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Shifting Silhouettes

by Maria Foka, 9 December 2018

  Throughout the centuries, either during the Renaissance or the 21st century, many designers mass-design based on common axes. They utilize certain fabrics, cuts, techniques, and styles that, as they form a norm, they constitute the trend of each era. The study of the aforementioned axes is interesting because they partially occur from the social and political background of each time and place – regardless of the range of these variables. It can endure from centuries to months, from continents to small cities. In the history of European art, ambiguity and vagueness surrounding social norms and beliefs, obscured, penetrate into the representations of the female body. The female body can be placed in the center of the definition of art, as well as at the edge of it. It is a sideline, according to Derrida, between art and obscenity, so it is by nature a dipole. That way, it is possible for someone to perceive it as a way of defining borders, a metaphor for all the proceedings of segregation throughout the centuries.

  One of the haute couture elements and by extension of the everyday dress that lies in a perpetual loop is that of the silhouette. The silhouette of a woman is the subject of many artists, and designers opt to showcase the part of the female body that is considered to be appealing and erotic depending on each period in time. Some of the most famous devices and techniques throughout history used constantly and ever-evolving, are the corset, the bias-cut, and the mini. They play a crucial part in changing the appearance of the silhouette and shifting the focus from one body part to another.


  In the early years of the twentieth century, respectable women in Europe and the U.S. took great pride in squeezing their bodies into unnatural curvaceous shapes. They had to suffer in order to look beautiful. Their torsos were squashed into corsets, which were stiffened with metal or whalebone and tightened brutally hard with laces. With pads added to the hips and under the arms to exaggerate a tiny waistline, a full-length skirt finished off the look. In the U.S., the ideally proportioned woman of the era was popularized by the illustrator Charles Gibson, and his drawings were personified most famously by the curvy actress Camille Clifford. Today, her wasp-waisted figure looks almost grotesquely distorted. Yet, not all women were prepared to suffer the discomfort of a corset. The suffragettes of England began a campaign against these restrictive garments in 1904. In 1906, Paul Poiret introduced a ground-breaking softer silhouette, inspired by the 18th-century empire-line style, which rendered extreme corsetry redundant. A Poiret skirt fell straight to the floor from a high empire-line band, which sat just under the bust. With no need of a tiny waist anymore, women could breathe freely again. However, tube corsets were still favored: woven elastic, which pulled in the hips, flattened the stomach and liberated the bust. These were far from perfect, as they restricted movement in the legs. With the advent of WWI, women started to work in jobs that had traditionally been the preserve of men, and stretch corsets became correspondingly shorter in order to allow more mobility. Eventually, the modern choice became the stretch girdle, which just held in the hips, worn with a bra.

Illustrations of Vivienne Westwood’s corsets, Maria Foka 2020


  When fabric is cut on the bias, it is cut diagonally across the direction of the weave, so that the warp and weft (the ‘grain’ of the fabric) fall diagonally over the figure rather than horizontally and vertically. Material cut in this way is naturally elastic, a property that can be used to make dresses cling and stretch on contact with the body’s curves, producing an elegant effect and flattering the figure. The French dressmaker Madeleine Vionnet, who opened her Paris fashion house in 1912, is known as the mistress of the bias cut. She designed her dresses by draping, gathering, and twisting fabric on a small wooden dummy rather than using traditional pattern-cutting techniques. Many of her dresses had no fastenings, and pulled straight over the head – it was only when a body filled them that they magically came to life. Vionnet was one of the pioneers in rejecting the corset. She focused on achieving a figure-hugging fit with dresses that flowed smoothly over the body in one layer of fabric – they incorporated no underdress. They were often long with halter or cowl necks, and sweeping low backs. She favored lightweight crepe, gabardine, and satin, which were pliable and draped easily. They reached the height of their popularity in the late 1920s and 30s. They were perfect for showing off the nubile figures of movie starlets, and many of the slinky Hollywood gowns typical of the period when cut on the bias. ‘The whole idea of cutting on the bias was brilliant.’ said Galliano on the subject. ‘It was elastic before there was elastic’.


