This post is the result of my live sketching lecture, Silhouettes and Signals, performed using Paper by FiftyThree at The Drake Hotel in Toronto on March 16, 2014.
The most essential fashion silhouette is a very specific version of the human body. The Classical ideal is about 8 heads high, and remains resilient in the face of ever-changing fashions, recurring over many millennia since ancient times. It is incredible how the eye instantly recognizes these forms as beautiful, and is drawn to them. To many, the classical ideal represents healthy, natural man, unspoiled by civilization and modern culture, a symbol of rationality. For that reason, this shape can have a sinister quality. That competitive physicality reeks of eugenics and conformity. Human beings naturally come in an incredible variety of shapes, so this rugged or graceful physical ideal excludes almost everyone. For most of us, achieving this shape would require as much effort and artifice as any dandified exaggeration.
Beauty is a peculiar phenomenon. We have an instant, irrational, positive reaction to symmetry and average proportions. Objectively we understand that just because a person happens to have pleasing features by accident of birth, it doesn’t mean that they are a better person, and yet we can’t help but ascribe positive characteristics to beautiful people and pay more attention to them.
Considering this biological instinct to favour “natural” beauty, it’s fascinating how human beings have used fashion throughout the centuries to subvert our own proportions. We will use any technological means at our disposal, whether it’s padding, scaffolding, compression, surgery, propping, binding or prosthetics. We are hungry for novelty and constantly trying to transcend beyond our physical selves, which is why the fashionable ideal often diverges so dramatically from the more conventional “natural” beauty ideal.
The current silhouette for both women and men is top-heavy – oversized jackets, muppet furs, statement sweatshirt and tunic-length shirts for men. Fashion-forward men – even hyper-masculine rappers – are beginning to adopt skirts. When men and women’s lives are similar, so are their fashionable silhouettes. The male and female silhouette has evolved in tandem ever since the 1970s.
This was not the case before the masculine renunciation of fashion. In the 1500s, both male and female fashionable silhouettes diverged wildly from the natural human form and from each other, with big ruffs, tall hats, bombastic sleeves and abstract torso shapes. Back then, if you didn’t have an exaggerated silhouette it was a class-based distinction – the poor simply couldn’t afford fancy collars and lots of fabric and accessories to achieve a fashionable silhouette.
When the revolutions of Europe shifted towards democracy, men renounced fashion as a way to demonstrate the ideals of equality and the value of work, and the weight of wearing wealth literally fell upon women. This is when fashion became “feminized” as we recognize it now.
The feminization of fashion led to the upholstering of women. Women’s lives became so dramatically different from men’s that their silhouette became exactly opposite. Their clothing was literally constructed as heavily as furniture, and in the 1860s skirts became so wide women couldn’t wear coats – complete domestication.
The bottom-heavy, big-skirted silhouette still exists today in the context of prom dresses and bridal gowns. Women wear this as a very formal, ultra-feminine sexual display. Covering your legs this way is coyly enticing, a “look at me, don’t look at me” game – it totally covers the lower half of your body and yet also makes the lower half of your body the biggest thing in the room.
Of course long skirts, negating the split between the legs, is traditionally a symbol of chastity. That’s why you only ever see men wearing them in the context of religions that uphold the idea of abstinence.
The current youthful silhouette, embodied most recognizably by Justin Bieber, has a very long torso and short little legs. It’s a look that evokes bondage and prison culture, which is interesting to consider in terms of the attitude of contemporary youth. It’s also very sexual – the pants come pre-dropped – but the sexuality is deviant, indulgent, and nihilistic. The way the legs are bound limits the gait of young men – the essence is “why bother? Might as well get our rocks off now, there’s no future worth running towards.”
Contrast that with the youth of the 1960s exemplified by the model Twiggy. The broad gait and short skirts are also extremely sexual but the sexuality is more promiscuous and conventional by 21st century standards. The attitude is, as the Beatles sang, helter-skelter. It’s youth on uppers, youth on speed. The essence is essentially optimistic – kids are striding forward into a space-age future. A far cry from Bieber-style bondage, this silhouette says “go for it, we are free and the possibilities are unlimited.”
