Whatever her function, it is clear that the graceful bulges of the Venus of Willendorf are an idealized exaggeration of the female form. Even though she is at least 25,000 years old, to my eyes she is an obvious fashion figure. The belly doesn’t get the glorification much any more. And yet, every so often in modern western history (and I’m sure outside of it, though I am oblivious) the belly gets to stand out.
This idealized torso, possibly of the Egyptian queen and famed beauty Nefertiti and dating to around 1350 BC, is quite slender while still featuring a pronounced belly. The Egyptian ideal is quite exaggerated. While ancient Greek representations of female forms were certainly not thin by modern standards, they were balanced proportionally, with the belly not standing out any more than any other feature.
Jan van Eyck’s 1434 masterpiece The Arnolifini Portrait features a fashionable couple, possibly celebrating their betrothal. Many modern viewers wonder if she was pregnant – all evidence points to no, and as you can see in this van Eyck depiction of Saint Catherine (on the right), the woman is just wearing contemporary fashion. The Arnolfini family were merchants, and are showing off their wealth with abundant quantities of fabric. Her gesture is possibly meant to indicate hopes for a fruitful marriage – hopes that were never realized.
The high-waisted silhouette featuring a convex belly was a long running trend for the 15th and 16th century female form – whether depicted dressed or undressed, by Botticelli in 1482 (as above) or by Cranach in 1528. These are fashionable bellies, not pregnant bellies, though it seems obvious that their fecund appearance was a significant part of their attraction. This trend very gradually, and in different ways in various geographical regions, began to evolve into the conical, geometrical torso of the Elizabethan woman.
The peascod belly (this example from 1569) is a bit more ridiculous to modern eyes – as it was to commenters at the time. The garment that clothed a man’s torso – the doublet – went through various phases over a few centuries, from more padding in the chest during medieval times, then less padding, and then more padding again. In the 16th century, the padding extended at the lower torso. The male belly became an abstract shape, described as a “peascod”. Echoed in armour, this protrusion was sometimes almost pointy.
The look was achieved with padding and was balanced out with padded sleeves, codpieces, stuffed hose and square toes – a bombastic silhouette most famously worn by Henry VIII. In this case, the look seems to be about abundance in a different form – masculine girth was probably meant to evoke solidity and strength – and later on as fashion turned, reeked of excess and machismo.
These young princes in 1637 are wearing heritage armour with distinctive peascod shaping, though by this time the style for this shape in the doublet had fallen out of favour.
Female and male waists alike remained nipped in throughout the 17th and 18th centuries until the French Revolution. A sudden resurgence in classical styles created a dramatic change in fashion and for a couple decades, women abandoned the waist. While the belly isn’t exactly the focal point of this trend, displaying a sense of relaxed roundness (these fashion plate examples are from 1806) does seem to be considered attractive.
Outstanding stomachs have been absent from modern fashion ever since. Even when styles are relatively waistless, as in the 1920s or the 1960s, the concavity of desirable bellies remains a constant. When lower torsos do appear in the spotlight, it’s only under two circumstances – here capably demonstrated by pop singer Christina Aguilera:
The turn-of-our-century trend for midriffs doesn’t quite compare to the other examples I’ve cited because the focus is on the absence rather than the presence of a belly. Still, expansive gaps between upper and lower garments do draw all the attention to the navel, and as with the other feminine examples, it is very sexual.
The trend towards displaying the pregnant belly – shocking as recent as 1991 when Demi Moore graced Vanity Fair – has now become a mundane facebook trope. Google “belly” and most of what you’ll find is garishly painted, proudly exhibited pregnant bellies. Pregnancy, which used to be something to conceal, has become something of a bulls-eye, with or without apparent irony. Does that indicate that fashion is full-circle cycling towards to fertility worship?
Sort of like square toes, bellies only seem to make sporadic appearances, and without any sort of obvious recurring pattern. It also seems like it is wholly out of our control – the hue and cry over the absurdity of the peascod belly did nothing to end its thrust. Modern campaigns meant to promote the idea of all bodies being considered beautiful – belly-ful or otherwise – are more than a bit hopeless. In history as now, bellies are only idealized under occasional circumstances.