From time to time, we see articles proclaiming that thin is totally in or curvy is making a comeback. Oftentimes, this proclamation occurs after fuller-sized models (by fuller, we mean a size 4) grace the runway at a fashion show or a curvaceous actress (like Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men”) piques the media’s interest. These statements, however, remain weekly trends, at best.
Recently, though, an article in The Telegraph announced another potential trend, one that might have greater longevity: “recession curves.”
It appears that the state of the economy may shape the current physical ideal. And in today’s cool economic climate, a curvier ideal might help cushion the blow, explains the article’s writer, Celia Walden. Historically, in times of trouble, we tend to prefer more curvaceous, womanly shapes. In times of abundance, however, we favor thin physiques.
One designer quoted in Walden’s article calls this “contrarian chic”:
“In times of plenty there’s a contrarian chic to having an austere shape,” says design guru Stephen Bayley, author of the forthcoming Woman as Design. “Equally, in times of want, there is an opposing taste for a voluptuous one. What the female body illuminates is that ever-present conflict between acceptance of the real and pursuit of the ideal.”
“Throughout the centuries, however, Bayley’s ‘contrarian chic’ has remained in evidence: women tended to be skinny during booms and fuller-figured in hard times, something Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue and the new Bodies, predicts is starting to happen now.”
The need for fuller figures might be twofold: Curves bring comfort and our priorities naturally change. And, as they do, we’re less concerned about restricting our food intake and more worried about actually having the funds to afford that food.
“Paradoxically, lean times allow a lessening of the strictures with which women have so corseted their eating and their bodies,” Orbach says. “With the fear of what might be happening in the economy there is a new mood of concern and care and, in the personal realm, a permission to be less controlled and more forgiving. Curves also soften blows or perhaps give people a sense that they don’t need to be so angular and cut and thrust.”
During the Great Depression, the angular, gaunt ideal gave way to a shapelier, stronger woman. “The nation seemed to need strong women, and that is how the movies depicted them,” writes Lois W. Banner in her book, The History of Women and Beauty. In the 1930s, these “moderately curved” women replaced the lean flapper, which was the body-type ideal just several years before that.
“The glamour and maturity [Greta] Garbo personified indicated a new standard of beauty and behavior for American women — a standard that became predominant in the 1930s, a time of economic distress in which Americans seemed to desire a more mature model of behavior and appearance. In 1929, hemlines came down, and waists and bosoms reappeared. Joan Crawford, the only 1920s screen flapper to make a successful transition to sound movies, completely changed her appearance from one decade to the next. During the 1920s she was a flapper with a flat body and round face, a small mouth, and the obligatory short, waved hairdo. By the 1930s, her shoulders and face were square, her figure buxom, her eyes and lips large, her hair shoulder-length and smoothly coiffed.”
In other words, curvier shapes symbolize health, satiety and vitality—things that many of us don’t have during tougher times—while slim silhouettes indicate frailty and famine.
But in a society where thinness is so entrenched, one wonders whether a curvier shape will truly make a comeback. And, if it does, will it usher in an acceptance for a range of fuller figures or merely glorify smaller sizes with hips, as we’ve already seen — when the media labels size 2 celebs as curvy?
It’s unlikely we’ll see a repeat of the larger ladies of the Victorian era or the infamous curves of Marilyn Monroe. Either way, as we focus on trying to survive and thrive during today’s economy, it’d be refreshing (and comforting) to see an emphasis on positive messages and an elimination of body bashing, criticism and unrealistic ideals.