A trio of delightful (?) etchings, all copyright of the British Museum, to remind us that fashion has been tampering with the ‘natural shape’ of women for hundreds of years. Rarely has the exaggerated female form been so dramatically illustrated as in the late 1780′s and early 1790′s.
In the first etching, entitled Female Whimsicalities, we see ‘Prominence 1785′ as carrying all before her, and with such an uplift that it has the odd result that her chin is nestling on her embonpoint! No neck, just an elevated and pronounced pair of knockers which would shame a modern-day Jordan! Her posterior is positively gargantuan.The lady on the right, entitled ‘Prominence 1793′ still has a projecting bust, but in a less exaggerated manner, and a stomach which on anyone pregnant would denote twins if not a hidden army of admirers up her skirt. In the background is a smaller figure, a girl standing in profile, wearing a high-waisted dress which falls limply to the ground. She is described as ’Virgin Shape’. Beneath is the inscription:
‘Since all confess the nat’ral Form Divine,
What need to Swell before or add behind?’
It is dated 16 May 1793.
Cartoonists loved poking fun at these absurd fashions - no more so than in the second print entitled A Modern Venus showing what the 1785 female would have needed to have looked like if the shape were natural rather than padded out!
The British Museum description says it all: “A young woman stands directed to the left looking downwards, hands held out. She is naked, with hair falling on her shoulders. Her figure is grotesque, with gigantic breasts and projecting posteriors, wide shoulders and compressed waist, as if to fit the absurd fashions of the day. Beneath the title is engraved:
‘This is the Form, if we believe the Fair,
Of which our Ladies are, or wish they were.’
It is dated 1786.
So where did such exaggerated shapes come from, before silicone implants were invented? Well, from a bum shop of course!
This third print is entitled The Bum Shop, and according to the British Museum description:
“Two fashionably dressed shopmen supply ladies with pads to extend their dresses at the back. Two other ladies have already been fitted; a fifth, who is buxom, sits on a stool clasping an inflated specimen at which she smiles with satisfaction. Various types of these pads or ‘derrières’ hang on the wall, and a pile lies on the ground (right). A dog, shaved in the French manner showing very thin hindquarters, is begging. Beneath the title is engraved: ‘Derriere begs leave to submit to the attention of that most indulgent part of the Public the Ladies in general, and more especially those to whom Nature in a slovenly moment has been niggardly in her distribution of certain lovely Endowments, his much improved (aridæ nates) or Dried Bums so justly admired for their happy resemblance to nature. Derriere flatters himself that he stands unrivalled in this fashionable article of female Invention, he having spared neither pains nor expence in procuring every possible information on the subject, to render himself competent to the artfully supplying of this necessary appendage of female excellence.”
The thought occurs to me that in another couple of hundred year’s time someone will be looking online at some of the fashion extremes of today – and composing a similar article to this! In the meantime, I finish with the thought that a friend of mine has this delightful description of a well-endowed lady. She is said to have “beaucoup du Monde sur le balcon”. Slightly more poetic than “all that meat and no gravy”….