An Analysis of Women’s Dress as Related to Ideals of Beauty and Social Status

By Sarah Andrews

If woman had only shown enough sense to remain content with her role as the passive human clay which man could mold according to his fantasies, to develop his perceptions concerning the structures of ideal beauty, everything would have been well.

– Bram Dijkstra

Introduction

The feminine form has served as the template for women’s fashion. However, often instead of the body being a canvas upon which society can paint a style of dress, it has been treated as a lump of clay which can be dissected and reshaped. This mutilation is the result of an ideal of beauty that does not coincide with the natural body. These societal standards then force women to submit to fashions, which transform the very shape of the body into new and unnatural lines. The conventionalization of this trend inhibits function of the female body and sexualizes and objectifies the feminine form.

This paper will focus on the aesthetics of form, the undergarments and costumes that mold the body, and the societal implications of form and function, which are created by fashion in four major periods. These include Greek, Renaissance, 19th Century, and present day dress. This paper will conclude that costume has not served to flatter the feminine form, but rather to change it and render it functionless resulting in the objectification of women.

Society has long dictated tenets for fashionable dress. Penny Storm defines fashionable dress in her book Functions of Dress: “Fashionable dress allows us to conform comfortably and feel integrated while safely differentiating ourselves. We gain control over situations by wearing fashionable dress” (Storm, 331). The mandates of society concerning dress are of great importance as they have a direct impact on controlling social situations or affecting status. Storm also asserts that men’s dress has been found to be a less important in social settings than women’s (110). Historically there is a great deal of advantage for a woman to align herself with fashion.

Clothes represent an art form rising out of a period and environment (Broby-Johansen, 5). These parameters are always changing the line of the feminine form to better fit the ideal of beauty in any given society. Mankind has long valued beauty in a profound manner. George Santayana declares, “There must be in our very nature a very widespread tendency to observe beauty and value it. No account of the principles of the mind can be at all adequate that passes over so conspicuous a faculty” (Etcoff, 2). Not only has man sought after beauty to posses it, but also to control it. Therefore society create a standard of beauty. This ideal is held forth as the standard by which all are judged.

Throughout history differing aesthetics have moved in and out of popularity in the fashion world.

Aristotle places emphasis on the desire for physical beauty. He says, “Beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction” (Etcoff, 30). The ideal of physical beauty has never been incarnated, and yet that does not stop people from striving towards it. Carnal beauty has long been equated with spiritual beauty. Sappho wrote, “What is beautiful is good” (40). Certainly then it is advantageous for individuals to align themselves as closely as possible with their societies’ vision of ideal beauty.

Women have historically been molded into many shapes that differ significantly from the natural lines of their bodies. Unseen beneath their garments is the culprit: underwear, which has created a foundation upon which their costumes rest. Using materials varying from wool to iron, society has sculpted living flesh into a flat, functionless, ideal of beauty. In dealing with the physical appearance the fashion world can serve as an indicator of the ideal of any given society as well as the value that is placed on women.

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