From Corsets to Kardashians: Women's Power and the History of the Silhouette

Whether it's Christian Dior flouting post-WWII fabric rationing or Mary Tyler Moore fighting for her right to wear pants on air, in women's fashion, a change in shape can reflect a change in cultural and political priorities.

by Bethy Squires
Apr 17 2017, 2:40pm

Photos via Instagram / Wikimedia Commons

At this year's Paris Fashion Week, Comme des Garçons designer and haute couture's favorite bog witch Rei Kawakubo said her new collection was about "the future of silhouette." Kawakubo then presented a series of women whose shapes were obscured by insulation foam. The collection and koan prompted The Cut's Cathy Horyn to wonder, "Was Kawakubo saying we're all going to be horribly fat in the future?"

This is the wrong question. The women inside Kawakubo's trash cyclones were still very thin models—they just weren't alerting you to their shape. Presumably a woman exists under this white blob with the hair of beloved Rugrats doll Cynthia, but communicating feminine sex appeal is clearly not her highest priority.

Read more: The Long, Strange History of Women Wearing Deadly Clothing

Many of fashion's all-time greatest moments—the panniers of Marie Antoinette; Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali's skeleton dress; Rihanna at the 2015 Met Gala—have concerned the shape of women. Not necessarily the shape of their bodies, but how much space they occupy, and each change of silhouette reflects the time in which it originated. "There were so many silhouette changes during the 20th century," says Nancy Diehl, director of the masters program in costume studies at NYU. "Women's fashion definitely reflects societal priorities."

The first big change to women's silhouette came from necessity. Before World War I, women were cinched into whatever silhouette was prized at the time. But in 1917, they were asked to stop buying corsets; the steel inside was too valuable for the war effort. According to NPR, this freed up enough metal to build two battleships. Oddly enough, women enjoyed the sensation of breathing freely and didn't return to the cinched-waist look for nearly two decades.

Feeling that women deserved to be as unencumbered as men, Coco Chanel swooped in to provide New Women more easygoing attire. "I gave women a sense of freedom," she said. "I gave them back their bodies: bodies that were drenched in sweat, due to fashion's finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding." Chanel produced two signature looks: the women's suit and the little black dress, both of which hung loosely from a woman's frame. Of course, to do this look right, the woman must be a skinny "gamine," or waif. Diehl says that's one of the great ironies of 20s fashion: One would think women would celebrate their mature shapes as they gained rights and independence, but while the 1920s saw a "real self-conscious push for women to be out in public more," according to Diehl, women were also "wearing shift dresses that negated the realities of a woman's body."

A 1947 "bar suit" by Christian Dior. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Coco Chanel prized her comfort above all things, which might explain her collusion with the Nazis. After World War II, her place in French couture was usurped by Christian Dior; featuring a girdled waist, a coat with soft, sloping, feminine shoulders, and a giant skirt, Dior's "New Look" was scandalous for its flagrant disregard of fabric rationing. When the collection debuted in 1947, the war had been over for two years, but austerity measures were still in effect. Dior's promised a prosperity that hadn't yet come: A woman could wear literal yards of fabric in one outfit her husband bought for her. Because she wasn't working anymore, thank God.

The Great Depression had forced many women into the workforce, and World War II thrust them into male-dominated fields like munitions manufacture, espionage, and baseball. With the war over, people wanted to regress to a simpler time. "You see in magazines at the time, 'Ladies are back on the pedestal,'," Diehl says. The New Look was actually an old one, bringing back undergarments and construction techniques that had been abandoned in the 30s and 40s. Dior himself called his work "the return to an ideal of civilized happiness." Chanel was less charitable in her appraisal: "Dior doesn't dress women; he upholsters them."

The next big change in women's silhouettes didn't come from Paris—it happened in New York, or at least Hollywood's approximation of it. Until the Dick Van Dyke Show, it was reasonably assumed that women had legs under their dresses, and butts slightly above those legs. But it wasn't documented—at least not on a nationally syndicated television show. Mary Tyler Moore changed that. "I've seen all the other actresses, and they're always running the vacuum in these little flowered frocks with high heels on," Moore told Terry Gross on a 1995 episode of Fresh Air of her thoughts in the early 60s. "And I don't do that, and I don't know any of my friends who do that, so why don't we try to make this real? And I'll dress on the show the way I do in real life." The sponsors lost their minds. "They used the term cupping under," Moore said. "And I can only assume that that meant, you know, my seat, that there was a little too much definition."

