Fashion's Revolution since the late 18th Century: Beauty's Evolution in Female Fashion

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An American reader has provided HBC an interesting assessment of woman's fashions and clothing styles over time. It is a nicely-done student essay. HBC is extensively used for a range of school projects and we like to post some of the better essays both for the informaion developed as well as to show how young people view fashions. The author raises some very interesting questions which we hope to eventually persue on our site.

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How true it is that the general style of the dress is a sign of the times, and an indication of the morals of society. In the last century or two, female fashion has taken a dramatic turn. Beauty in the 20th century consists of reference to an outward appearance and one's sexual attractiveness to the opposite sex and society in general. Nancy Baker once described beauty as "intangible personal qualities" about a person and not based upon one's looks. Although this is quite true to those who appreciate a person for who they are and not what the appearance is, most of the world since the late-1800s refers to beauty of a person by their looks and styles. As Arthur Marwick once said, "the beautiful are these who are immediately exciting to almost all of the opposite sex." As sad as this statement might be, it is still none the less true in today's society. A womanís standards today are based on television and magazines. Women are compared to the unattainable air-brushed goddesses you see modeling the new fashion. Beauty has become a goal for most women in today's society rather than an attributed aspect of themselves.

Throughout history beauty has always been based on certain aspects of a person from wealth to age, but for the first time beauty is being based upon and associated with one's sexuality. No longer is beauty based on a person and their character but rather on a sense of [one's] 'sexual self worth' (Source 2, pg.11). The most recent generations of women have even resorted the deadly cosmetic surgeries to attain a sense of beauty based upon what society classifies it as at the time. Sometimes beauty is found in the narrowness of our waist or the body of our hair, never even glancing at the person themselves. Ever since the 1830ís each generation of women and men have had to struggle against their society's own beauty myth. Today women have accomplished almost near equality to men but with the equality they still bear the stress of appearances. Men never really had to fight to vote or be treated as an equal, they simply co-existed, but women had to fight for their equality all the time also maintaining their desirable aspect in society. As our society flourishes and cosmetics are mass produced along with new clothing and new revolutionary surgeries to take off the years of worry and struggle, women must face the inevitable challenge of meeting the goal of what our society believes a woman should look like. (Source 2)

"It is very little to me to have the right to vote, to own property, etcetera, if I may not keep my body, and its uses, in my absolute right." Lucy Stone stated this in 1855 and yet today women still struggle with the same idea as she did. We have accomplished so much in such a short time yet we have also accomplished so little. We have established the right to vote and own land, yet we cannot overcome the pressure of society's influence over us. Even today women cannot see their own beauty because their sight is distorted from the commercials and an advertisement telling us that thin is beautiful and that perfect skin and hair qualifies you as something special in life. Beauty should be based upon each person's individual characteristics and instead beauty is a feature women want and men desire those women who attain it. Today's society has based their ideas of beauty on sexual selection and just like our economy it all depends on politics (source 2, pg 12). The human species are mammals, simply animals. Yet we are the only mammals to choose our mates according to our ever changing perception of "beauty". [HBC note: Kate makes an interesting point here. We are not sure, however, that this is a correct statement. It raises the question as to just what beauty is. It may well be that beauty is the genetic residue of selection processes. There are many animals that have mating patterns in which physical characteristics make certain individuals more attractive mating patterns.]

Back in ancient times of 20,000 B.C.E, women were adored and worshiped yet these women or goddesses as they were referred to be older women who were associated with knowledge and power. These older women would age without fear, age made them more attractive because time only increased their beauty, for why should it take it away? Some tribes such as the Nigerian Wodaabes, had men compete for beauty and women would judge. The roles have been switched and now men judge a womanís beauty but the qualities of beauty have been severely distorted. The myth of beauty is said to be based upon one's intimacy and life, basically celebrating a woman (source 2, pg. 13), when in fact the myth is made up of politics and sexual repression towards women. This myth is not about a woman at all but simply about a manís desires and wants and his power over women (source 2, pg.13). Women are simply the victims to a man and what he considers desirable at that point in history. (Source 2)

