From the boyish bodies that were so en vogue in the flapper era to Fifties hourglass and Eighties super models, each decade has defined its own ideal female silhouette. Holly Fraser takes a look at women’s ever shifting body shapes.

Ever since Botticelli put his final paintbrush strokes to the Birth of Venus, the female form has been a celebrated and iconic shape. But this goddess of love and beauty was no size 6, not by a long shot.

This full figured goddess would be deemed overweight by many in our size obsessed culture today, and would probably be more likely seen on Gok Wan’s ‘How To Look Good Naked’.

An equivalent painting today would have waif-like Kate Moss posing in that shell, a completely different shape, but considered by many the embodiment of female perfection today. The ideals for women and standards of beauty have taken a turn in the opposite direction in recent decades, but it hasn’t always been this way. 

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4 Responses

  1. Sarah

    I love your website but this article is somewhat puzzling. There is a biais in the way different bodies are addressed here, some bodies are celebrated with positive words and others are not. Hourglass figures are glorified whilst thinner figures are deemed masculine (‘boyish’) and linked to bad guy ethics (the ‘multi-million pound weight loss industry’). But wait, shouldn’t beauty rhyme with diversity ? The problem here is the suggestion that there is such a thing as a normal body (the article talks about the ‘average woman’), when in reality there isn’t. There are different women out there : some people are born like this and others are born like that. Yes canonical ideals do evolve over time and yes some women do go overboard to try and conform. But that does not only include dieting or binding one’s breasts to conform to the thinner ideal, it goes both ways, e.g. injuries induced by corsets or the surgeries that Marilyn Monroe underwent to conform to the hourglass ideal. The problem is that ideals are by definition extraordinary; and no matter if it is about being slender or voluptuous, it is never meant to be ordinary or ‘average’. Depending on what nature gave you, it will be as much of ‘a nightmare to attain’ being Marylin Monroe as it can be to attain being Audrey Hepburn. Besides, looks are not so much about size, but about features and shape; clearly not every size 12 woman looks like Marilyn, not every size 6 woman looks like Audrey, and if there is such a thing as the ‘average woman’, according to statistics and censuses (or simply walking in the street) she does not appear to look like either. I wish that everyone would accept their bodies instead of going against it and what that entails is not siding with one particular beauty canon versus another, but rather letting go of the ideas of ‘normal’ and ‘ideal’ bodies. As for me, I am a size 8 woman, i.e thin person. I am one version of what a woman can look like among millions of others and I want to enjoy that without being called ‘a 15 years old boy’ or ‘shapeless’ or the rep of some bad guys. Just for the record, I take after my parents and I have never dieted in my life nor done heroin, I am shaped the way nature intended me to be and whether you like it or not, I totally embrace my body. I look at the 1920s for inspiration on how to best play with volumes and textures and other women might do the same with the 1940s. Vintage is also empowering because it encourages women of all shapes to enjoy their bodies the way they are, and to have fun styling and adorning it in using all the style examples that were set by women of all shapes throughout the ages. I wish this article would have leaned more towards that perspective.

  2. hannah asprey

    I’d like to applaud the above sentiment, Sarah. I like to think that the vintage ‘scene’, such as it is, rejects modern beauty ideals but also that we stand outside of this cult of judging women’s bodies of any size – whether deemed ‘too fat’ or ‘too thin’. In the 40’s and 50’s and again in the 80’s there was an industry of weight-gain products for women and men just as now there is a industry devoted to weight-loss. Who is to say which is worse?! As a teenager in the 80’s I read Just Seventeen magazine which routinely featured teenage girls complaining of their legs being too thin or that they were too tall and skinny to look like Samantha Fox! We go through this over and over again with every passing decade and the vilification of women with the ‘ideal’ body shape by (predominantly) other women as somehow ‘letting the side’ down is divisive and negative for all concerned. Let’s celebrate the female form… in ALL its glorious variations.

  3. Tash

    I’m so glad someone noticed this bias towards curves! I completely agree with the notion that women come in all different shapes and sizes and they are all to be appreciated. On a side note, the supposedly sombre and masculine twenties were also a time when in the western world women were taking a larger role in society and getting better educated etc, while the fifties let women stop ‘hiding their curves’ and conform to the hourlglass figure while at the same time keeping them cooped up in the kitchens in suburbia…I also think that while the fashions of the fifties are gorgeous, their values are not so, and hope that they do not come back in vogue!

  4. Cat

    I don’t know how it is in the UK, but I do want to point out a size issue here. The comment was made that not all 12s look like Monroe, nor do all 6s look like Audrey Hepburn. Keep in mind, a 6 today is not a 6 60 years ago. I stand at 5′ 7” 131 lbs. I wear a size 4 by American standards. I still fit into my clothing from High School, some pants I still have. They are 15 years old and a size 5/6. When I pick up vintage patterns from the 50s and clothes, I am a size 14. From the 30s, I am a size 16. They all measure with the same bust and waist, but sizes have changed. So you really can’t trust sizes at all.

    As for curves, there is nothing wrong with a little meat on the bones, as long as it is healthy and worn well. It is my goal to maintain my current weight and not drop to my college weight of 115 lbs. (This was normal for me, coming from a skinny family, not due to eating disorders. Some of us really are naturally thin.) And it is good that society is accepting curves again. Just keep it healthy people.