A girl walked through the bar today. She was today's perfect Hollywood standard; tallish, thin, no hips, no butt, no chest. She wore terrycloth boy shorts rolled down futher, and a bikini halter top. She didn't have an ounce of fat on her body -- we would have known. There was no place to hide it.p> Female beauty is constantly evolving. Before the industrial revolution, apparel (and thus the preferred physique) changed about once every century. The industrial revolution pushed the revolving standard to every twenty years. This past century revolved about every decade. And of course women's looks have altered much more drastically than male , I think. The suit, for example, has remained remarkably the same since about the late 19th century.
C. S. Lewis, in his book "That Hideous Strength" talks some about how every new fashion change alters a woman's role. (He is referring mostly to the Edwardian Period, where restrictive clothing encouraged women to be inactive and helpless, and the following Jazz age, when women wanted to be youthfull and boyish)
In the 12th and 13th century, the dresses were long. An underdress was covered by a tunic with arm openings below the waist, and a hip belt. (Think Eowyn in Lord of the Rings) Women were to be thin, tall, and stately. The next fashion was high waisted dresses. The skirt was tightly gathered just beneath the breasts. To be a virtuous woman, one was to look pregnant.
The 17th century (I hope I'm getting my centuries right. All of my costume books are in a box in Waco), bodices were tight, skirts long, and a large ruffled collar was vogue. (think Elizabeth)
In the eighteenth century, whalebone corsets were introduced as high fashion. Bucket panniers held the dress away from the body, and breasts were pushed high and exposed. To be in fashion, women took baby steps, and breathing was so restricted that any exertion was liable to bring on a faint.
Possibly the least restrictive clothing for women in 2,0000 years was the neo-classical period. (Think Jane Austen) The skirts were above the foot; dresses were made of cottons instead of heavy velvets; women were encouraged to have "correct" figures, usually referring to greek statuary.
From here on in history, the "ideal woman" becomes impossible and absurd. (From my perspective, at least in the 19th century a woman had corsets to help her assume the correct shape. Now we have no recourse but to diet, lift weights, or stuff) The mid-19th century favors plump women with sloping shoulders. Ten years later tight bodices emphase the waist, breasts, and hips. Then, the S-silhuete comes in. You've seen the pictures of the Gibson Girls with the wasp waists and large busts. The twentieth century favored, in this order: trim, geisha, boyish, glamourous, trim and boxy, hyper curvy, slim and leggy, stick thin, (who the heck knows for the eighties -- that was the worst of all possible fashion decades, and those who seem determined to bring it back ought to be shot), unisex, and now -- boyish again.
Where is all of this leading. Right, the girl in the bar. This isn't a lecture on the evils of fashion. I like fashion. I like costume history. I think it's fascinating to read how closely current events are mirrored in the change in clothing. (From about 1500 on, it was preferable to be overweight. It was also vogue to have white skin. Why? Because that meant you had enough money to eat, and didn't have to work outside in the sun to get it. Why is being thin and having a tan vogue now? Because it implies you are rich enough to exercise hours every day, and spend the rest by the pool/golfing/at the beach.) What disturbed me about this girl was how young she is, and how well she's bought into the Hollywood standard. You know the type. Brittany Spears, the Olson twins, any number of underweight stars. (They do have the excuse of fifteen pounds. Everyone knows the cameras add that much. But, given that excuse, they should look "normal" to us until we get up close) This girl is walking around, probably starving herself to achieve an ideal look that is going to change in another couple of years. After that, she will likely be out getting implants when butts are back in, liposuction when they aren't. Silicone, and collagin, and the latest diet. All for what. The advantage our predecessors had was that beauty then WAS only skin deep. The body shape was altered by external means -- through fabric and boning and alterations of style. Now our fashions mean changing our metabolism and diet, excersize, and very shape. It doesn't give us much room for error.
Where can fashion go from here? Well, unless Star Trek is right (look out ladies!) the next move should be a swing in the opposite direction. We'll rediscover that clothing is a good thing. The more the better. If not, start the Atkins diet. Because we'll be walking around naked next.