The subzero sized model – the skinny on skeletal body ideals

(Originally blogged October 30, 2009)

Richard Avedon photograph, 1995

I generally stay out of the way of contemporary fashion because I only really appreciate clothing once it has a bit of history behind it. However, a recent news snippet revived the old debate about thin models and since its Halloween I thought a brief historical perspective on the skeletal body ideal might be timely…

The idea of using live mannequins to display clothes is barely a century old. The earliest use of models was for small fashion shows at couturier’s salons for prospective clients. Until the 1910s most fashions were depicted in publications by artistic rendition. The increasing popularity of photographs in catalogues and the new fashion magazine of the 1910s allowed artists to become less literal in their depiction of fashion. Drawn figures became more elongated in the 1920s to show how the fashions would look on unrealistically tall and slender models.

Richard Avedon photograph, 1995

By the 1950s, atelier models, favoured for in-house fashion shows by designers, were not the favourite of fashion photographers, such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, who preferred photographing tall, physically striking models who were also part actress and could portray moods through their eyes and shoulder placement. Models like Dovima, Suzy Parker, and Sunny Harnett became famous in the 1950s for their slim, curvaceous, figures and expressive, physical beauty.

The style of models changed in the late 1960s when the ideal model’s figure became girlish rather than womanly. Skinny was in, with stick figures like Twiggy and Penelope Tree creating the look of the modern generation. 1970s models Lauren Hutton and Cheryl Tiegs had crossed over into acting by the age of the supermodel in the 1980s. The term supermodel had actually been around for decades, but it became THE fashion catchword of the late 20th century when celebrity models like Iman (Abdulmajid), Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista strutted down catwalks as easily as they graced the covers of Vogue and Elle. These top models were ridiculously tall, slim, and beautiful but health advocates and psychologists were now drawing conclusions between eating disorders in teenage girls and unrealistic weight goals and body measurements.

Filippa Hamilton in Ralph Lauren advert, 2009

It looked like the industry was beginning to change a couple of years ago – some fashion shows weren’t hiring dangerously underweight models, and the Dove soap campaign for real beauty was encouraging a return to looking at real women with real figures as sex symbols. But the parade of malnourished starlets continue, remember Emily in the Devil Wears Prada? ’I’m only one bout of stomach flu away from my goal weight.’ A couple of weeks ago a brouhaha erupted over the cover of the Ralph Lauren catalogue that had an overly manipulated image of model Filippa Hamilton that frankly looks comically disproportionate but eating disorder groups didn’t find the humour in the Bratz doll proportioned computer model. However, perhaps we should look at the bright side — does this mean computer manipulation is the only way to achieve the ideal figure? Might as well go eat the Halloween candy then…

It gets worse: Filippa Hamilton fired for being too fat!

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
This entry was posted in Beauty & Cosmetics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The subzero sized model – the skinny on skeletal body ideals

  1. Glenn van Nijevelt says:

    The truth is, women clothes – not the wearer – only look good on women of size US 6 and US 4 (UK 10 and UK 8), with height between 173 cm and 178 cm. The catwalk models in the 80s and 90s mostly wear size US 6, and from the year 2000 onward wear size US 4, except for several “senior” Victoria Secret models, who still wear size US 6.
    Throughout the history of mankind, all attractive young women falls within this category, some shorter, like Marilyn Monroe, some taller, like Angelica Huston. “Young” means during the peak period of their reproductive years (20 to 35 years old). It has to do with nature selection as well as designer perception of beauty …………..There were exception, of course. Nefertiti, the most famous Egyptian Queen who lived 3500 years ago, was size US 02 and only 162 tall. Tiny and willowy…….
    The fact that nowadays – in 2018 / a young women of size US 6 is considered thin is because we have been stuffing our face with high-gluten and sugar-laden product from the day we were born to the day we die. In the 1950s, body measurement of 85 cm bust – 66 cm waist – 92 cm hips for a young lady of average height (168 cm to 173 cm) was considered “normal and average” in the Western World. And that is today’s size US 6.

    • Jonathan says:

      It certainly seems that way, but the Rubenesque figure was certainly more appreciated in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even during most of the 19th century, right up until the First World War, women were adding busts and bustles to make their figures curvier and more mature to complement the current fashions of their time. Since the 1920s, fashion has generally favoured slimmer, younger physiques, especially the 1920s/30s, 1960s/70s, and the 2000s/10s but there have been periods, like the 1950s, when fuller, more mature figures were better appreciated and flattered by fashion — Marilyn Monroe was tiny, but most people think she was much larger than she was…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.