For millennia, the body has been the most highly revered subjects in the visual arts. That's not new news for most of us though; even here on dA we see that most work here is figurative. The nude has been called timeless because it never changes, but I somewhat disagree with that statement. The body in art has changed multiple times over the ages, especially the nude. There's a big argument that the body (especially the female body) is too idealized these days, but I assure you, the body has always been idealized (and sexualized). The difference over time is what part is given attention to culturally.
The mature, lady-like image was displayed in modeling in the 1950s, elegance, exaggeration, hourglass figure (a more mature woman’s figure, motherly). In the 1960s, youth was displayed in modeling, informal, very slender (almost underdeveloped, boyish figure), pixie cut hairstyles, doll like facial expression, ‘little girl’ mannerisms, juxtaposed with gritty street photography, undercurrents of danger. In the 1980s, the supermodel reigned the catwalk; powerful women, athletic, healthy, and physically strong looking. In the 1990s the ‘waif-like’ model was in, unhealthy figures, and an anti-fashion aesthetic. Any way that the body is presented is an idealized representation of a real human. Even models on a runway are idealized and representations of the human body.
The body, fashion, and society all work in unison to create cultural ideals. Fashion dolls were the first ways that fashion spread out to the masses. Fashion was initially set by the upper classes. Beginning with the Gothic period the local municipalities promoted the fashion and fabric industry. The promotion of these products instilled a feeling of pride and nationalism for the people living in the area (as well as cultural pride). Fashion dolls were sent around between diplomatic courts to spread the fashions of a specific area. The fashion dolls had to be delivered by hand, so fashion was spread very slowly. In 1396, Charles VI of France had his court tailor make fashion dolls to send off to the Queen of Bavaria and the Queen of England. The mannequin dolls also had idealized body types to fit with the clothing and that changed with the time period. But this attention and commodification the “ideal” was not only unique to women.
George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell was the inventor of “dandyism.” The dandy’s clothing consisted of breeches, swallowtail coat, and riding boots, each of these items was tailored to fit the body closely (this type of dress was English in origins, but made “fashionable” by French Revolutionists). The reason for the tailoring of the clothes was to match the active lifestyles of the dandy. Diet and exercise became increasingly important to the men and women of the 1880s into the 1920s, so the costuming of their wardrobes had to accommodate their bodies. Historian Charles Baudelaire recognized the Dandy as a pre-cursor to the Bohemian. (Bohemians were against the pomp and circumstance that surrounded upper class lifestyles and elected for a more simple existence.) Looking at the Dandy we can see the rise of consumer culture, in the pursuit of “looking cool.” Brummel also had strict instructions for personal grooming and physical exercise if one was to be a “true” dandy.
If only catwalks existed in the 1700s
When we look back even further through time, we can see exaggerations of the human figure, both clothed and nude, to “fit” into the fashions and ideals of the time period.
The Venus of Willendorf, c. 28,000 B.C.E – 25,000 B.C.E (discovered in 1908 by Josef Szombathy)
King Menkaure and Queen, c. 2490–2472 B.C.E (discovered in Giza Menkaura Valley Temple by he Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition in 1909)
Jomon Period Figurine, c. 1000-300 B.C.E (the “jomon” prehistoric culture was discovered in Japan by Edward S. Morse in 1877. Jomon pottery is the oldest that exists in the world today)
Funerary statue of the Anavyssos kouros (Kroisos), c. 530 B.C.E (discovered in Attica, Greece)
Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century C.E (believed to be a marble copy of a bronze original, also this, and other Roman sculptures, were originally painted)
Mosaic of Justinian and Retinue at Apse Entry, San Vitale, Ravenna, c. 546 C.E (notice that the body is now completely understated)
The Crucifixion, Rogier Van der Weyden, c. 1445, oil on panel
(Once again, the body is hidden and understated with the exception of Christ)
Venus with Cupid, Dog and Partridge, Titian, c. 1550 (notice the woman’s rounded belly and other “symbols” in this painting)
King Candaules of Lydia Showing his Wife to Gyges, Jacob Jordaens, c. 1646 (Jordaens was heavily influenced by the work of Peter Paul Rubens)
A Young Girl Reading, Jean-Honore Fragonard, c. 1776
(Notice that the girl’s neck is elongated to avoid interfering with the neck of her dress or the graceful slope of her chest)
Lady Godiva, John Collier, c. 1898 (Pre-Raphaelite painters like Collier looked back to ancient Greek and Roman art as well as Renaissance paintings for inspiration. They focused on painting the female form as it appears naturally)
Denise Poiret, 1914 (Denise Poiret was the wife and model of designer Paul Poiret. Her naturally slender build combined with Poiret’s draped fashion designs led to the new ideal of a slim, almost boyish figure)
1930s Women’s Suits (notice the military styling of the clothing and the feminine “allure” is downplayed)
Men’s fashion Illustration, 1944 (notice the “boxiness” created by the men’s crisp shirts and high waisted pants drawing attention to the broadness of the shoulders)
1950s Women’s Dress Catalogue (Wasp-waisted dresses and heavy makeup)
Twiggy, mid 1960s (Twiggy brought “androgynous sex appeal” back into fashion. Twiggy has since been accused for promoting an “unhealthy” body ideal though she was naturally slim as a young teenager)
1970s Men’s Bellbottoms Ad
RollingStone 1980s Cover (An athletic build and healthy glow was an ideal of the 80s)
Kate Moss, 1990s (The gritty, grungy look was adopted into high fashion, as well as super thin models)
Fashion is not universal; it does not exist as one form over time. Fashion is extremely transient, almost ephemeral. Fashion is something that is social. How we clothe the body shows how we idealize it.