May 31, 2012
Readers, here's a quote from Tim Gunn from his recent book, Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style:
Look at any photo taken at a nightclub in the forties and fifties; many a flabby upper arm can be seen going to town on the dance floor, no doubt its owner feeling just fine about her appearance. Today we gasp because we are constantly told that unless a body part is toned it should be kept, like the crazed wife of Mr. Rochester, locked away to keep from offending the new governess."
And this, from Adele Margolis's, How to Make Clothes That Fit and Flatter:
At the moment, the ideal figure is young, younger, youngest -- a cruel blow to those beyond the first flush of youth. As long as the world continues to be swamped with young people....and as long as the great portion of the earned, accumulated, and inherited buying power is in their hands, just so long will the fashion industry (among others) continue to design and produce for youth.
Margolis was writing in the late Sixties, Gunn in 2007, but has anything changed? For the past forty years or more -- certainly since the "youthquake" era of the mid-Sixties -- the ideal body type has been a young and slim one. To quote Margolis, "The stylish stouts went out of fashion a long time ago."
Today, however, it's not enough to have a "youthful" figure. The ideal body is a fit body. And not just fit. For men at least, it must be well-muscled. Compare the vintage Jantzen bathing suit ad up top, with this contemporary ad for Dolce & Gabbana underwear. These are very different bodies.
Consider some matinee idols of yore (Gable, John Wayne, Tyrone Power, Steve McQueen, William Holden) -- attractive, yes, but nobody looks like they work out daily at Gold's Gym.
Today, we're constantly hearing about celebrities and their trainers and it's the rare actor/actress who isn't pin-up ready.
You could say the same thing about women's bodies today and the expectation to be gym-fit at every age, but I think we've been down that road already.
Friends, what is this about, in your opinion? Here's some of what I think is going on:
1) In our media-saturated world, we're constantly bombarded with images of beautiful people. Once upon a time your frame of reference would be limited to the people who lived in your community or, later, a famous person in a magazine or a movie actor/actress. Nowadays, bodies are everywhere: on TV, the Internet, billboards, magazines, even our phones! -- and it influences how we see ourselves.
2) Not only do we see more bodies, but also we see more of these bodies. Cole Porter wrote, "In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking/Now heaven knows, anything goes." Well today that glimpse of stocking is pubic hair, butt cleavage, and whatever we might be downloading in the privacy of our cubicles. There's very little we don't see and, again, it's hard not to be affected by it and compare ourselves to it (especially if you're young and impressionable).
3) After WWII, increased prosperity and less physical labor meant a) more leisure time to focus on physical fitness and, paradoxically b) fewer opportunities to stay fit without going to a gym or working out in some other way. Commuting by car, picking up a fast-food meal, sitting at a computer at work -- all of these are part of the sedentary lifestyle that has become the American norm.
Now that we have washing machines, vacuum cleaners, even gas-powered leaf blowers, our bodies are no longer the tools we use to survive, but rather another way we express who we are in the world, much the way clothes served (and still serve) to let others know who we are and how we stack up against others.
4) I believe that anxiety about modern life gets displaced onto our bodies, which we can control more effectively than the increasingly complex world around us. It's easier to obsess about losing five pounds than about losing our job, the value of our 401(k), or the safety of our children. A look at the news headlines today is enough to turn anyone into a compulsive eater or, conversely, an obsessive gym rat.
5) For men, a rite of passage into manhood used to be marriage and family, or going to war (or both). With men marrying later (if at all) and the end of military conscription, muscles have replaced medals and mortgages as symbols of manhood.
Readers, what have I missed?
Do you agree that the shape of our bodies has become more important than ever as a symbol of health, youth, and, affluence (it costs money to join a gym, after all, and working out there implies leisure time)?
Is this something you experience in your day-to-day lives as well or is it just a media/celebrity thing?
Labels: clothing and culture