It was reasonably assumed that women had legs under their dresses, and butts slightly above those legs—but it wasn't documented.

Showrunner Carl Reiner brokered a truce between Moore's butt and the sponsors: Laura Petrie would only wear pants once per episode. After society didn't collapse under the weight of a housewife's ass, Moore was permitted to wear pants more often. "[F]inally, I was just wearing the pants," Moore told TV Guide in 2004.

Mary Tyler Moore broke more ground on her own show in the 1970s, in which she played a working woman in a TV newsroom as women's work attire became increasingly important. Power dressing, encapsulated in John T. Molloy's 1975 bestseller Dress for Success, was considered appropriate for women in the 80s. Big shoulders and bold ties were the marks of power dressing in men; women replaced the tie with statement jewelry or a Hermès scarf. Originally, shoulder pads had come into being with a practical purpose, as padding in military uniforms, but they were incorporated into women's suits in the late 30s and early 40s. When women began working again in the 80s, the broad-shouldered look returned. "In the 1980s, volume was such a big thing," says Diehl. "Skirts were really big, shoulders were really big, hair was really big." Women's shoulder pads imitated the broad-chested Italian cut of men's suits. In order to succeed in the men's world of business, one had to become more manly.

One of the biggest power dressers was Margaret Thatcher, who used boxy suits to unsex herself, à la Lady Macbeth. Rosa Schiller Crawhurst described Thatcher in the Oxford Student as "a woman who throughout her career managed to turn her clothes and accessories into clever mediums of communicating power." Thatcher was frequently photographed competing in shoulder girth with her pal Ronald Reagan.

Margaret Thatcher. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

If women of the 80s renounced their gender to get access to power, the 90s saw options expand for shaping oneself with clothing. Madonna accentuated her feminine attributes to project a powerful silhouette, and Jean Paul Gaultier's original cone bra—made for Madonna's 1990 Blonde Ambition tour—sold for $52,000 at auction in 2012. The never really caught on for people other than Madonna, but it was one of many collaborations between the singer and designer that focused primarily on her boobs. Madonna walked bare breasted in Gaultier's 1992 amFAR benefit show, a show that also featured Dr. Ruth in latex. "Tonight will be about protection," said Gaultier at the beginning of the show. "Wear rubber and protect yourself!" Gaultier's bustier can only be understood in the context of the AIDS epidemic. When I was a child, I was terrified of Madonna's cone boobs, but all sexuality was terrifying in the early 90s.

Today's athleisure moment doesn't leave much silhouette to the imagination: Bodycon bandage dresses gave way to Lycra as a way of life in day wear, too, and the ass is really coming into its own in this new millennium. Thanks to Kim Kardashian, we all know about waist trainers and butt pads; thanks to Remy Ma, we know about Nicki Minaj's ass implants. We've come full circle. A woman's shape is being exaggerated to an almost Victorian silhouette, only now the bustle is made of collagen injections. And while this shape is "not a fashion body," according to Diehl, it is nevertheless pervasive. What celebrities promote on Instagram has become as crucial to fashion as what's printed in magazines.

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

On the other side of the spectrum, we have many people today dressing completely outside of fashion norms. "A lot of people are doing it for anti-bourgeois rebellion," says Diehl. "The old rules about what is or isn't flattering [are] up for review." Fat positivity, gender fluidity, and other progressive ideologies are finding aesthetic expression. "I have a stylist friend, and he told me you can't say to someone, 'That doesn't look good on you' anymore," says Diehl.

In other words, the future of silhouette is going to be a lot more diffuse than the past. As society continues to fracture into ultra-specific subcultures, one shape will no longer define femininity. This year's Met Gala will focus on Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons. It marks the moment when one of fashion's biggest rule breakers becomes part of history.

Rei Kawakubo
midrange editorial
Broadly Culture