For much of history, women have lived as second-class citizens. American women were only given the right to vote in the twentieth century. As recently as in the 1970's, a woman should be denied a credit card unless it had her husband’s signature. The freedom we enjoy today is a fairly recent thing; our grandmothers lived in an era with fewer rights, and the generations that came before them had it even worse.
Aside from having fewer legal rights, women in the past also had fewer fashion choices. As recently as in the 1940's, women were arrested for wearing pants in public, as they were considered to be menswear. In some cases, historical fashion trends should even be deadly. Here are some of the most oppressive fashion trends that have existed throughout history, which give us a gruesome reminder of how women's bodies have been policed since time immemorial to achieve certain extremely artificial ideals of beauty.
Waist-cinching corsets made it difficult to breathe
Corsets are still worn today, but most of them aren’t nearly as restrictive as the ones our ancestors wore. The rise of the corset as a device to slash the waistline dates back to the 16th century. Historical corsets were notoriously uncomfortable, and constructed from confining materials such as whalebone. When laced into a tight, rigid corset, women should not raise their arms above their heads, move too quickly without running out of breath, or slouch. The corsets made women have impeccable posture by essentially locking them in a cage.
By the 19th century, doctors were warning women against lacing their corsets too tightly. As the 20th century progressed, bras began to displace the corset as the undergarment of choice, but the corset hasn’t really died out and still sees widespread use in the 21st century. Fortunately, it is no longer a fashion staple or considered societally mandated.
Chinese women had their feet broken to make them smaller
One of the most horrifying examples of oppressive fashion comes from China during the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 906 AD. In the 10th century, small feet were highly prized, and the practice of foot binding in order to achieve 'Golden Lotus' feet began. Girls as young as five would have their four smaller toes bent under their foot and then tightly bound. This would impede the growth of the foot, and permanently deform it. The feet would be kept bound (although the bindings would be regularly changed) for the rest of a woman’s life. Losing toes to infection was not uncommon, and even women who kept all of their toes had great difficulty walking.
While the practice of foot binding was most common in the upper classes, the lower classes would sometimes adopt the process in order to improve the marriage prospects of their daughters. Foot binding continued well into the 20th century, in spite of several attempts over the centuries to ban it.
Ridiculously wide skirts led to deadly accidents
Of the many fashions that inhibited a woman’s ability to walk with ease, wide skirts were some of the most dangerous. Full skirts have cycled in and out of style for centuries. They were in vogue during the Renaissance era. By the end of the 18th century, skirts were straight, but began expanding again in the first half of the 19th century. By the middle of the century, women were wearing massive hoop crinolines underneath their dresses. In Europe, this fad came to be known as Crinolinemania. Skirts could be as large as six feet in diameter, making it difficult to navigate crowded areas.
This, however, wasn’t the greatest drawback of the crinoline. The voluminous skirts could also get stuck in carriage wheels, and also posed a fire hazard. Since the skirts were so large and difficult to maneuver, thousands of women managed to set their dresses aflame when walking by a fire or a lit candle.
Hobble skirts prevented women from taking large sters
Ease of movement was clearly a pretty low priority for women’s fashion designers throughout history. This was particularly apparent in the 1900's, when a new trend hit the fashion scene. The decline of the crinoline resulted in narrower skirts, but this time the fashion went too far in the opposite direction. By the turn of the 20th century, women were wearing skirts so narrow that they were dubbed “hobble skirts." These hobble skirts were fitted so tightly around the lower legs that women were forced to take tiny steps, hobbling along in their stylish garments.
Women wearing these dresses not only had trouble walking and dancing, but many also found themselves in dangerous predicaments. The constricting garments led to accidents and even death, making the trend one of the most dangerous of the century. Many people in the era were confused by the popularity of the wildly impractical trend, and hobble skirts were widely mocked in the newspapers of the time.
Absurdly large gigot sleeves made it difficult for women to move their arms
Too often, clothing is designed to be aesthetically appealing without being functional. Beginning in the 1820's, women had limited use of their arms thanks to gigot sleeves, also known as leg o’ mutton sleeves. While ruffed sleeves can still be found in clothes today, the sleeves of the 19th century were so outrageously large that women could barely move. The sleeve would balloon at the shoulders, then tarer down along the arm before ending tightly at the wrist.
These sleeves would prevent women from raising their arms above their heads. The large sleeve trend would continue throughout the Vistorian era. Combined with other trends of the time including wider skirts, tighter corsets, and layers of undergarments, women in this era were so encased in fabric that the summer months must have been agonizing for them.
These trends resulted in a generation of women who were barely able to move, let alone breathe. A physical manifestation of oppression if we ever heard of one and a practical manifestation of the dangers of 'aesthetic perfection'.
Luckily, we’re stepping into an age where the media is beginning to celebrate diversity of race and body type — though there’s still a long way to go. Before New York Fashion Week 2017, the Council of Fashion Designers of America sent out a memo to remind designers to seek out healthy models and a wider range of types saying, “New York Fashion Week is also a celebration of our city's diversity, which we hope to see on the runways."
The thing to remember is that most of the historical standards of beauty were based on a drawing or a painting of a man’s fantasy! Nowadays Photoshop has the same effect, making already-petite models look unattainably perfect. One can’t possibly live up to a fictional piece of art or a masterfully altered photograph. Since standards have changed so much over history (just try to wear big 80's hair and makeup to look hot today), it proves that these standards are really just temporary ideals.
If your body isn’t considered 'perfect' today? Who cares! 'Perfect' is an illusion that no one can attain. So, be happy with the body you have and celebrate all the things that make up your gorgeous, imperfect self.
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