For every generation the beauty myth is slightly altered but the pressure never lessened. [HBC note: Kate makes an important point nd is quite right that concepts of beauty have varied over time. In some eras slender figures were deemed appealing and in other eras quite buxom figures were more appealing. There are, however, some facial characteristics for example which have remained remarkably constant over time.] The qualities in women which are considered beautiful are only reflections of what the period and time considers desirable for a woman. If you think about it this myth of a woman's beauty is actually describing one's behavior and not appearance (source 2, pg. 14) This struggle for women all over the world could be overcome by unifying women and overcoming these stereotypes but unfortunately this competition for beauty and jealousy among women and resentment towards those considered desirable and beautiful makes the women of the world a divided group. Unlike history where the goddesses in a tribe were considered better with age, today the aging process is considered 'unbeautiful' and a shameful aspect of a woman. Youth is considered beautiful on today's scales and until recent years virginity was also thought of as a beautiful thing. Again resentment among women only grows and the old fear the new. The purpose of this paper is to describe the evolution of the word beauty and its impact upon female fashion and thought throughout the late 1800s until the present. (Source 2)

During the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, production increased and thereby destroying class values that separated the rich from the poor. Many new inventions were created such as the sewing machine which made clothing easier to produce and cheaper to buy since the labor was so inexpendive. Clothes became cheaply available to the lower classes. New color dyes were invented and new techniques were now used. These new ideas and aspects for creating clothes made them cheep and available to almost all the public. Now the lower classes could afford fancy clothes. The upper classes were no longer separated from the poor by their fancy wardrobes. This infuriated the nobles for now they were not distinctly able to be recognized in public but it was adopted with open arms by the lower classes for now they were taking a step towards equality with the upper classes. During this time, industrial economies meant enormous wealth to its society. Mothers were now able to leave their homes and had more time on their hands instead of sitting home all week making clothes. Before these inventions were created clothing was very carefully made and was also very time consuming, therefore the lower classes could not afford to pay for such a task. The sewing machine was created in 1790 but would take a while before it hit societies and began to play a major role. (Source 5)

"Off the rack" clothes which were made ready to go for the first time were being made. Now fashionable wear became available to the public and not just those of noble blood. Clothing was used to reflect different social classes but now almost all social classes could afford to wear the fancy clothing, which was once so unattainable. European cultures used to regulate who was aloud to wear what, as early as the 16th century the commoners were forbidden to dress like the nobles, and even in the Victorian era clothing was considered a sign of wealth and not of ones rank. It was also a woman's duty to make herself beautiful without the help of cosmetics for during that time cosmetics were thought to be a sign of a prostitute. Regardless it seemed as though commoners were never aloud to improve their status from government restrictions to lack of money. But now they were given the chance to improve their lives. Fashionable clothing and luxuries were now available to middle and working classes. Another unique invention included interchangeable parts. This allowed machines to break and without replacing the entire machine, a simple part could be replaced. Also the coal-fired steam engine increased production making the prices for clothing drop even lower. (Source 5)

During the early-18th century female fashion seemed to reflect the romantic attitude. (source 1, pg. 221) Corsets were always worn with pulleys attached so they could be pulled to the tightest point. Skirts resembled the shape of a bell and normally reached the length of the floor. Sleeves were puffed into [?ringlets] and usually sank over the womanís wrists. Colorful bonnets replaced the everyday use of hats and they were decorated with bows, feathers and flowers. The most popular colors during this time were lilac and rise. During the 1820s a women strived for the modest look. One would usually wear her hair in drooping ringlets and ears were hidden under bonnets, mostly during the 1830s. (Source 5, pg 221) During this time men wore very simple outfits consisting of a blue or brown waist coat and trousers along with a nice pair of shoes. Women also wore long floor length dresses with narrow waists and a high neck. Nearly all clothing was hand sewn until 1846 when the sewing machine took a major role in societyís industry. And then again in 1865 the steam powered engine was created and put into everyday uses. Tailors along with the dress market sky rocketed and soon [?"shopping centers"] were created for the public. Now instead of production taking place in one's cellar or attic, factories were now opened and more people were employed to help run the machine and production. (Source 5, pg 228)

Slowly women's fashion began to change toward the middle of the 1800s, the neck lines began to drop and clothing became more elaborate. For the first time fashion became very competitive among women (source 5, pg. 234) in the 1840s dresses were bell shaped and the bottom normally had a four meter circumference created by the petticoat underneath the dress. Sometimes a womanís dress was so wide they would knock over things when they would up and around. Towards the late 1850s dresses consisted of tight upper halves and bell bottoms, but not nearly as large as they had been in the 1840s. During these times when women desired to alter their appearances cosmetically they would suck on lead pencils, sip vinegar, oil her hair, or even risk half blinding herself with belladonna to achieve the effect of mysterious woman and shattered health (source 5, pg. 218). Soon women's clothing began to once again alter, this time they began to dress in a masculine manner by slimming the wait line and wearing their hair in a curly manner. (Source 5)

