Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Twentieth-Century Silhouette and Support

The silhouette at the beginning of the twentieth century was molded by what was considered the apex of nineteenth-century corsetry. The S-curve form imposed on women’s bodies in 1900 was the result of a straight-fronted corset that started lower on the bustline than the corsets had a few years previously. The shape of the corset allowed the bosom to hang low and unarticulated in front while the hips were pushed backwards. A few years later, couturier Paul Poiret declared the death of the corset with a new columnar silhouette that was equal parts Orientalism and early nineteenth-century Empire line revival. Under the sway of Poiret’s adaptation of orientalist fashion, which included engulfing, coatlike tops and dolman sleeves, the silhouette could almost appear to be an inverted triangle, particularly after his introduction of the hobble skirt in 1911, which limited the movement of the legs at the ankles.

By the 1920s, the columnar silhouette had become almost planar. Women’s dress seems to have been reduced to two dimensions and hung from the shoulders with little acknowledgment of bosom or hips. The waistline on the 1920s silhouette, if any, was located somewhere around the hips. The ideal underpinning of the 1920s dress was no underpinning at all, but the continued existence of women’s breasts necessitated the development of the brassiere. Unlike the corset, which had supported the bosom by pressure to the waistline below, the bandeau brassiere of the 1920s was anchored by a shoulder strap above and was more effective in suppression than support. Long-line corsets reappeared for use by women whose curves interfered with the plank silhouette of the 1920s; however, such assistance was not ideal, as freedom of movement was the underlying appeal of the loosened dress.

In the 1930s, the silhouette regained some structure. Evening dresses made of bias-cut fabrics clung to the curves of the female body while women’s suits for day wear were carefully tailored to nip in at the waist and curve closely over a slim bottom. The 1930s also marked the introduction of the padded shoulder, first used by couturière Elsa Schiaparelli. While the strong shoulders of the 1930s flattered the waistline by comparison, the overall demand that suits be form fitting allowed for the reintroduction of shaping undergarments. Although similar to corsets, the design of 1930s girdles emphasized their modernity, touting the smoothing elastic fabric and the invisible zipper closure.

The strong-shouldered silhouette persisted until 1947, when couturier Christian Dior presented what American fashion editor Carmel Snow dubbed the “New Look.” Defined by sloped shoulders, an articulated bust, a constricted waist, and padded hips, Richard Martin and Harold Koda noted in Bare Witness that “the New Look’s strong silhouette [was] made possible by the reintroduction of the carapace-like infrastructure of nineteenth-century dressmaking.” To achieve this silhouette, which carried through much of the 1950s, undergarments such as the narrow waist cincher were created while the brassiere was given increasingly reinforced structure to the point that it could direct each breast upward and outward from the torso.

While the New Look silhouette was iconic in the 1950s, it coexisted with a less structured silhouette in American sportswear. Day dresses, casual wear, and playsuits in the 1950s followed the general outline of Dior’s silhouette but without the underpinnings, taking shape instead from the ideally healthy body underneath the clothes. The aspect of the body itself as the defining fashionable silhouette would begin to take hold in the 1960s with the introduction of the miniskirt and the body-revealing conceptual fashions of designer Rudi Gernreich. From the 1960s through the ’70s, the ideal silhouette was that of a slender body. Girdles were still being marketed in the 1960s, but by the ’70s, as Harold Koda points out in Extreme Beauty, “[t]he refuge of wearing foundation garments to re-form the body was obsolete and the greater tyranny emerged of an ideal of beauty with the impossibility of recourse to artifice.”

Although the return of shoulder pads and their flattery to the waistline in the 1980s offered some brief respite from the tyranny of the ideal body as ideal silhouette, perfection remains embodied by the form of the tall, slender, adolescent girl. The real shift that took place in the 1980s was toward more muscle tone on that adolescent body. Although historicist revivals by fashion designers in the 1990s have suggested multiple variations of silhouette, the revealed body remains the dominant form.