Fashion and Eroticism

Fashion and Eroticism : Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age

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The traditional image of the Victorian woman presents her as strait-laced and prudish, her clothing an outward sign of her sexual repression and exploitation. This situation supposedly persisted until the Women's Rights Movement and World War I forced the world to acknowledge that women were liberated individuals with legs. Yet Valerie steele demonstrates that eroticism formed the basis for the Victorian ideal of feminine beauty and fashion--indeed, that the concepts of beauty and fashion are essentially erotic. She shows that, far from being passive "sex objects," Victorian women, like their modern counterparts, themselves chose to emulate an erotic ideal as an aspect of their own self-fulfillment. Even the notorious corset was neither fetishistic nor an unhealthy instrument of torture, she argues, although its comlex and ambivalent sexual symbolism aroused controversy. Fashion and Eroticism shows how the New Look of "sexy" modern naturally from within the pre-war world of fashion and not as part of an intifashion movement. Steele's conclusions are based on prodigious documentary evidence, including visual and material research, in costume collections in the United States, Great Britain, Europe, and even Japan. Fashiona and Eroticism is not only a radical revision of the Conventional understanding of Victorian fashion; it is a major contribution to the histyory of women and sexuality. About the Author: Valerie steele received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1983, and was the 1984 First Ladies' Fellow at the Division of Costume, National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian Institution.show more

Product details

  • Hardback | 346 pages
  • 157.48 x 233.68 x 33.02mm | 721.21g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • Ill.
  • 0195035305
  • 9780195035308

Review Text

A sophisticated, historically-grounded discussion of our ideas on beauty and fashion. Steele, a research fellow at the Smithsonian, scoured fashion archives in America, England, France, and Japan; her detailed research is reflected in both the subtlety of the analysis and the quality of the (approximately 50) illustrations. Though Steele holds to a psychoanalytic theory of fashion, she discounts limited "Sex Appeal" theorists and emphasizes, by contrast, the complex interaction of the "libido for looking," the attraction of concealment, the use of clothing to achieve both sexual beauty and the ideal self. Thus, she attacks stereotypes of Victorians as prudes or hypocrites, and of Victorian women as "exquisite slaves." Within the Victorian period, too, opinion changed as to what was erotic, and artifice was alternately accepted and rejected. Efforts at dress reform stemmed from two disparate sources: Rational Dress Reformers (feminist and non-), who wanted dress to be healthy and practical (often implying unattractive), and Aesthetes who wanted it to be beautiful. The first failed miserably (bloomers are the best-known example), the second succeeded to some extent - not for ideological reasons but because internal changes in fashion made their reforms more sexually appealing. "Once an artistic look became fashionable, it was more widely perceived as beautiful." Underclothes get special treatment in two chapters. If Victorians viewed the corset as a sexualizing device, near-synonymous with "woman," they also saw it as reflecting a woman's propriety: without it, she would appear undressed, lacking in "tenue." Unlike other writers, Steele does not see any great revolution in its eventual disappearance. "The corset was not abandoned, but it gradually changed shape, and evolved into different forms of body-structuring undergarments." Taking issue also with those who see dramatic changes in women's fashion occurring in the 1920s, she argues effectively that modern dress was introduced far earlier (1907-1913). "What the war really caused was the disruption of the pre-war social and economic hierarchy," meaning, in part, that it was harder to tell a woman's class by her clothes. Overall, Steele separates herself from the "nco-feminist critique" (Susan Brownmiller, Lois Banner's American Beauty), refusing to blame society for forcing women to wear fashionable garments. "Fashion change occurs. . . in large part, because novelty arouses sexual curiosity and causes the individual to be seen more clearly again." A provocative, generally convincing analysis. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

Rating details

25 ratings
4.36 out of 5 stars
5 52% (13)
4 36% (9)
3 8% (2)
2 4% (1)
1 0% (0)
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