Sorry, but I don't think popular woman-shapes is a function of economic prosperity

*from Body Plasticity (warning: PDF)

(That’s actually not the best-ever straw man to cite as a representative exposition of this general idea, but it will do for now). I’m really speaking less of the idea that economc factors might have some bearing on the woman-shape of a given culture and era, but rather on (or against) the notion that the appearance that is fashionable for women to exhibit is cyclical and can be mapped fairly closely to economic circumstances. If I could find an ideal cite that would reiterate what I recall having had tossed at me in sociology courses and such places, it would state that in times of economic prosperity we worship (or lust after) images of slender women who are overtly sexual, while in times of economic hardship we turn to images of buxom women who are more akin to maternal than sexual. Hey, I’ve already confessed to seeking out a straw man to argue against! (People who prefer to mount their own argumentative alternative are of course entirely welcome to develop their perspective in their own directions).

Anyway, my claim is that the favored trend vis-a-vis women’s appearance is not just random and arbitrary fashion (“gee, folks in different eras dressed differently and different body shapes were in vogue, too!”) but also not reducable to anything as simple and linear as prosperity versus hardship.

I look back on the recently-departed 20th Century and across the decades I see five figures that reigned as feminine-desirability archetypes:

• pre-flapper era — in a move away from the “gay 90s” styles that finished up the prior century, no more bustles; a tendency for the body to be molded as round, the body covered but not loosely (in fact, there’s sort of a sausage-casing effect with some of the garments). Prominent breasts and figure but layers of stiff clothing that tended to modify shapes and prevent superficial contours and textures of skin from making any remnant of an appearance.

• flapper era — skinny, no breasts, shortened skirts, emphasis on long legs, short hair, significantly more uncovered.

• depression thru mid-century —round, big-breasted, with “decolletage” and cleavage visible due to lower necklines; longer hemlines;

• sixties and seventies —long-legged again, skinny, very uncovered; going braless; nipples not layered away from making an impression on tops; bras more “natural” rather than imposing odd shapes; more natural hair, various lengths, far less restrained by sprays, pins, styling, etc

•eighties and nineties — athletic, still skinny but ripped with muscle, still uncovered; waves of retro fashion (50s, 60s, 70s); more body exposure on beaches etc;
In all that, I see one linear trend: escalation of overt female sexuality (and/or female sexual commodification, depending on whether you see women themselves as passively on display or actively luring & being alluring, I guess). Boom or bust, war or peace, bull or bear market, I don’t see any period in which women have retreated towards a less sexual, more modest representation of themselves. Closest would be the depression-thru-wartime era styling, but I see it as more of a “sexuality isn’t just for very young girls who don’t even have tits yet”. Certainly there is room to say Marilyn Monroe didn’t represent a retreat from the sensuality of Clara Bow!

I do see some cyclical stuff — oscillations between childlike and maternal, for instance — but I’m not sure what it goes hand in hand with, if anything. The most maternal-looking eras were turn-of-century and depression-wartime. But the 70s, which were sort of an economic bust and time of tension too, weren’t enough more “maternal” than the 60s to give them a separate billing, even.

And certainly the low-rise jeans accompanied by the tiny t-shirts so you get to see belly buttons and tummies —a look that was quite popular when I was in High School in the mid-70s — has been back now for a handful of delightful years (mm, tight jeans and navels!)

Mods, if you think this would be more at home in IMHO or Cafe Society, do your thing…