Women’s bodies are constrained by clothing devices, which aim to give them a shape that has been established since the 16th century: it is a question of refining the bust and waist, and of amplifying the hips and buttocks by contrast. .
The farthingale in the 16th century, the baskets in the 18th century, the crinoline then the bustle in the 19th century made it possible to give volume to the bottom of the silhouette. The whalebone body in the 16th century, then the corset which succeeded it in the 19th century, had the function of compressing the upper body, and crushing or supporting the chest.
To this are added shoes with heels, which appear at the end of the 16th century. Platform shoes, chopines, whose platform could reach up to 50 centimeters, are already attested before in Italy and Spain. Women also often wear wigs, perhaps the most impressive of which is the pouf, a huge frame trimmed with feathers, flowers and diamonds from the 1770s, popularized by Marie-Antoinette.
The constraint of women’s bodies responds to several imperatives: it is first of all an aesthetic ideal, which aims to magnify the bodies and create artificial silhouettes. Through these uncomfortable toilets, women can hope to attract the male gaze by conforming to a standard of beauty that is valued by their contemporaries.
The care given to appearance and clothing is also part of the constitution of strategies of social and economic distinction. These constraining fashions mainly concern elite women, who can distinguish themselves from their peers and subordinates by the magnificence of their attire. A veritable race for sartorial performance animated the court circles, whose etiquette imposed physical and moral constraints on courtiers and fueled rivalries and power struggles. Women are in permanent representation, and, in the golden age of the bourgeoisie, in the 19th century, they are in society the emblems of their husband’s status and success.
Through their dress, women must also testify to their morality: modesty, virtue, propriety, are all qualities that must be attached to the decent woman, who must show modesty and not show her skin in public. She thus guarantees the reputation of her family and her husband.
The female silhouette also obeys an imperative of gendered clothing distinction: men wear short, open clothes, women wear long, closed clothes, the structure of which is an idealized exaggeration of the female morphology.
The long-term effects on women’s freedom of movement and health are negative. These outfits are heavy, bulky and suffocating at the same time, and make the most innocuous actions difficult (walking, breathing, going to the toilet, climbing stairs, etc.). They can even lead to recurring medical problems: falls, backaches and headaches, broken ribs due to too tight corsets, involuntary abortions, poor development of the fetus… The corset, gradually abandoned at the beginning of the 20th century, especially when the seamstress Madeleine Vionnet invents the dress without a corset, seems to lay the foundations of a cult of thinness, which has persisted until today.
To talk about it
Catherine Ormen is a heritage curator, fashion historian and independent curator.
She has notably published:
- fashion art (Citadelles & Mazenod editions, 2015)
- Brief history of fashion (Hazan, 2011)
How to watch fashion. Silhouette History (Hazan editions, 2009)
- History of lingerie (co-written with Chantal Thomass, Perrin, 2009)
- 19th-20th century fashions (Hazan, 2000)
Isabelle Paresys is a lecturer in cultural history at the University of Lille and a specialist in the history of fashion and clothing in the modern era (16th-18th century).
She has notably published:
- Show credits: Origami by Rone
The Why of the How: History
All the chronicles of Gérard Noiriel are to be listened to
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