Why We Look the Way We Look Now

The modern style of clothes emerged in the Depression, and so did the focus on the figure beneath the fabric—with a startling result: as Americans' wardrobes became more similar, bodies diverged along class lines.

Sportswear epitomized what people meant when they invoked the “American Way of Life,” a phrase that came into frequent use during the Depression. The new clothing was democratic and unifying, pragmatic and versatile. On Seventh Avenue, Claire McCardell adapted Vionnet’s draped styles for ready-to-wear and was soon striking out in her own distinctively austere style. The machine-made version of James’s Taxi dress was sold at Best & Co. department stores in a cellophane package. And, courtesy of the new federal funding that had poured into vocational education starting in 1917, there were armies of women trained in home economics who, when they saw a dress they liked in a magazine or a movie, went straight to their sewing machines. The experts might have scoffed, but the untrained eye was hard-pressed to tell the designer original from the knockoffs.

Modern fashion in dresswear was a thrilling leveler, yet the minimalist style didn’t camouflage all differences. Whereas the new draped men’s suits worked magic on lumpiness, women’s fashions—those “ruthless new dresses,” in Vogue’s words—betrayed every imperfection. Whether or not Wallis Simpson actually uttered the line often attributed to her, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” the sentiment suited her time. Dieting wasn’t new. The first “reducing salon” had opened in Chicago in 1914, and flappers had pioneered the pursuit of thinness. But there was no disguising the body in 1930s clothes. Waists rose from flapper indeterminacy to their natural spot. Brassieres separated and lifted breasts, each to its own position, supplanting the monobosom of the preceding century. Small hips, broad shoulders, and a slim yet shapely torso were all necessary to carry off the look.

Designers, of course, imagined that in releasing women from their corsets, they were giving free rein to the body. “A woman’s muscles,” Vionnet said, “are the best corset one could imagine.” Yet the new aesthetic marked a swerve in the history of body ideals. Not so many decades earlier, poverty in the industrializing West had inspired a standard of beauty that emphasized amplitude. Fashionable Belle Epoque women padded their clothes to create a sense of heft, and to produce hips that were at least as wide as their shoulders. During the Depression, the poor starved and the well-to-do matron went hungry by choice.

Liberation from the corset meant enslavement to the reducing salon, to the appetite-suppressing cigarette, and to the girdle, its own popularity enabled by the invention of elastic materials like Lastex (an ancestor of Lycra), patented in 1931. A slender and athletic physique was often identified with Americans, in a reversal we might now envy: today French women don’t get fat, but then the Gallic type was classically zaftig. Still, as Vogue reminded its readers, trim perfection was not an American birthright: “It is not enough to recognize the fact that you have a figure. Unless you are one woman in three thousand you will have to admit that it is not ideal.”

To live up to the new sportswear, exercise would have to become a daily routine. The Works Progress Administration was building public swimming pools and tennis courts, city golf courses and gymnasiums, for pastimes on the rise in an ever sportier and health-conscious decade. But a languid game of golf, or an occasional set of tennis, wasn’t enough to eliminate what was politely referred to as avoirdupois. For men, challenged to look good in new torso-baring bathing suits, the bodybuilder Charles Atlas offered a remedy: develop washboard abs and be the hero of the beach. For women, Vogue and its ilk prescribed a focused set of attacks: bumping the rear against the ground to break down the tissues of the derriere, strenuously extending the arms to lift the bosom.

Still, the uncorseted turn had its skeptics. By the Second World War, Charles James had more or less given up on the liberated female form. He’d never had Vionnet’s faith in its beauty: “The feminine figure is intrinsically wrong,” he complained in 1933. Always a rogue talent, James—chasing fame and bolting from his creditors—now sought immortality in a radical departure. The clothes he designed in the ’40s and ’50s were highly engineered, ingeniously bolstered by rigid, built-in understructures of buckram and metal wire. His postwar suits and coats stood off the body: high-waisted, bell-shaped styles that built a cocoon around the figure, hiding its dimensions. His ball gowns were fantastical, with stiff skirts that could exceed six feet in width. James’s clients were of course rich and thin, but he offered them the female form reconceived and perfected. “My dresses help women discover figures they didn’t know they had.”

“Nothing else looked like these designs before or has since,” the designer Ralph Rucci writes in Charles James: Beyond Fashion. But that is not quite true, for James in his post–Second World War incarnation flirted constantly—resplendently—with history. There was the bustle of the Gilded Age, the hoop skirts of the Civil War, and the high waist of the Napoleonic empire. In the course of his career, James deployed just about every innovation mankind had concocted to shield the female figure from sight, and added some more of his own devising.

James wanted a mass market. What he got was the adoration of the cognoscenti. Christian Dior is said to have credited him as the inspiration for his New Look of 1947. But retail success continually eluded James. Of his approximately 200 designs, the Taxi dress of the early 1930s was one of his few commercially viable ideas. Efforts to translate his idiosyncratic, technically demanding styles into ready-to-wear were mostly a flop. That he was a lousy businessman and difficult to get along with didn’t help. “Such a pity he is so difficult because I would like to like him and feel he is a genius manqué,” the photographer Cecil Beaton, a boyhood friend, observed. By 1964, James, nearly destitute, was more or less finished as a working designer. He spent his last 14 years holed up in the Chelsea Hotel, his bed littered with drawings and half-eaten sandwiches.

Charles James was America’s greatest, some would say only, couturier. Yet his innovations didn’t recast the direction of fashion. The body was here to stay. To be more accurate: the body loomed larger than ever, as the Viennese psychiatrist Paul Schilder astutely diagnosed in 1934. After several years living and practicing in New York, Schilder wanted to understand the disconnect between the way people’s bodies felt and the way people felt about their bodies. He was fascinated by how changeable, how dependent upon the evaluations of others, corporeal experiences could be. “The body which seems so near to ourselves, so well known to ourselves, and so firm, thus becomes a very uncertain possession.” Schilder coined a term for the haunting preoccupation: body image. In an era of tyrannies, a new one had arrived. Though minor by comparison with the other travails of the time, it proved to have remarkable staying power.

Deborah Cohen, who teaches history at Northwestern University, is the author of Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions. Her most recent book, published in April 2013, is Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain.
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