Wednesday, April 13, 2011

M is for Modification

If I ever go back to school for my MA in History, my thesis would be about the evolution of body modification in Western culture as pertains to fashion and social norms.  Everyone thinks about foot binding in Asian cultures or neck rings in Africa -- but extreme body modification happens around us today. Most people do not note it because it conforms with our society's ideal of beauty.  Since when was a 6' tall, size 2, 32 D woman a natural body type? Social norms set unrealistic standards of beauty that are unattainable to the majority of the population, and for those with the ability to acheive those standards, require unhealthy living and plastic surgery. 

The true fashionable ideal is only available to the elite, the wealthy. The working class woman does not have time to dedicate to aesthetic fitness or the money to spend on face lifts, boob jobs, or Prada shoes.  As such what is considered beautiful has created an unspoken but clear class delineation.

This is not new to Western culture. As feudal law gave way to centralized government and a focus on the value of education and culture over brute strength, the distinction between masculine and feminine was made clearer through styles of dress. In the upper classes, the woman's dress greatly limited physical movement.  The practice of corseting took feminine shape and restricted it into something considered more sophisticated, with only the lower classes who did not have servants to dress them or needed to be able to move freely remaining shaped by nature.

Corsets changed shape from era to era, sometimes strictly conical, sometimes hourglass, always modifying the natural shape of a woman's body.  Some eras had more extreme modifications in the name of fashion followed but something more relaxed followed by more layers and stricter binding, always cyclical.  Add to that bustles, hoop skirts, panniers, farthingales, bumrolls, petticoats, push up bras, wigs, ruffs, trains, stilettos, platforms, waxing, breast/bottom augmentation, tummy tucks, cut muscles, color contacts, acrylic nails, perms, weaves, tattoos, or piercings and you end up with generations of well dressed women who probably don't even know what they really look like.

That said, I have pierced ears, a tattoo, and have been dying my hair since I was 18.  I like my bra to give a nice lift, I shave my legs every so often, love pedicures, and like how I look in heels.  I love historical costume and have been an active participant in historical reenactment as a noble of Queen Elizabeth's court, complete with corset, farthingale, bumroll, etc...  I am not criticizing fashion or fashionistas or those who have plastic surgery (though excessive use can be considered a pathology).  I am merely identifying that body modification is alive and well in the modern world and has been growing and changing for some time.

The image below is a time line of fashionable silhouettes. You can really see the changing standards of beauty in regard to body shape.  Notice that after 1820, the male shape stayed more or less the same: functional.

I decided to add this post because I noticed that the majority of my A-Z posts were aimed at comedy and/or for shock value.  During my regularly scheduled posting, while I do indulge my sense of humor, I also like to approach the historical and social aspect of my writing. My stories all stemmed from my love of history and my love of history is directly related to my love of costuming.  


Michael Di Gesu said...

Very interesting post, Erin. I liked how you tied in several cultures and historical times. Well done.

Ellie Garratt said...

Fascinating post. Sadly I was not shocked - I see examples of the body image we're supposed to live up to all the time.

Ellie Garratt

J E Fritz said...

This was really interesting to read. I never thought about how much fashion has changed (or stayed the same in some ways) throughout history. Great post!

Dawn Embers said...

Interesting post. I've always wanted a corset but the goal has always been to lose weight first. Haven't been successful yet but still am working on it.

Spanj said...

Awesome post. This is something that totally fascinates me as well (and I too am pierced, tattooed and dye and straighten my hair)

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