Essay: The Fashionable Body

by Olivia Marks on 19 July 2010

Fashion writer Olivia Marks on the trends that dictate our physicality.

Fashion writer Olivia Marks on the trends that dictate our physicality.

'The trend is still away from big breasts', says Lisa Armstrong in an issue of The Independent dated July 4 1993. 'They should be completely flattened by next season.'

In the summer of '93 the bare midriff reigned. The perfectly toned stomach was, is, as much a must-have as the hipster jeans and shrunken T-shirt that brought it into being. Now, In the summer of 2010, although low-slung jeans have yet to make a comeback, (the threat of kitten heels and a bootcut trouser are enough for now) an exposed torso certainly has. As fashion changes, so do erogenous zones. And as fashion is cyclical, so are the areas of the body we wish to highlight. 'It's the law of nature, isn't it?' Armstrong continued. 'Society needs to change.'

Some may believe that the body exists outside fashion. Yet we talk about our physicality in the same way we refer to the desired trouser shape or heel height of the season.

Some may believe that the body exists outside fashion,  that it is not subject to the same fickle rules that govern our sartorial choices. Yet we talk about our physicality; our breasts, legs, shoulders, backs, in the same way we refer to the desired trouser shape or heel height of the season. But while we can alter our hemlines or vary the position of our waist, it's not quite as easy to take a pair of scissors to our chests or buttocks. (Or then again, as many a celebrity magazine and TV documentary has shown, maybe it is.) But the point here is not one of body politics - whether or not a busty woman should wear a crop top, or if we should undergo plastic surgery to adhere to trends  - but how fashion prefers one part of the body to  another, or, in fact, how current attitudes towards our bodies dictate what we wear. 

Clothes have long served to highlight various parts of the body. In the 1960s Mary Quant gave us the mini skirt, bringing legs to the forefront of everyone's attention. A decade later, and legs had been covered in favour of revealing cleavage. Long and lean pins returned in the eighties, only to go back undercover during the early nineties when the stomach took centre stage. Or, as that same issue of The Independent put it [breasts and legs] are unimportant this season.'

Clothes play a crucial role in the fetishisation of our bodies. Belts cinch waists, bracelet length sleeves expose delicate wrists and the current trend for tapered trousers reveal ankles in a way that would drive Victorian gentlemen wild. Our gaze is manipulated to concentrate on these areas. Clothes act as a frame, as a set of parenthesis around our bodies. They give our bodies meaning, but do not define them. The body can be read and understood without clothes, the same way brackets can be removed from a sentence whilst still leaving the overall meaning intact. But without the body, clothes are rendered meaningless.




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