Ever since the 1970s, the standard silhouette has been pretty close to the most minimal simplification of the human form – as upright animals, our most essential symbol is the letter I. Sure, it varies a bit – getting a bit bottom-heavy in the 1970s and 1990s, and more top-heavy in the 1980s. This is a very broad generalization, but I think it holds up: top heavy silhouettes are more conservative, bottom heavy silhouettes are more liberal. Think about it – if you’re dressing for a job interview you’re more likely to go top-heavy – it’s more structured, authoritative, formal. A bottom heavy silhouette allows itself to be pulled by gravity – it’s more laissez-faire, permissive, and relaxed – better for a house party.
Up until the 1970s, female silhouettes diverged dramatically from menswear – but Yves Saint Laurent changed all of that. His first collection for Dior after the death of Christian Dior was an abstract shape – the Trapeze silhouette. But now we remember YSL for the Tuxedo, most iconically in that Helmut Newton photograph. It’s an androgynous silhouette about sexual liberation – but it’s also about liberation from the old fashion system, liberation from the idea of designer as dictator.
In the 1800s, silhouettes shifted each decade – skirts were like domes in the 1860s, like trumpets in the 1870s, and had bustles so big in the 1880s that there was a popular joke about balancing a tea service on them. This constantly shape-shifting kept women constantly updating their wardrobes – wearing an 1860s crinoline in the 1870s was simply not done if you wanted to belong in fashionable society.
When Christian Dior launched his business in 1947, he wanted to bring back the glory days of French fashion authority after the setbacks of World War Two. He did this by creating new, exciting shapes each season, just as Worth had done in his glory days. It was a very nationalistic, authoritarian and capitalist business model that worked like fossil fuel for re-establishing French fashion industry in the 1950s.
In 1954 and 1955, Dior did three lines inspired by letter forms. In 1954, the H-line was straight up and down. In 1955 the Y line was top-heavy, and the A line was bottom-heavy. Dior was a publicity-savvy designer and perhaps it’s no coincidence that these letters matched the weapons of mass destruction at the time – this resulted in some very topical fashion headlines.
“Alphabetizing” women’s bodies is no longer seen as a positive thing. The young people of YSL’s generation didn’t buy it, and Saint Laurent responded by flipping the designer model on it’s head, and instead of dictating “lines” to his clientele, he was inspired by the lives of the fashionable women he knew and the way they dressed.
If alphabetization was introduced by a Western designer today, it would certainly be heavily criticized as a patriarchal, oppressive categorization of women’s bodies. But in South Korea, alphabetization is currently a popular sales tool – hyper-feminine S-lines and V-lines are used to sell body products and health food. This kind of rigid classification of the female form according to abstract shapes only flies in conservative societies with rigid definitions of beauty ideals. In Europe and North America, where we are seeing increasing social and sexual fluidity and softer definitions of beauty ideals, grading people by letter seems anachronistic.
Considering the reversal of design philosophies, it’s interesting to consider that the houses of Dior and Saint Laurent continue to uphold opposing silhouettes to this day. Raf Simon’s Dior features a recurring X-shape, a modernist simplification of Dior’s hyper-feminine silhouettes. Meanwhile, Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent Paris continues the tradition a minimalist, long androgynous line.
The hyper-fertile feminine silhouette is a lot like the Classical beauty ideal – it provokes an automatic reaction in almost everyone. When the hyper-fertile silhouette is in fashion, as it was in the 1860s and the 1950s, women’s lives tend to be dictated by their biological functions. This hourglass shape is a boon to those who have it and want it, and a bane to everyone else. Celebrities who have this figure have to deal with a much higher level of scrutiny and criticism than famous people with more fashionably slim figures. Perfectly intelligent, seemingly rational people – myself included – are somehow transfixed by Kim Kardashian’s ass. I think it’s a misplaced biological instinct to ensure the survival of the species. Once upon a time, our next generation depended on the sexual functionality of a few hyper-fertile females, and therefore their sexual status was of the highest concern for all members of society. In a world populated by 7 billion, this attitude is ludicrous, and yet we can’t help ourselves. That’s why having a body of this type is a mixed blessing.
