‘Gender is a meaning that a culture assigns to sexual differences’ and within gender, ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are the divisions that a culture creates between behaviour and ‘characteristics considered to be appropriate to men and women’ (Barnard, 2007, 185- 186). Fashion aids in the social construction of gender through separating male and female fashion and promoting the stereotypical feminine figure. From the days of stays and petticoats to corsets and crinolines and now with padded bras and ‘Spanx’, fashion has seen centuries of shrinking and augmentation of the body to achieve the sexualised, ‘feminine’ shape. The ‘communicative function’ of the body and they way in which it is moulded is like a ‘language’ – a ‘cultural communication’ (Thesander, 1997, 11). Being 'feminine' is just one of many ‘performances’ that people can choose to present and a person’s choice to follow more typically feminine or masculine styles can provide an insight into who they are (Gauntlett, 2008, 11). Although certain guidelines may be socially expected, in the western world, we are largely in control of what we wear and thus are perpetually communicating some element of personal identity every time we get dressed, whether it is intentional or subconscious. Using the visual examples of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and a fashion icon in the late 18th century and Lady Gaga, a current fashion and pop icon, this essay demonstrates how, even though centuries have passed, the practice of augmenting and shrinking the figure through fashion garments to achieve a ‘feminine’ shape has continued to perpetuate social constructions of femininity. Then, the example of Andrej Pejic is used to demonstrate how appearance can communicate identity, in particular gender identity.
Beginning in the 16th century in Europe, ‘women's bodies were universally forced into bizarre, unnatural shapes’ (Smith, 1998, 5). Stays, petticoats, corsets and crinolines with stiff fabric, boning and wire were used to force the body into the desirable ‘feminine’ silhouette of the time. Constant dissatisfaction and change with the idealized shape of the body reinforced the idea that the natural body needed to be ‘improved and restricted’ to be considered attractive (Smith, 1998, 5). We see this trend continue into modern day clothing and undergarments. This constant restriction and augmentation, which occurs almost solely to the female body, aids in the social construction and communication of gender.
Figure 1 – Illustration of Marie Antoinette by Pannemaker-Ligny, from Encyclopaedia Britannica Image Quest
A royal exemplar existed in the form of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France from 1774 until 1792 – a time when all of Europe was ‘culturally and stylistically influenced’ by France, during the Rococo era (Covington, 2006, 56. Thesander, 1997, 35-36). The desired feminine physical ideal at this time was the ‘hourglass female figure: a tiny waist, ample bosom and large hips which enhanced femininity’ (Talairach-Vielmas, 2007, 36-37). Marie Antoinette had to ‘learn to be a woman (or at least how to perform femininity)’ through the molding of her body with fashion garments (Goodman, 2003, 6). In Figure 1 (above) the Queen is depicted with her hand resting on her commodious and voluminous skirt, serenely gazing into the palace. It can be seen that her body is distinctly shaped to the ‘hourglass’ figure that Talairach-Vielmas (2007) refers to as an image of ‘enhanced femininity’ – the tightly laced corset has shrunk her waist and her bosom is being flattened and pushed upwards to have an overflowing effect. At the same time her hips have been augmented by a large pannier shaped undergarment and gathers and ruffles of fabric add to the voluminous result.
Corsets had been present since the beginning of the 17th century, initially made with an iron structure, which was replaced by whalebone in the 18th century. At the beginning of...
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