Did film make models skinny?

Images of the ideal female figure were once voluptuous, but static. The recumbent nude lays her flesh out as if she will linger there indefinitely. Images of past century, however, have been defined by motion. A brief remark in Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes notes that this curvy ideal was replaced by the now-fashionable slimline figure at about the same time as the introduction of cinema.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Hermit and the Sleeping Angelica, 1626-28. The so-called 'Rubenesque' figure is often depicted motionless.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Hermit and the Sleeping Angelica, 1626-28. The so-called ‘Rubenesque’ figure is often depicted motionless.

With the introduction of film, the female body was depicted in motion. At about the same time, photographs by Edweard Muybridge depicted the motion of the body, allowing photographers and audiences to understand photographs as depictions of static moments within a dynamic sequence. Photographers of the twentieth century, influenced by kinetic images, started to depict the female form as if it were in constant motion. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the fashionable body started to become slimmer and more expressive. The feminine ideal was no longer passive and static, but rather, active.

Edweard Muybridge's studies of the human figure in motion captured the movement of the human body in detail that had not previously been seen or understood.

Edweard Muybridge’s studies of the human figure in motion captured the movement of the human body in detail that had not previously been seen or even fully understood.

In twentieth and twenty-first century fashion photography, the body is extended. Limbs reach outwards, and the body is ‘made apparently larger by its movements. Hollander notes that, even if the body appears to be slim, the fact that it is in motion suggests that it has the potential to occupy a larger space. There is, she writes, ‘the possibility of enlargement’. This, she proposes, is what led to the preference for slim figures – a new feminine ideal with a slight frame that could be enlarged through motion.

A review of twentieth-century fashion shoots shows slim bodies extended in all directions. Christian Dior’s New Look, renowned for its narrow waists, is also remembered for the ‘Dior slouch’, with a hunched back which adds additional volume at the top of the body. Dior’s models also extended their limbs outwards, expanding themselves and demonstrating the potential to occupy larger spaces through movement. In the 1960s, notoriously slight Twiggy was photographed with limbs outstretched, as if in motion, throwing her light frame enthusiastically into surrounding spaces.

Christian Dior's New Look was modeled by women with impossible narrow waists, who compensated for their narrow silhouette by posing with limbs outstretched.

Christian Dior’s New Look was modeled by women with impossibly narrow waists, who balanced their slim silhouette by posing with limbs outstretched. Anne Hollander suggests that these dynamic poses, and hence the new trend for slim models, was a result of the introduction of cinema.

Despite Twiggy's minute size, in these images her body extends as far as the frame of the photograph.

Despite Twiggy’s minute size, in these images her body extends as far as the frame of the photograph.

Contemporary fashion photography continues to depict the body as potentially able to occupy larger spaces. Elbows and knees jut out away from the body, and limbs extend in all directions. The body is depicted as a dynamic form which occupies ‘possible space’ as well as actual space. The slim feminine ideal continues to be reinforced by images which exaggerate and extend the silhouette of a body, and with these dynamic poses only the slimmest models can squeeze into a photographer’s frame.

Imaan Hamman thrusts her knees and elbows outwards, more than doubling the overall width of her body.

Imaan Hamman thrusts her knees and elbows outwards, more than doubling the overall width of her body.

Dynamic poses let Angie Ng occupy 'possible space' as well as actual space.

Dynamic poses let Angie Ng occupy ‘possible space’ as well as actual space.

Reference:
S. Hollander (1988), Seeing Through Clothes, New York: Penguin, pp. 153-155.

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