Towards the end of the 1800s, women once again embraced femininity by wearing long, flowing gowns that went straight down to the floor with the rear end accentuated with much padding. Once again the roles were reversed and hats now replaced bonnets. Hair was worn half up with curled ringlets hanging down. And the necks on blouses and dresses were usually worn high. But still the men's fashion remained plain and simple consisting of straight pants along with a wait coat (Source 4, ph. 192). Around the early 1870s a woman's gown was poofed and bustled in the back to create the image of having a large rear end, for this was considered womanly and beautiful at the time. Women would wear enhancers tied to their waist which were made of wood and straw. A woman's everyday wear would consist of a dress with madding and a corset underneath accompanied with a hat and shawl. Towards the beginning of the 1880s the gowns were smoothed down and tightly fitted to resemble a more laid back look. This was now considered the true womanly figure and a beautiful one at that. And towards the end of the century women began to wear riding clothes with white collars and men's hats along with heavy sports coats. Women began to embrace a more masculine look along with leather boots for comfort and everyday wear rather than going for what looked best. The new image of the womanly figure consisted of big shoulders and a tiny waist along with a large hat. (Source 5)

During this time the corset also played an extremely large role for women who wished to achieve the desirable look. Corsets have appeared as early in history as Minoan times in 1700 B.C. but now they were making a major come back. Though the shapes of corsets changed a lot during this time, it never the less decreased the value of a corset and its importance. It helped women achieve the image of perfection. It was sometimes large and other times small, even sometimes would accentuate a woman's curves and other times focus on enhancing her bust, but each time creating an ideal body for the woman. The point of the corset was to help emphasize the woman and her figure. Corsets not only were used to show perfection but also as a way of showing off oneís wealth by showing what fabric and detailed work you could afford. Then towards the end of the century the corsets lost some of its charm for the look of a woman was changing and now stressed upon a more manly look.

In the beginning of the 20th century, towards the beginning of the 1920s, fashion once again took a turn towards femininity and difference. In the early 1900's women were described as "modern" and usually had typical traits such as long hair. But a new fashion and look arose. Women who dared to be different in the twenties were referred to as flappers. A flapper had short hair which would be bobbed up and much more than the usual dose of make-up on, usually accentuating the rouged cheeks and natural features. They would wear baggy dresses with high hemlines that revealed their legs and arms, stockings rolled up high and turned down hoses. Skirts were worn short and breasts were even taped down to create the image of this new revolutionized symbol in fashion history. For the first time in history, advertisements had a great influence on the female fashion industry during the twenties along with propaganda; the film industry also played a great role in influencing the styles during the time. This new look symbolized a childlike and virginal women, an innocent woman. This style stressed the importance of a woman's natural structure so the image of what a woman should look like with the help of corsets was not stressed, and corsets were not worn as much and if so not as tightly to define their desired shape. They did however wish to cover up their flaws without accentuating themselves and implying a false image of a woman's body. They went for a natural and earthy look but covered up any indications of their flaws. (Source 7)

During the age of the flappers, the rule most women lived by was that a womanís curves were found unfashionable; they wished to achieve a look of 'flatness' more or less. Also with the new hair style being short and the previous being long hair, women had a need for change and when the barbers failed to create this new image for them, beauty salons all over the country began to flourish. In the twenties alone, over two hundred and fifty million dollars were spent on perms. And then the late-1920s and early-1930s began to balance out the new and old looks. The look became more realistic and wholesome. Stars such as Katherine Hepburn helped set the new setting for fashion with her wholesome and natural looks in the movies. The new look contained tall girls with broad shoulders and narrow hips, hemlines were dropped and waist lines returned to then original state before the 20s. But before this new fashion had much time to settle in, World War II caused great restrictions in the fashion industry. Productions of clothing were limited and fashion not stressed. In the forties women dresses in a practical and masculine manner often referred to as the 'Utility Lines'. Shoulders were padded and skirts or dresses were knee length. There was also a shortage of stockings so most women and girls began wearing trousers. At the end of the war, fashion once again returned but in a different form. The image of a perfect woman once again returned; there were padded hips, corseted waists, and a surge of femininity. (Source 7)