Speaking of 7 billion, another anti-fashion silhouette that is fun to consider is the idea of Normcore. Nothing illustrates the breakdown of silhouette-based symbolism better. All silhouettes now are layered with contradictory meanings, and the media environment is so dispersed, there’s no way a single look could ever have the impact of Dior’s 1947 “Bar” ensemble. The subversion of the idea of “normal” is very timely in the light of questioning the value of beauty ideals.
Still, it is a manifesto-based trend and as such is reactionary against the fundamental precept of fashion – that we wear clothing in order to appear better than other people. It reminds me of the Italian Futurist movement, which also proposed an anti-fashion silhouette – T-shaped jumpsuits – as a way of liberating humanity from the tyranny of trends. This kind of attitude can only be taken seriously by the very young and idealistic – everyone else has acquiesced to the inevitability of our animal instincts over-riding our intellectual ability to reject fashion. Ultimately, no academic manifesto has ever successfully launched a lasting trend.
The most straightforward way to use fashion to appear better than other people is to use fashion to look taller. Even in modern society, tall people enjoy all sorts of economic and sexual advantages – CEOs are statistically taller (and still referred to as “chiefs”) which shows that we really haven’t progressed much from more tribal societies where the largest man was often chief by default. Historically, people have increased their height with tall hats. Pointed hats indicate a direct connection with the divine – sort of an “I’m With Stupid” shirt for Godliness – like a steeple on a church. Abraham Lincoln, already a tall man, wore a very tall top hat. This made him stand out very visibly as a an obvious leader in the early days of photography.
Tall hair is also an option – think of the towering hairstyles of the Rococo or the hairspray-held bangs of the 1980s. Big hair, pretty obviously, is about big head and big egos – think “let them eat cake”, or “the me decade”.
Now that people don’t wear tall hats or big hair as much, they get their extra status from tall shoes, which over the past decade have been getting ever taller. However, even the most fashionable people have a limit to the angle they can endure. High heels offer status at the price of mobility, and we’ve just entered a reactionary period. Designers like Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld have been offering couture trainers and flat-footed creepers, and suddenly short – and the ability to walk – seems far more elegant than tall.
It can seem like every silhouette ever has already been tried, but the avant-garde have pushed the boundaries of possibility, simplifying and abstracting the human form until it is barely recognizable. The Bauhaus ballet in the 1920s had geometric, playful costumes that made the dancers seem more like toys, and modern artists like David Bowie and Leigh Bowery have built fabulous costumes that push the human form to extremes.
In 1996, Rei Kawakubo designed a collection for Comme des Garcons called “Dress Meets Body; Body Meets Dress”. She padded her models in unexpected, asymmetrical areas – like the side of the neck, or the thigh. The fashion media was horrified. We’re not used to seeing non-symmetrical silhouettes and our instinctual reaction to them is to read them as disease. It’s still a very provocative collection to look at because you can feel inside yourself the friction between your animalistic revulsion and your intellectual ability to recognize a novel form of beauty.
There is really so much that hasn’t been tried in terms of altering our shapes, so many letters of the alphabet yet to be drawn. Asymmetry especially hasn’t been deeply explored – appearing inhuman is in some situations an advantage – such as when you want to avoid being recognized by surveillance technology. With access to ever-lighter materials and rapidly evolving visual technology, future silhouettes could diverge wildly from what we’ve tried so far. What is so incredible about fashion is how it liberates us from our biological fate to be born in the shape of a human – in fact, we can be anything we can imagine.