Friday, 3 October 2014




If you're constantly tugging up the strapless dress you bought at Forever 21, or hiking up your low-rider jeans and wishing you had a belt, there's historical precedent for your frustration.

The average tube top is supported by a thin, sticky elastic strip meant to grip the skin under the armpits and across the chest and back; low-rider jeans grip around almost the widest part of the hips. Clothing designers throughout history and across the world have noted the natural points of the human body that support fabric well. Big surprise: these points are not your armpits* or your hips.

Labelled illustration of four women in various national dress.
Kimono with obi, sari, kanga, maxi-dress.
Illustration credit: Anya Baker.

The shoulders and the waist are nature's clothes hangers and best support. As found in a variety of garments--such as the sari, the kimono, and the maxi-dress--cloth hung from the shoulders drapes and flows over the body; if put under stress, the fabric has nowhere to slip, and so it settles into the shoulder  until one or the other rips (ouch!).

Photo of woman in green dress pointing at her shoulders.
Perle design, chiton-style dress, circa 1985.
Photo credit: Anya Baker.
In Western dress, this silhouette has been extremely popular at various points throughout the last millennia or more. Usually modelled on the Greek chiton, hanging some fabric from the shoulders and then gathering it all at the waist, hips, or under the bust is cheap to make (no tailoring = less labour on the part of the seamstress) and allows the resulting dress to fit its wearer over long periods of time. Even if I grew a couple inches at the waist, bust, and hips, the above dress would still fit. Despite its Classical origins and long history, this type of silhouette is usually introduced to the fashion world as a radical innovation amid stuffy and restricting dress designs. Cases in point: the Regency dress, the radical designs of Paul Poiret in 1908, the 1920s 'flapper' dress, the hippie attire in the late 1960s, and the current trend for flimsy belted chiffon dresses from fast fashion outlets amid our 21st-century "democratization"** of fashion.

At other points in the history of Western dress, a bodice construction with more tailoring was in fashion. In this silhouette, the waist is the main support for the garment.

Photo of woman in green dress pointing at her waist.
2012 reproduction of a 1957 Vogue design.
Photo credit: Anya Baker.
Unlike the gathered-fabric silhouette of the chiton-style dress, the above dress has seams and darts to extend the main support of the waist up the bodice. Although the dress has sleeves, very little stress is actually placed on the fabric covering the shoulders. If the shoulders were snipped off, the bodice could conceivably stay up; seams and darts are still fabric, however, and the stiffness would be relaxed out of the bodice eventually.

Illustration of two women with points marked at their waists in red.
Points of support.
Illustration credit: Anya Baker.
The introduction of corsets to 16th-century France (apparently by Catherine de Medici) allowed for widespread innovation on the same principle: the natural support point of the waist could be used as an anchoring point for support along the entire length of the bodice.

Photograph of the inside of an unfinished bodice.
Bodice innards; plastic boning encased in ribbon. Photo credit: Anya Baker.

Photo of a woman in a strapless top and plaid skirt, pointing at her waist.
2014 plastic-boned bodice.
Photo credit: Anya Baker.
Although corsetry was largely used for the shaping of the waist and torso in the silhouettes of the 16th century through to end of the 19th century, its techniques were of use to 20th- and 21st-century designers for another purpose: keeping the tops of strapless gowns firmly attached to the wearer's bust, instead of down around her waist. The boning used for real corsetry (such as whalebone) is much, much stronger and more durable than the plastic boning used for dressmaking; plastic boning is either encased in ribbon along seams and relevant horizontal lines of the garment, or used in a thin corselette to be attached to the fashion fabric outer layer, if the fashion fabric is especially delicate. It's not meant to shape the body; it merely holds the fabric. 

And that's why your favourite strapless dress won't stay up; there's a precedent for its structural failure!

* Although the kanga can be worn wrapped around the torso under the armpits, it is not usually worn so for any type of strenuous or mobile activities.
** The human and environmental cost of current clothing manufacturing practices make this term contentious.

Sources consulted:

Ewings, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress: A History of Women's Underwear. London: B.T. Batsford,
     1978. Print.

Shaeffer, Claire. Couture Sewing Techniques. Newtown, C.T.: The Taunton Press, 2011. Print.

Stoppard, Lou. "Shapeshifters: Our Changing Silhouette." Stylist. Stylist Magazine. Web. Accessed Oct. 3 2014.

Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Women's Clothes: 1600-1930. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1968. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Anya, this is a fascinating way to understand modern garments! And your visuals are wonderful as they truly explain the complex technology and history of garments. What a great topic of discussion for the fashion working group in the future!