Victorian Vogues to Kardashian Culture: 19th Century Perceptions of the Female Body and the Modern Media

By Jessica Wright

For centuries, the ideal female figure was ‘buxom, voluptuous, and indeed rotund’, dominating feminine beauty standards from as early as the English Renaissance period.[1] However, as Casey Finch explains, this ideal was completely deconstructed and rebuilt throughout the 19th century; the ‘erotic zones’ of the female body shifted from the belly towards the bosom and buttocks, and therefore, ‘[t]he new female objets du désir possessed exaggerated breasts, thighs, posteriors, and relatively diminutive waists and bellies’.[2] Thus, an extreme hourglass figure became the contemporary bodily vogue. In turn, sartorial fashions began to evolve alongside this new erotic ideal, exaggerating the contours of the female body and hence perpetuating this new beauty standard for women. Tightly fitting bodices were designed to define the small waist and simultaneously accentuate the breasts by pushing them up, while full bell-shaped skirts emphasised the hips. These body-sculpting dresses therefore collapsed the ‘age-old dialectic between the body and its clothes’, blurring the dichotomy between the naked female figure and the clothed woman, and essentially thrusting the corporeal expectations of women onto the public stage in a way that they had never been before.[3]

It is therefore unsurprising that the hourglass ideal – reflected not only in art and media, but in the everyday fashions of Victorian women – was subjected to much criticism from medical specialists, feminists, and social commentators alike. For example, in her late-19th century publication, Dress, Margaret Oliphant suggests that society had ‘arrived at [a] monstrous point’, in which ‘the painful spectacle of the whole female race more or less tied into narrow bags’ had become a terrifying norm.[4] Instead, she advocates ‘cut[ting] the strings’ to free women from this oppressive beauty standard, suggesting that ‘in our hearts we all rebel against this special freak of fashion… [this] intolerable bondage’.[5] Juxtaposing the language of constriction with the language of freedom, Oliphant highlights how the corsets and crinoline cages – worn in the pursuit of the hourglass shape – became synonymous with oppression of the female body, and thus women in general.

Therefore, the return of the tiny waist and exaggerated breasts and buttocks as a bodily goal for women in today’s media is somewhat perturbing. As the 19th century faded into the 20th, feminine curves were replaced with the more boyish flapper girls of the 1920s, while constricting fashions were substituted with looser fitting garments in line with wider emancipatory movements for women. Although beauty standards fluctuated consistently throughout the century, and the desired female body therefore alternated between curvaceous and lean, the 19th century extreme was left firmly in the past. However, in contemporary culture, the Victorian ‘hourglass angel’ is celebrating a 21st century renaissance, fuelled by social media and celebrity culture.

waist

For example, according to an article published earlier this year, the demand for buttocks implants has increased by 36 per cent in the last twelve months, while the ‘Brazilian Butt Lift’, a procedure to augment the buttocks, rose by 252 per cent between 2000 and 2015.[6] Similarly, corsets and waist trainers have celebrated a return to popularity as modern women increasingly seek the unnatural hourglass curves that entered beauty culture almost two centuries ago. However, more worryingly still, contemporary shapewear marketing subconsciously echoes Victorian gender ideology, repackaging it for a modern female audience; for example, one popular underwear brand, Hourglass Angel, draws upon the 19th century belief that the perfect woman, small-waisted and curvaceous, was the ‘angel’ of the house, thus dangerously tying female identity to the womanly body. Underneath the illusion of female choice, a rigid set of physical feminine ideals still exists, working to manipulate our perceptions of a socially constructed archetypal female experience.

With this in mind, have we really progressed as much as we think from the 1800s? While technology has changed, it appears that expectations have not. Social media and popular celebrities, led by the Kardashian dynasty, take the place of Victorian fashion plates, perpetuating the ideal female figure on an international scale, while Instagram models and hashtag crazes inescapably project these standards onto women all over the world. Thousands of girls are physically manipulating their bodies to reflect the hourglass Kardashian look, terrifyingly echoing Oliphant’s description of bodily female constriction. Therefore, perhaps it is time to cut the metaphorical strings once more, and free women from the overwhelmingly unattainable standards set by the media, releasing them not only from their corsets and implants, but from our demanding, outmoded, and dangerous perceptions of feminine beauty once and for all.

[1] Finch, C., ‘“Hooked and Buttoned Together”: Victorian Underwear and Representations of the Female Body.’ Victorian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3, (1991), 340.

[2] Finch, ‘“Hooked and Buttoned Together”’, 341.

[3] Finch, ‘“Hooked and Buttoned Together”’, 339.

[4] Oliphant, M., ‘What Is To Be Done?’ Dress,, n.d. 64-78. Haiti Trust Digital Library, p. 73.

[5] Oliphant, ‘What Is To Be Done?’, pp. 73-75.

[6] Mulherin, L., Thistlethwaite, F., ‘What is a BUM LIFT? Surgery explained after shocking RISE in treatments.’, Express, 2 Feb. 2017.

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