra-burning. It seemed that the two were distinct opposites, yet today we have realised that these two elements can be complementary.”

Marie Antoinette pushed fashion boundaries, but not when it came to colour

The founder of Browns, Joan Burstein (affectionately known by the fashion community as Mrs B), has observed developments in women’s fashion with interest over the past 60 years. She explains: “One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is the arrival of a relaxed silhouette – people are making sure they look good even when they’re dressing casually.” She’s referring to the sweatshirts and trainers that now dominate high streets and catwalks, but also there’s a subtext there; clothes once defined the woman, be it her shape or role in society. Now, the woman can define the clothes through both what she chooses to wear and how she chooses to wear it.

Skin deep

It heralds the end of having to serve up your assets on a plate to look ‘feminine’. Indeed, the ‘body trend’ of today is slender, lithe and sporty, a look that first found popularity following the First World War. Just as fair-skinned bodies implied wealth and finery 300 years ago, a sun-kissed body came to suggest modern luxuries such as air travel. Prior to the 20th century, high-society women had previously gone to extremes to keep their skin pale, as tans were associated with low-class outdoor work. Parasols, veils and gloves ensured that women looked like they had done nothing all day – the epitome of femininity in a patriarchal society.

But while today’s fashion may be less restrictive, Caryn Franklin, co-founder of All Walks Beyond The Catwalk – an organisation that champions diversity in fashion – sees the amount of flesh on show in fashion as a sign that modern ideas of femininity are just as reductive as those of our ancestors. “The recent deluge of porn culture has been channelled by creatives for so-called ‘edgy’ effect,” she explains. “I find it strange to see women who appear to be in the throes of orgasm framed in a fashion setting, as though this is what all women will respond to, when in fact it betrays an accentuated male view of femininity.”

Hollywood actress Barbara Stanwyck shows off the Thirties trend for backless gowns

The nude female body has always delighted and shocked cultures in equal measure. The story of Adam and Eve teaches us to be ashamed of our nudity, hence why the female body was clothed from head to toe for centuries. Until the 19th century, the idea of revealing lots of flesh was a huge taboo – something only prostitutes would consider. Only skin on the upper body could be shown off, with off-the-shoulder dresses that revealed a hint of the clavicle becoming popular from the 1650s, while gowns that displayed the breasts were ushered out of fashion from the 1760s.

And as attitudes to dressing became more liberal, erogenous zones began to move around. The Victorian era made the ankle a highly sexualised body part with decorated petticoats giving coquettish glimpses of a lady’s undergarments, while the Thirties saw the exposed back become the height of fashion (rising conservatism in Hollywood meant that dresses could no longer be cut away at the front, so costume designers simply cut away at the back and sides instead). In the Sixties and Seventies, it was thighs that were deemed highly sexual; a part of the body that had been hidden away until the mini-skirt arrived.

Interestingly, for many years, a woman’s style was also defined by whether she was a wife, a widow or single – this sartorial code even overruled her social standing. That’s why, during Elizabethan times, even the queen had to comply with the tradition for women to wear dresses that exposed the top of their breasts as a means of showing their availability for marriage. Similarly, women at the French court in the 17th century painted on beauty spots in different places depending on their marital status – on the right cheek showed that a woman was married, the left that she was engaged, and by the mouth that she was available for courting.

Status updates

One idea that still pervades, even today, is the association between femininity and looking delicate – reinforcing women’s position as the submissive sex. Cullen explains: “The Victorian ideal of the woman as the frailer sex, dressed up in doll-like finery, associated the idea of femininity with soft, docile, domestic creatures.” It’s significant that the flapper look – short hair, dropped waists and short skirts – which caused such a furore in the Twenties, was driven by women shrugging off the confines of domesticity and standing up for the new freedoms they had acquired during the war – paid employment, freedom to socialise and have sex. They were the antithesis of pre-war femininity. Androgyny was liberation. That same spirit can be seen more literally in the power-dressing Eighties, when women embraced mannish trousers and shoulder pads to show they could hold their own in the office.

The Alexander McQueen 'bumster' created controversy in 1996

Fashion is full of pioneers who have pushed forward new visions of femininity, regardless of the norms of the time. “Coco Chanel made a difference by introducing a more elegant way of dressing,” says Mrs B. “Then Donna Karan defined the Eighties with her ‘bodies’, a very practical item of clothing.” In recent years, the pace of the fashion industry has been turned up a gear. This means the biggest redefinitions of femininity have often come when designers have been trying to outdo their rivals. So the battle between Miuccia Prada and Tom Ford (when he was at Gucci) saw two different views of femininity blossom at the same time – Ford’s a heady, in-your-face sexy look, Prada’s a difficult, ‘ugly’ look, all fur skirts and clunky shoes. Marc Jacobs’ fight against the voluptuous glamazons that dominated fashion in the early Nineties saw him redefine femininity with his now infamous ‘Grunge’ collection at Perry Ellis. Similarly, Alexander McQueen shook up London by showing aggressive, strong women in armour and ‘bumsters’.

Ironically, while we now see them as innovators, at the time Jacobs and McQueen both came under fire for their visions – Jacobs for helping contribute to ‘heroin chic’ and McQueen for being a misogynist because of the raw way he presented his models. All of this illustrates that there’s a fine line between progress and regression.

You could see colour and print as a big step forward for women; a chance to shrug off former restrictions when pale colours were deemed more elegant (even style maverick Marie Antoinette favoured a tasteful palette of cream, gold and oyster). But now, bold print can also be a code for girlishness.

Small waists, big skirts: Christian Dior's new look of 1947 divided opinion

Pink, too, has evolved from being an emblem of immaturity and innocence, to being the most fashionable colour of last year. All black is now considered liberating and modern, where once it was only worn in mourning. And Mary Quant’s radical mini, once a revolutionary garment, is now regarded as little more than a tool to seduce men.

One of the most iconic collections, Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ from 1947, all nipped-in waists and full skirts, was equally divisive. For some it was all about escapism from post-war rationed Europe; for others, those Bar jackets and skirts, harking back to the 19th century, were about rejecting modernity and returning women to the domestic sphere after the war.

Living colour

But it’s right that ideas of femininity remain open to interpretation. One shouldn’t be able to define womanhood; it’s all down to the individual. “I think the opening up of fashion in the 21st century, where less and less is seen as ‘out of fashion’, is quite a liberating thing. Historically fashion has been much more prescriptive – if one skirt length was in fashion, it was rare to see another length,” says Cullen.

Plus, fashion is now a global business, driven both by the explosion of style blogs and the ascent of new markets in the Middle East, Asia and South America. One culture’s view of femininity is very different to another’s, and designers must react accordingly. But diversity suits fashion, an industry that loves to contradict itself as each new season arrives. Cullen says, “Fashion is all about change, so we will always be able to justify why high heels ‘empower’ one moment, and why flat shoes are ‘liberating’ the next.”

In the end, femininity comes down to personal preference. Don’t they always say that it’s cultivating an individual style rather than following trends that makes you stylish? Here’s to wearing whatever makes you feel good and whatever woman you want to be.

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