I’m short. Quite short. And I’m curvy. Quite curvy. For years I looked through “dress-to-your-shape-articles” hoping to find something that addressed my size, but to no avail. I’m short and small boned, but petite style suggestions look ridiculous with my bustline. None of the canned advice squibs suggested what I should do about my narrow, sloping shoulders, and a magazine that I shall call Spogue clearly used “curvy” as a euphemism for “plus-sized,” which, unless we are using a catwalk weight system, I am not.
I know I’m not the only one with this problem, and one day, when my best friend and I tried on clothes in a store full of vintage inspired fashion, a solution came to me. Practically all the clothes from to the forties era looked great on me, while my friend absolutely owned a Victorian era top. I realized, that my friend, with her long neck, small bust, defined waist, and generous backside fit the description of the ideal Victorian body type to a tee, whilst I matched up to the short, curvy hourglass ideal of the 1940s.
Almost every body type you can imagine has, at some point, been idealized in Western culture. Whether you’re tall and skinny, short and skinny, tall and curvy, plus sized, athletically built, etc., if you look hard enough, you can find a section of history where your body type was the ideal. Women in Western civilization have been restraining, plumping, slimming, padding, and binding various parts of their bodies to conform to the ideal bodies of their day for millennia.
From corsets, to diets, to bustles, to the push-up bra, women have struggled to mold their bodies into a template set by the style of the times. The corollary to this is that designers frequently make clothing based on whatever body type happens to be “in” during their lifetimes. Trying to fit into fashionable clothes made for another body type can be a hideously embarrassing experience. Just think of a curvy or full-figured girl in a 1920s style flapper dress, or a stick-skinny, flat chested woman in a 1950s-style pin-up halter dress. Trust me, it’s not a pretty picture.
There is an important learning to be drawn from this: When you find an era in fashion history where your specific body type was the ideal, the clothing of that time will be optimally designed for your body type. I understand that the clothes themselves won’t do anything but make you look like an actor in a period drama (especially when looking at fashion eras from more than 100 years ago), but the underlying design principles can still be applied to today’s fashions.
What follows is by no means a complete list of eras and body types (that would take a book.), but rather, some examples to show you the range of body types that have been fashionable throughout history and ways to apply those principles to modern fashion.
Let’s take the Rubenesque woman, so-named because she is portrayed in the 17th century paintings of Peter Paul Rubens. This was an era which celebrated ample flesh on both men and women. Fashion only existed for the very wealthy, who used their clothing to display their wealth (just as fashion has been used as a status symbol throughout history).
Now, onto the fashion tips we can derive from the fashion era depicted in these paintings, lest you think I’m advising you here to walk around with a giant ruff of fabric around your neck a la Queen Elizabeth I. The structure and attention paid to the waist jumps out from the figures on the canvases. Not a single one of the paintings shows the flowing, tent-like garment that the modern fashion world has deemed acceptable for the plus-sized woman.
One especially useful technique is demonstrated in the painting #2: wearing a light-colored outfit beneath a darker overlayer. This can be accomplished in modern fashion by wearing a light colored dress or pant suit underneath a blazer or a duster that buttons at the waist. The V of lighter fabric above and below the jacket accentuates the curves of your body while providing definition for your waist.
The second thing…er things…that just pop out at me are the breasts. For women who fall in to the Rubenesque category, a good portion of your pounds have found their way to your bustline. Don’t be afraid to show them off with a square neckline. Notice that Ruben’s own wife (picture # 1 above) had no problem displaying her assets.
Going back to the theme of structure, look back at the detailing in the Rubens paintings. There are several ways you can achieve this same sort of structure in your clothing, without resorting to corsets (although there is a reason Torrid has so many corset-topped dresses).
Use clothing that has a defined waist, be it with a ribbon, a wrap top, or a sash. For those with narrow shoulders, use tops with a bit of extra fabric to balance out your top and your bottom. Although it’s not so obvious from this selection of paintings, most of the dresses of this day had some sort of embroidery around the neckline to draw attention where it belonged–to the face. You can get the same effect using bold necklaces or tops with detail around the neckline.
Further study of the period can no doubt reveal other fashion clues, so explore on your own. There are several digital museums of Rubens’ work on the internet, and many of them have zooming capabilities that allow you to focus on detail work. (Scroll to the bottom of the page for additional resources).
The next fashion Era we’ll explore is Regency England. The period from 1795-1825 is the time in which Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is set. However, as you’ll see, despite her talent, Keira Knightly is not the most accurate body type to play the movie role of Elizabeth Bennet.