From the 1920s until the late 40s, women underwent a large variety or styles and fashions; from a very narrow and accessorized look, to a manly look, and then again to a perfect image look. For once make-up for women was not frowned upon but rather thought of as an enjoyable and expressive act. Many cosmetic lines flourished during this time, and make-up was now not only regarded for theatrical uses. Young girls used make-up to appear attractive and older, while older women used it to cover up any flaws and conceal anything they didnít wish to be seen. This was also a time considered as a 'tyranny of corsets' because their popularity also went up and down over this time. Some women at the turn of the century even underwent surgeries to remove their lower ribs to receive the desired waistline of eighteen inches. And by mid century women did not wish to achieve perfection but to simply use was they had and to show it off. This period in history was a giant step for women, for once they had the option to express themselves through fashion, accessories, and make-up; a choice which was very new to them for they had choices to choose from. (Source 1 and 7))

The early 1950s fashions were described as very womanly, similar to the late-40s, but with more radical and colorful patterns. Clothes were very neat and clean, and new clothes were used only for special events or occasions. The womenís look was advertised as an 'at home' look which was very low key. Waist lines were very fitted and then the skirts would bellow out creating a very womanly shape. Hair was worn up or short, and to help enhance the womanly look, undergarments were worn. Women would use such things as matching gloves, belts, purses and even menís coats to dress their outfits up or down for different occasions. Everyday wear included girdles and padded bras (aka falsies), which were considered beauty builders. Even with bathing suits skin was not extremely prevalent, cleavage was not shown and hips were not revealed. Into the early sixties, fashions slightly altered with the help of the first lady, Jackie Kennedy's influence. Patterns were now replaced by solid colors and large buttons decorated (one or two at the most) coats and shirts that ranged up to two inches in diameter. Sleeves were worn at the three quarter length and the in style was based around the idea of simplicity, which at the time was considered very elegant. (Source 3)

In the early 1960s along with the new simplicity look, which was worn by mostly older women in working careers, Capri's pants became quite popular, and stretch pants replaced the corsets and girdles. High boots were worn which gave the wearer a smoother appearance. And bathing suits were beginning to be designed in two piece sets with big and noticeable patterns. Hair was usually worn loose and even down. The 60s fashions were considers a conservative 'all- American girl' style. Buttoned shirts were worn, buttoned to the top along with wool skirts along with lace pantyhose or fishnets. This new look was considered lady like and respectable for young girls. Mini skirts slowly started to become more popular and tie dye clothes became very 'hip' among the youth of the nation. Tie die was thought to be clever and artsy, usually accompanied by jeans. This new look would establish the new settings of fashion for the seventies. (Source 3)

In the 1970s, fashion was a very laid back style. It consisted of tie dye shirts, hip hugger jeans, boots and hair was worn in afros, sometimes accompanied by a knitted hat. Printed blouses were worn and bell bottom pants, which were tight and stretch like to the knee and then flared out at the bottom, with stylish belts and comfortable moccasins. The working women usually would wear a look that was silk and sexy styles with their blouses unbuttoned for the first few buttons. Midriff was shown and shirt necks were lower than they had ever been. Pants were made to make women appear tiny and fragile, as a woman is typically stereotyped. Coats were worn quite big, closely resembling a maní' jacket. Pant suits were very common in the working areas and older women, but during leisure time among teenagers all over the United States, a typical outfit consisted of a loose patterned blouse, short shorts and thigh high boots with a head band for your hair. Overall, age or state of a woman didn't matter because either the suits, bell bottoms, or the silk blouses were designed to have a very womanly effect of the female fashion industry during the seventies. (Source 3)

Into the early 1980s, fashionís direction changed. A century ago at this time women were copying their fashion after the male image. They broadened their shoulders and slimmed their waists. Now men seem to be copying the womenís fashion. Men's clothing started becoming much lighter and in many varieties of color. Womenís clothing on the other hand also changed yet once again. Varieties of textures were put together in outfits, as almost of a layering technique when getting dressed. Colors and fabrics became much more casual as well as the overall look of women. The idea of comfort was once again explored in a stylish fashion for the time. Women would wear blazers and jackets, and a popular fabric was corduroy. Women explored a new look of professionalism. They would wear boots with three quarter length skirts along with a blouse and blazer. To dress themselves up or decorate themselves they would or take away belts, hats, or purses. These fashions of the eighties were referred to as the 'fashions [that] were finally comfortable'. (Source 3, pg 193)

