A Most Remarkable Trait

"Head of Flat Head Indian on the Columbia. The head broad at top crosswise."

Drawing by William Clark, about January 30, 1806.

sketch of Chinook woman

Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis

On March 19, 1806, only a few days before leaving Fort Clatsop, Meriwether Lewis took pains to finish his notes on the habits and appearances of the neighborly Clatsop Indians. The most remarkable trait in their physiognomy, he wrote, was the flatness and width of their foreheads, which they artificially created by compressing the heads of their infants, particularly girls, between two boards.

"I have observed the heads of many infants," he wrote, "after this singular bandage had been dismissed, or about the age of 10 or eleven months, that were not more than two inches thick about the upper edge of the forehead and reather thiner still higher." The result is a straight line from the top of the head to the end of the nose. This custom, he reported, had been observed among all the Indian nations he had met with west of the Rockies.

These people, he continued, "wear their hair loosly flowing on the back and sholders; both men and women divide it on the center of the crown in front and throw it back behind the ear on each side. they are fond of combs and use them when they can obtain them; and even without the aid of the comb keep their hair in better order than many nations who are in other rispects much more civilized than themselves."

 

Tides of Fashion

picture of woman in high-waisted, high-collared dress

picture of woman in high-waisted decollatage neckline dress

If the coastal Indians' 19th-century criteria of personal beauty strike us as bizarre, or even cruel, we would do well to look at the fads that trend-setters in Western "civilization" have imposed on the same human body.

Bypassing the grotesqueries of 17th- and early 18th-century modes of dress and bodily disfigurement, let us note that the Jeffersonian era was conservative at nearly all levels. Paris society set the fashion in dress, drawing its models from classic Greek and Roman sculpture, much of which had recently been uncovered at Pompeii. Stylish women's dresses in Lewis and Clark's day consisted of layers of light-weight garments emphasizing a draped shape, with a high waist, soft bustline, and sometimes a high collar.

 

Lewis portrait by St. Memin, 1807

Men on both continents discarded their powdered wigs after the Revolutionary Era and adopted the more natural, classically inspired "Brutus" haircut. Compare the portrait of Meriwether Lewis by St. Memin (1803) with the one painted by Peale (1807), the latter showing him with a haircut in the latest mode.

 

picture of woman in wasp-waist corset

After 1815, led by changes in French and Austrian precedents, army and navy officers began to compress their bellies with stays and corsets, and women's fashions soon followed suit. By the 1880s bustles and "bust enhancers"—forerunners of the brassiere—exaggerated women's breasts, and other undergarments modified the outward appearances of hips and buttocks. The ideal feminine silhouette was the 12-inch "wasp" waist, although the effort to approach it could be severely damaging to the internal female anatomy. So now you know where 19th-century novelists got their models for those breathless, swooning heroines.

And what of today? Well, take a look at the bodily proportions of some of those plastic "action figures" some kids—and some adults—admire.

 

Sources:

Drawings of early 18th-century fashions are from Douglas Gorsline, A History of Fashion: A Visual Survey of Costume from Ancient Times (London: Fitzhouse Books, 1953), pp. 134-135.

The wasp-waisted belle was reprinted in David Kunzle's Fashion and Fetishism: A Social History of the Corset, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body-Sculpture in the West (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982), Plate 38.