Tides of Fashion

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.

picture of woman in high-waisted, high-collared dress
Bypassing the grotesqueries of 17th- and early 18th-century modes of picture of woman in high-waisted decollatage neckline dressdress 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 corsetAfter 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.


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.