The Regency body type was a very natural one: generally not very tall, gently rounded curves, a high, small bustline, and a fairly slender neck. Since the emphasis in Regency style was on the natural body, many body types can wear Regency style. Take note that the Regency body is not stick-skinny (no jutting clavicles here). The bottom half of the body was not expressly defined, although generous curves in the rear would help to keep a skirt’s fullness. The woman who embodied this style was Empress Josephine Bonaparte. In fact, the empire style waistline is so named because Josephine made it popular throughout Bonaparte’s empire.
This style of clothing is wonderful for those who could be called pear-shaped. Sloping shoulders were prevalent, and as a consequence, shoulder lines start very far from the neck. The simple lines and the delicate detailing all help keep the dress from wearing you, as opposed to you wearing it. If you are a larger or bigger boned version of the Regency body type, you can afford to make the detailing a little bolder.
Frequently, the fabric would be either vertically striped (picture #8) or have a piece of attached fabric that fell straight to the floor (picture #7); this served to elongate the body, and the fabric added a sense of movement. To create a modern-day Regency look that is truly unique, you could use either a belt or a
scarf to create an empire waist over a garment, then tuck a longer scarf into it allowing it to drape toward the floor. This treatment would look truly dramatic against a black empire-waist dress- using either a black belt or black scarf for the waist and a long colored scarf to drape down. (If someone is brave enough to do this, please send pictures, I can’t really do empire waists well.)
One of my favorite items of clothing from the Regency period is the pelisse (picture # 9). This was a long, usually calf-length, coat worn over the dress. It’s buttoned just underneath the bust. The best modern equivalent for this is probably be an empire waist sweater coat, something I think fills a niche for dress-up/dress-down warmth, while the empire waist provides a simple, yet flattering shape .
Toward the middle of the Regency era, artists and clothing designers became fascinated with the ideals and styles of ancient Greece, thus draping became important to the aesthetic of the time. This draping very much suits the soft curves of the Regency body type, and many modern clothes reflect the same Grecian influence. Summing up the Regency fashion guidelines: simplicity of line and detail, empire waists, vertical lines, and draping.
Gibson Girl/Flapper At the turn of the 19th century and the late 1920s, the female body type took a new direction. A taller, more athletic form became appealing, epitomized in two distinct ideals.
The Gibson Girl was a tall, slender hourglass with broad shoulders, toned through activities such as bicycling, golf and tennis. On the other hand, the Flapper was thin (presumably from doing those energetic dances), flat-chested, narrow-hipped, and youthful looking. In a very general way, these two ideals represent the curvy and the straight athletic body types. Gibson girls wore crisp shirts, usually in a pale color, tucked into long dark skirts, which cinched at the waist to emphasize the hourglass shape.
Having a Gibson Girl body type means that you can wear the top-heavy volume that has been so popular on the runways of 2006. Just make sure you cinch the waist tightly (if you’ve got it, you might as well show it off). Think of something like that “orchid” outfit Daniel Vosovic designed in last year’s Project Runway.
Classic button down shirts (of pretty much any color that suits your skin tone) tucked into pants or skirts that sit at your natural waist will also flatter your figure. You can wear obi-style sashes and scarves and big belts around your waist without fear of being cut in half, due to your height.
Those of you whose bodies skew toward the Flapper spectrum also have reason to smile. The clean, straight lines of classic Chanel were, quite literally, designed for your body type. Wearing clothes with a masculine silhouette was so popular that in France, the flapper style was called “garçonne” which roughly translated to “boy-girl”.
Things like straight-leg men’s trousers, suspenders, and shirts will flatter your athletic lines. Handkerchief hems above the knees were also popular. They were quite flattering to the athletic legs of the flapper girls, and are still available today. Dresses and skirts with handkerchief hems will flutter attractively as you stride down the sidewalk.
Sleeveless tank tops will showcase your arms, and you can wear dramatic V-necks without worrying about falling out (a la Tara Reid). Both of these body types and styles have extensive documentation both on and off the Internet, so get to searching.
If this article didn’t cover your body type, don’t worry; history is full of different ideals about the perfect female form. Odds are you can find a period in history where the ideal shape matches your own body type.
All of these periods have techniques and ideas that can be applied to your everyday fashion, and all you need to do is get onto Google and look. Designers are constantly drawing inspiration from the past, so there’s no reason you can’t do the same. Look at the underlying themes and shapes as opposed to actual detailing if you’re concerned about looking too “period.”
Books in the library and the links listed below are resources that can help get you started. If you don’t feel like being sedentary (or, like me, you’re afraid at some point your butt will fuse to your computer chair) you can go to an art museum and look at the pictures of the women from various eras. Find one whose body looks like yours, and go from there. You don’t even have to look for fashion clues, you can just look at them and think about a time when all women tried their hardest to look just like you. And if you are not of European descent, these same suggestions will work for you if you review the art history of your ancestral lands.
You can find more information at the following sites:
These are only a starting point, ways to search are everywhere.