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Constructions Of Beauty: Sexuality And Issues Of Gendered Dress

Classical Greek art, including dress, has formed the basis of constructions of ideals of male and female bodily and facial beauty in the Western world, as witnessed by the continuing rereferencing of images such as the charioteer of Delphi, a bronze, life-size, votive statue from the Apollo Sanctuary, Delphi, dating from 475 B.C.E., at the end of the early classical period. In her study Fabrics of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting (2002) Anne Hollander notes that the cutting and shaping of cloth was unknown in ancient Greece. Rather "the beauty of clothing dwelt in the distinction of its woven fabric and the elegance or aptness with which it was draped around the individual body" (pp. 13–14). Typically, the charioteer of Delphi wears a long, simple, Ionic tunic held in place with cords over the shoulders that tie at the front waist. This system frees the arms and allows drapery to fall over the waist and then straight down to the ankles. Hollander notes that "the life likeness in carved Greek clothes and bodies has often produced perfection—a stylization of natural appearances so subtle as to seem absent" (pp. 13–14).

This classical draped perfection has been continually reworked within European-American dress design, nearly always in white fabric, and usually with a high waist. It was most famously appropriated as the symbol of freedom and equality during the French Revolution. Originating in the 1770s anti-establishment, neoclassical paintings of Jacques-Louis David, the style was adopted for use by women in French revolutionary festivals in the period from 1790 to 1795 and became, in modified fashion form, the fashionable attire of European and American women from 1800 until about 1825, when the high waist was abandoned. The next revivals came out of the English arts and crafts and aesthetic movements in the period from 1878 to 1910, favored by progressive, antifashion dressers. This reflected the very same search for natural feminine perfection at a time when the shape of fashionable women was distorted and restricted by corsets and bustles. The search was repeated again by Mariano Fortuny, who famously created his own "Delphos" dresses in finely pleated, plain-colored silk, modeled exactly on the tunic of the charioteer of Delphi. Fortuny produced these from his Venetian palazzo from 1910 until his death in 1949. They were worn by a group of progressive women, in defiance of the fashion of their time. Paris couturiers too, however, have famously reworked classical Greek drapery into the height of seasonal fashion, including Madeleine Vionnet, from about 1918 into the 1930s; Alix, also known as Madame Grés, through the 1930s and 1950s; and since the 1980s, John Galliano.

Maori culture.

The ethnographer Dorota Starzecka confirms that among the Maori of New Zealand, ideals of beauty, fashion, and glamour, and concern over creating a strong "visual impact" were traditionally embedded in the cultural practices of both men and women. "Even the most mundane dress or humble ornament was aesthetically pleasing or tasteful; the most successful fashion statement implied Maori warrior in traditional dress, c. 1840–1940. In Maori culture, great emphasis is placed on appearance, and garments for all purposes—ceremonial or everyday—are chosen to make the most pleasing visual impact. © SEAN SEXTON COLLECTION/CORBIS harmony of function, texture and design as well as glamour" (p. 45).

Starzecka, quoting Margaret Mead, notes that a Maori man "anxious to follow the fashion to its highest level would need to dress his hair into a top knot have greenstone pendants and white feathers hanging from his ears; have the rei puta [pendants carved from the teeth of sperm whales] suspended from his neck, have a dogskin cloak around his body" as well as "elaborate indelible tattoo designs over his face and forehead, and over his butoocks and thighs." (p. 39).

Starzecka describes the moko, or tattoo, as a fashion, albeit with mythic origins, a sacred practice, which came to New Zealand "as part of the cultural template from Eastern Polynesia.… With this elaborate and tastefully designed array of jewelry and other ornaments, including the permanently inscribed indigo-black patterning of the moko, the Maori were acutely conscious of personal appearance" (pp. 39–40).


In Europe and America trousers were gendered as masculine until women very gradually, through progressive dress movements, encroached on this ownership little by little from the mid-nineteenth century. In China, however, trousers were worn by both sexes, especially among the rural peasantry. Made in blue cotton dyed with indigo and worn with simple matching jackets, this style can be seen in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century travelers' drawings of the Chinese peasantry.

When Chairman Mao sought to represent sartorially a uniformed image of his evolution from the late 1940s, he selected the same indigo-dyed trousers and jackets for civilian use and the entire population had to wear versions of this work uniform (zhifu). Women's patriotic trousered suits (aiguo ni), however, had "different styles of shirt and jacket to choose from, primarily distinguished by the detailing of the collar" and the shortness of the jackets (Roberts, p. 23). However, Claire Roberts notes that these differences were so slight that they "may have appeared the same to Western eyes" (p. 22). Despite the shift in political ideology and lifting of harsh dress regulations after Mao's death in 1976, similar styles continued into the new millennium; in the early twenty-first century many ordinary women in China still wear plain trousers and jackets, though Chinese-made jeans often replace Communist-style trousers.

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