  Daring short skirts exposing acres of leg were an exciting proposition for young women of the ’60s, and they could not get enough of them. Never had so much leg been revealed in public. By 1965 miniskirts had reached mid-thigh, and still, they crept further up. Their shock value is hard to overestimate. While designers such as Andre Courreges and John Bates had introduced short skirts in the early 1960s, it is Mary Quant who should be remembered as the true progenitor of the miniskirt. Inspired by the mods with their neat, geometric tailoring and Italian-influenced dress, Quant produced minidresses to sell at her King’s Road boutique, Bazaar. The pinafore dresses and short, brightly colored skirts were, crucially for the fashionable ’60s girls who wore them, worlds apart from the voluptuous New Look style that had entranced their mothers.  Many were outraged by what they saw as common indecency. Coco Chanel denounced miniskirts as disgusting. And Cecil Beaton opined: ‘Never in the history of fashion has so little material been raised so high to reveal so much that needs to be covered up so badly.’ Short skirts resurfaced again during the ’80s, with designers such as Azzedine Alaia producing tight curvaceous minis – and a black miniskirt worn with opaque pantyhose became the standard uniform for young working women.

  In the 20th century, womanhood was perceived through new methods of probe. The representations of the body were re-valued and re-phrased based on dipoles such as whole/fragment, surface/innerness. The definitions of beauty and health were re-defined in an exposition of omissions and voids that supervened in the dominant western tradition, designate a new female subjectivity. Although these dresses span through a few decades, and this is considered to be a brief period of time in the history of fashion’s timeline, one can detect a great shift, both in shapes and materials. Designers creatively visualized the sexuality of the female body, with lines and directions towards the desired and ‘ worshiped’ body areas of each time and place (big hips, small waist, large breasts, slim or fuller figure, collarbones, legs etc.) Nowadays this phenomenon is extended to many areas of the fashion world and, especially during the last decades, has resulted in women (and, to a smaller degree, men) using, besides clothing, other tactics such as plastic surgery in order for their body to coincide with each ‘standards’, which can result in the death of authenticity. The notion of desirability is so strongly embedded in our subconscious, that it is extremely hard to disdain the trend of each period of time regarding which of our features should we expose the most. When others decide for us, the challenge is to read behind the lines in order to understand the origin of each trend, to evaluate it, and selectively use it or deny it based on a personal understanding of oneself.

  I noticed these garments in an exhibition in the V&A museum in London. What striked me the most was the fact that, although their differences in style are rather obvious, they were placed together in the same room, in a way – in my comprehension and perception – that underlined the shifting of the silhouettes that happened in a rather short period of time.

1. Cristobal Balenciaga was a perfectionist in cutting and sewing garments and was renowned for his exacting standards. This tweed suit is an ode to his tailoring skills – with the sleeves sitting perfectly on the wide shoulders and a straight, strict skirt, creating an interesting square-like shape. This type of power dressing hides the curves of the body, but in the same time leavesing exposed the calves and part of the arms.

2. Christian Dior created this lightweight, unlined day-dress, which is tied tightly around the waist and draped in a skirt to achieve volume in the lower area of the body. It features buttons that grant it with a casual feeling and loose Magyar sleeves, that provide ease of movement. The light fabric softly hugs the body when it is moving, and its volume in the back creates a new, working woman – chic lady effect.

3. This evening dress designed by Pierre Balmain has a pink satin bow that provides an elegant touch to a glamorous, hourglass-like, silhouette-hugging garment. The bow is placed on the back, where satin sash and draped skirt meet in a series of asymmetrical, diagonal gathers. The strapless, hand-painted, satin fabric with silver metallic threads is showing off the collarbones, waist, and hips.

4. This dress was designed by Michael Sherard and features a bell-like skirt and train made entirely out of lace. He very likely took notes from Christian Dior, who described cocktail dresses as ‘elaborate afternoon frocks’, ‘preferably in black taffeta, satin, chiffron, and wool’. It has a low decolletage and it very tastefully shows of the calves and hands, and the tail grants the wearer and air of royalty.

5. Yves Saint Laurent created this evening dress out of embroidered silk with coral, diamante and metal thread and zibeline with a belt for the Dior fashion house. The belt is placed tightly on the waist, compartmentalizing  the body in two parts, bringing the focus on the upper part, which is complimented by chic Trois quarts sleeves. whereas the skirt suggest a rather fuller-hips type silhouette.

6. This elegant, pared down design was created by Jaques Griffe. It has a typical ’50s shape with its fitted bodice and full skirt and a complex double-weaving technique that creates an unusual frayed ‘ribbon work’ effect. The white silk threads are interwoven with grey organza and create the illusion of a waterfall. The dress brings the attention on the waist and cleavage and leaves the arms exposed.