Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Myth of the Regency Sylph

Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Susan reporting:

Seeing the fashions of 1810 featured in Loretta's blog yesterday reminded me of how fashion influences more than just silk and ribbons: it can also determine the stylish ideal of the body beneath those clothes.

Too often, however, the modern perception of what was hot in the late 18th-early 19th c is more a reflection of 21st ideals, especially as influenced by contemporary film versions of Jane Austen's novels. Our sylphs would not have been theirs. Keira Knightley, right, and Gwyneth Paltrow would have been pitied as sad, scrawny creatures, even perhaps consumptive. The ladies that everyone was ogling in a real Regency ballroom would have looked much more like this caricature of the notorious Emma, Lady Hamilton, left, by Thomas Rowlandson.

While later in her career, Emma would be cruelly depicted as blowsy and obese, here she is shown as an eminently desirable and fashionable beauty, with high breasts and well-rounded thighs and bottom. The same kind of lush figure tumbles through countless other drawings by Rowlandson and James Gillray; Google either artist, and you'll see these women over and over. It's easy to look at this body-type and imagine it wearing the clothes in the 1810 fashion plate, or in this one from 1808

The more flattering portrait of Emma, below, also shows exactly how robust a stylish lower half must have been. With fashion dictating a temporary respite from boned corseting, narrow waists lost their importance as an erogenous zone. Instead the interest  shifted to the lush, voluptuous curves below the waist, revealed by the drifting drapery of light silks and linens. For men who had been raised in an era when these mysterious body-parts had been hidden by hoops and heavily draped skirts, the sudden change must have been...exciting.

Where did this different kind of body ideal come from? Just as ancient Roman and Greek art and architecture was influencing nearly every aspect of the decorative arts in the late 18th-early 19th c, fashion, too, took a classical turn. High-waisted gowns and draping shawls were designed to emulate ancient fashions, embroidery patterns featured classical motifs, and looped and knotted hairstyles showed a classical influence as well.

But the undressed bodies of ancient nude statuary also set new standards of physical beauty. While Georgian aristocrats on their Grand Tours were busily checking out naked marble goddesses all across the Continent, one of the must-see statutes was the Aphrodite Kallipygos, right, on display in Naples. This much-admired statue is thought to be a 1st c BC Roman copy of an earlier Greek bronze, and her provocative pose must have left a definite impression of classical booty on countless young Englishmen.

The statue may also have influenced Lady Hamilton, living with her husband Sir William in Naples. For special guests to their villa, Emma performed her "Attitudes," a series of graceful poses inspired by classical art – the same "Attitudes" satirized by Rowlandson in the caricature at the top of this page. While Emma performed in a quasi-classical costume, not in the buff as Rowlandson shows her, there is a similarity between the pose – and the voluptuous figure.

Top left: Lady Hamilton's Attitudes by Thomas Rowlandson, 1790
Lower left: Detail, Emma, Lady Hamilton as Ariadne by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1790
Lower right: Aphrodite Kallipygos, artist unknown, 1st c BC, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

8 comments:

Isobel Carr said...

I have always loved the Aphrodite Kallipygos.

Charles Bazalgette said...

I liked the 'booty' pun - very clever!

Scrapiana said...

You've given me ample opportunity to drop one of my favourite adjectives: callipygian, meaning 'having beautifully shaped buttocks'.

Little Kiera didn't convince me at all in Pride & Prejudice; my favourite Lizzie was the much more softly rounded Jennifer Ehle -opposite that obscure Mr Firth. ;)

textilehistorIE said...

I like KK, but that was one of her worst films :/
Love the post. A great reminder of changing body styles. Wonder how our own body shape fashions will be seen in a century.

Donna Hatch, Regency Romance Author said...

I wish the fuller figures were all the rage THIS century--I might be considered hot instead of matronly :-/

Julia said...

Heaven help, after all the fasion plates, paintings and carricatures I've seen while researching costume I can never see either Kiera Knightley or Gwyneth Paltrow in the Jane Austen movies without hearing a favorite commedian's line in my mind: "A farmer would say: if that was a cow, it wouldn't make it through the next winter." Grrh. Look, Hollwood, there's a line in Emma about Jane being "neither too fat nor too thin, but a most becoming medium"! Yes, once upon a time there was such a thing as being too thin.

The carricatures especially can be hillarious, with bottoms like a veiled hot-air balloon. "Bombazeen = bum be seen". Whenever I look at the carricatures I think that two things run through history: women loving fashion, men making fun of women loving fashion and men falling for fashionably dressed women.

nokomarie said...

Well, the shape is one thing. Even the gentle restriction of one of the corslets would have whittled away at the body over years. Thus we see the ribcage descending into the hip area with no real pause for the waist. A near total lack of exercise contributed to those softly-fleshed, rounded arms. Nonethless the inner dmensions on extant garments are pretty darn small. When I was a slender woman (I'm now a middle-aged tub) I wore US size 12 and had a 25" waist. My adult daughters wear sizes 3 and 6 and have waists of 24 and 26". I would never have been able to get most extant regency dresses up over my shoulders. Daughter #1 would fit through the shoulders and chest but she is rail thin, no nice arms there. The youngest would fit the dresses all right but would need tight lacing to yank her bosom up towards her neck. Figures have changed, ideal demensions have changed but no, it never was popular to be large and fleshy.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

nokomarie - Yes, many of the surviving clothes of the past are smaller, and there's no doubt that for many reasons, English women were on the whole smaller 200 years ago than now.

But that was exactly my point: that where fashion is concerned, it's often what's rarest that's most prized. We're told that the average American woman today is 5'3" and wears a size 14, yet fashion magazines routinely show the ideal as being 5'11" fashion models wearing a size 2.

The most voluptuous representations of women in European art are by Rubens, painted during the Thirty Years War and in an era of widespread famine. When the majority of the population doesn't have enough to eat, the most desirable women -the women painted as goddesses- were ones who were "large and fleshy."

While economic conditions were not so dire c 1800, a well-rounded woman would still be a status symbol, a sign that her husband/family could afford to dine lavishly. A fuller figure was considered a sign of robust health and appetites, which until the present day has always been sexually attractive.

While there are always going to be people of different sizes, it's clear from portraits as well as caricatures like these that the IDEAL c 1800 was for a voluptuous figure. The women considered great beauties (like Lady Hamilton) did indeed fit that ideal of a larger, more womanly figure.

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