You Should Be Reading: Fashion and the Female Ideal

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We all know that the ideal female body–its shape, form, styling, even its very presence–has varied dramatically throughout human history. Readers of this blog are aware of the discussions surrounding the unattainably thin female body that has been in vogue for the past two decades, but what of the ways that fashion trends play into that ideal? How is that ideal body clothed? How do those clothes reinforce (or rebel) against the ideal? How have historical clothing trends addressed changing ideals? And (as some of you may be wondering), “Why does it matter?” Here are three articles, published recently, that tackle these questions. We hope you enjoy the selection!

1. Church Gibson, P. (2014). Pornostyle: Sexualized dress and the fracturing of feminismFashion Theory, 18(2), 189-206.

This article is premised on the suggestion that there are now two separate Western systems of fashion; here the word “system” is not intended to evoke the model suggested by Roland Barthes, but rather to refer, quite simply, to a pragmatic “system” of design, manufacture, distribution, and dissemination, similar to the cultural studies’ “circuit of culture” model of analysis. A new, unacknowledged “system” of design and promotion has emerged in the last decade, which has its own fashion leaders in young female celebrities, its own magazines to chronicle their activities and showcase their style, its own Internet presence, and its own retailing patterns. These young women often resemble in their self-presentation the “glamour models” or pin-up girls of popular men’s magazines, whose “look” is a muted version of the styling associated by many with that of hard-core pornography. The “body ideal” of this alternative system is very different to that of high-fashion; once again, it resembles the look of the women pictured in magazines for men. Although one or two writers on fashion have noted this new trend, it is feminist scholars who have shown most interest; they see the new system as part of the “pornification” of contemporary visual culture. A number of these same scholars are avowed anti-pornography campaigners and the author argues that this could further damage the fragile feminist project, already riven by differences. — Paraphrased Article Abstract

2. Kayoung, K., & Sagas, M. (2014). Athletic or sexy? A comparison of female athletes and fashion models in Sports Illustrated swimsuit issuesGender Issues, 31(2), 123-141. 

Using a modified version of Goffman’s (Gender advertisements. Harper Colophon, New York, 1976) gender display as a conceptual framework, this study examined the gendered body images of female athletes and female fashion models. The authors investigated sexualized female body images by comparing athletes with fashion models in Sports Illustrated (SI) swimsuit issues. Specifically, they used images of female athletes and female fashion models from SI swimsuit issues (n = 1,099) over the past 15 years (1997–2011). The variables analyzed included four photographic image categories: photo shot location, facial expression, body display, and hand display. The findings revealed few differences in sexual portrayals between female athletes and female fashion models. — Paraphrased Article Abstract

3. Scarborough, A. D., Hunt-Hurst, P. (2014). The making of an erogenous zone: The role of exoticism, dance, and the movies in midriff exposure, 1900-1946Dress, 40(1), 47-65.

This study examined the evolution of midriff exposure in fashionable apparel between 1900 and 1946. There were two objectives: 1) to understand the cultural factors that influenced its adoption, and 2) discover its stages in becoming an erogenous zone. In this exploratory study, a content analysis was conducted on the fashion magazines Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; these primary sources, plus analysis of selections from three newspapers, proved to be useful for the exploration of how the exposed midriff evolved from exotic dance wear to fashionable apparel. Cultural events assisted in the progression of fashionable exposure from underwear, swimwear, casual wear to evening wear in clothing that bared the midriff. Standards of morality were instrumental in the process of evolution. Production Codes established for motion pictures reflected and reinforced the morality standards of US society. Parts of the body deemed inappropriate for show in the movies were likewise considered inappropriate for fashionable dress. The 1940s was the turning point as popular culture and World War II helped to stimulate interest and more fashion pages featured women in midriff exposing ensembles. — Full Article Abstract 


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1 Comment

  • Heidi July 22, 2014 02.10 pm

    If only these had been published when I was writing my senior thesis! I must get my hands on them. 🙂


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