From the beginning of the 20th century and even earlier on we have gone to sophistication and conservative fashion to a flaunting society, in which young girls are taught to show off their bodies for this is what our society thinks is beautiful. Yes we have made a large step; we went from wearing girdles and corsets to achieve the look of desired perfection, now we wear what we want. But do we really? Do women truly wish to wear tight pants, loads of make-up, gel in our hair, and to even go to the extremes of cosmetic surgery? Women today chose styles based up on influential televisions programs and picture magazines which tell us what a woman should look like. These do not once mention anything in a woman deeper than their surface. For women today, keeping with societyís style gives us a sense of self confidence, a feeling of fitting in. we have a need or a desire to go with the current and never against it. Back during the fifties women dresses very neat and clean, and only a special event was treated with new apparel and accessories. Today everything everyday has to be flashy and beautiful. Our aspects of beauty have been materialized over this century. (Source 3)

Today 'beauty' directly contradicts women in Americaís real situation. In the United States over $33 billion a year are spent of diet substances, over $20 billion a year are spent on cosmetic, and over $300 million a year is spent on cosmetic surgeries. Women pride themselves on how far we have 'supposedly' come over the last decades, when in fact we have only trapped ourselves in a corner. Women of today are trapped in a society where beauty is defined by Barbie dolls children play with; a tall American blonde with blue eyes and skinny with the right bust size. When is actuality if Barbie was an actual women, she would have to walk on all fours because her disproportionate body couldnít hold her. The desire for beauty is destroy women today and tearing us as a community apart for the competition and jealousy among one another is too great. Today's generation of women need to be able to see, for we regret to realize we are simply blind. (Source 2)

Our society has programmed our minds to think that a womanís face is the worth of her fortune. Today women represent 52 percent of the population yet we cannot accomplish to overcome our materialistic and shallow views of the world around us. Cosmetics and plastic surgeries and thrived over the last few decades, yet women today are no more satisfied with themselves. Women have worked too hard and too long to let the desires of men to destroy us. Young girls grow up today in a society that demands perfection. A young girl must be skinny. A young girl must be smart. A young girl must be athletic. And most important, a young girl must be beautiful. For if a young girl does not attain these requirements, what should make her worth while. Girls who don't achieve these standards have no contributions to our society. Right? Yet on the other hand, young boys are aloud to play. Young boys do not need good grades. Young boys do not need to be desirable. Young boys do not need to fear weight or reputations. [HBC note: Kate makes a very important point here. There are significant gender differences concerning societal expectations. She is certainly correct that in terms of fashion and appearance that girls are put under more pressure than boys. Of course there are other ways in which boys are subjected to more pressure than girls.] This is the exact thinking which will only destroy us as a people and a community. Today when beauty is mentioned, almost everyoneís first thought is a woman's outward appearance and their sexual attractiveness. Arthur Marwick once defined beauty as "the beautiful are those who are immediately exciting to almost all of the opposite sex". Should this quote be considered correct? A woman's beauty and value should be based upon what the opposite first thinks of our appearance? (Source 6)

Women's fashion has dramatically changed over the century and all throughout history. Beauty has been based upon one's intelligence or her status in her community but never stressed upon her looks as they are in today's society. Today's women strive for perfection. They wake each morning, spending countless hours on their hair and make-up then on their outfit for the day. When new fashions arrive, we rush to the stores and spend countless dollars on designer clothes, every few minutes reapplying gloss on our lips to make our smiles only more attractive. Yet all during this time we are thinking of other women in our lives, the ones who seem perfect. We curse them for having what we want. We distance ourselves from them out of pure fear of self degradation. Today women think of their places in the world and pride themselves on the steps we have taken, all the time failing to realize how far we must still go and how much time and work we sacrifice, while we strive for the ultimate unattainable perfection. "A truly beautiful woman makes the best of her physical assets, but more importantly, she also radiates a personal quality which is in itself attractive." - Nancy Baker (Source 6)


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Author: Kate


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Created: May 28, 2003
Last updated: May 28, 2003