One oft-repeated idea perceived as fact in popular culture refers to the ample figures women had in the 1950s as evidence of Post-War affluence, a reaction against the privation during war-time. Folks enjoy pointing to Marilyn Monroe’s zaftig form as the norm for the decade, when women boasted abundant cleavage and hips. More recently, commentators highlight Christina Hendricks’ figure as evocative of the era, as some sort of role model for girls to aspire to, even with Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone recently arguing that girls should emulate the actor’s size. All the autumn glossies trumpet the return of the 1950s style for heaving cleavage, nipped waist and full skirts. The Louis Vuitton line of corset dresses featuring Christie Turlington (pictured here) was the subject of much enthusiastic praise by the fashion doyennes. The September American edition of Vogue contains two articles on the 50s trend. Lynn Yaeger fails to reflect on the blisters and scars the garters mark Hendricks with; or Angela Lansbury’s complaints about the undergarments; or Rita Moreno reporting that the clothes from the era were ‘hideous and hateful.’ In another article Marc Jacobs explains his inspiration for the choice of models from Victoria Secret for the Vuitton collection came down to ‘ the bodies were the right bodies for the clothes.’ His aesthetic scale ranks clothes above the individual buxom women. Coupled with a report last month authenticating men’s supposed preference for the hour-glass type as a marker of physical attraction and beauty, the messages abound for women to pack on some flesh.
The problem with this sort of trend-setting is that it regards women as interchangeable assembly line objects rather than individual human beings. Garments should go in and out of fashion, not women’s bodies. I could no more have Hendricks’ figure than she could have my own hour glass half full form. Each age may herald an iconic shape for women according to the dictates of the media and popular culture, but women have never summarily conformed to the given silhouette touted for style, at least not since corsetry and boning went by the wayside. Women cannot instantly manipulate their body by bingeing themselves in order to fit an arbitrarily designated shape. And no one should suggest they should.
In the 1920s, celluloid celebrations of a flat-chested flapper were all the rage, yet Mae West flaunted a full figure and earned acclaim on the stage and then silver screen. Bette Davis’ film career began in the 1920s while she fulfilled a more classic hour-glass shape than the one credited to Marilyn Monroe thirty years later. Betty Grable in a swimsuit was the pin-up of choice among servicemen when she was a perfect hour glass as any of the peace-time ideals. In the 1960s, culture vultures identify Twiggy in a mini-shift as the iconic ideal when she was a contemporary of the buxom Raquel Welch.
Despite what you read, not all women in the 1950s cast the same shadow as Monroe. Audrey Hepburn was sylph-shaped in movies which no doubt grossed more than the baby-talking, lip-quivering platinum blonde at the box office. In the adaptation of Ira Levin’s noir A Kiss Before Dying (1956), all the women onscreen are willowy reeds. Joanne Woodward, Virginia Leith and Mary Astor look like the slender equivalents of a modern size 2 in suits and shirt dresses. Across a generational divide, each woman seems to sport a waistline a man could circle in his hands. The next time you read an article about the new silhouette or body type for women, cry bully and skip it.