09/21/07 - legs

In today's excerpt - legs. In the early 1800s, world population and wealth explodes, and a large middle class emerges. Along with this comes an unprecedented focus on appearance and sexuality in this new middle class, which overcomes the inevitable 'Victorian' backlash:

"Women's legs had long been important elements in sexual and gender identification. The curves of women's legs proved crucial markers in the concept of feminine beauty, based on painter William Hogarth's idea that curves are more pleasing than straight lines. Throughout the nineteenth century, most women hid their legs under skirts, and both sexes considered legs powerful erotic objects. ...

"[Historian Robert] Allen ... presented the history of theater in the United States as ... 'a struggle over women's sexuality, played out through debates over the length of ballet dancers' costumes.' Ballet dancers were the first nineteenth century women to display their legs, clad in wool or cotton tights, in public. ... Ballet survived because its identification with the upper class helped mask its open sexuality. Burlesque performers, who in the mid-nineteenth century also wore short skirts and tights, were said to be in the 'leg business.' ...

"By the beginning of the twentieth century ... women's sports became more active and called for looser and shorter clothing, while the beginnings of beauty pageants ... brought briefer bathing suits into wider acceptance. Women's participation in the [industrial] workforce before and during World War I brought clothing that enabled more activity. ...

"Fashion historians talk about the S curve of women's dress at this time. ... Historian Elizabeth Ewing described the S curve as featuring a 'lavish bust and impressive hips', all hidden and accentuated by long full skirts over strong corsets. Around 1908, Paris and then American fashions changed to a 'straight line', with new underwear designed to make the new look possible. Women's own rebellion against corsets played some part in this change. The new straight line and less constricting underwear made shorter skirts easier. Skirts went up in the 1920s, down a bit to mid-calf in the early '30s, and then started climbing again. ... The manufacture of full-fashioned hosiery [ultimately nylons] designed to fit the leg with dropped stitches to make the ankle narrower than the top ,[reinforced this trend]."


Susan Smulyan


Popular Ideologies : Mass Culture at Mid-Century


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2007 by the University of Pennsylvania Press


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