If someone from the 19th century were to step into the present day, what would they think of the world they encountered?
They would undoubtedly be appalled.
They would think that mankind had devolved into a cruder, more primitive state.
And they'd be right.
Oh, our technological advancements would impress them, of course. But they would find society and culture in a state of terrible decline. They would rue the severe social and artistic decay that would confront them at every turn: the music--primitive noise; television and magazines--the crudest vulgarity; gender relations in a state of perpetual friction, with masculine values regularly belittled, and with women taught to deny their femininity, and encouraged to behave in crude and aggressive ways.
They would find ugliness all around them--in the art, in the architecture, and especially in the incomprehensibly androgynous, masculinized standard of appearance prescribed for women.
Instead of progress, they would find rot.
And at the end of the day, despite all of the impressive technical achievements of the past few decades, they would eagerly return to their own time--an age of nobler aspirations, of greater culture and civility, and of natural, complimentary relations between men and women.* * *
By contrast, if anyone living today were to step back into the Victorian age, they would think that they had entered a fantasy realm, an ideal world. They would marvel at the perfection of the arts. They would witness men behaving like gentlemen, and women behaving like ladies. And far from finding the relations between the sexes stiff or formal, they would discover that those long-forgotten customs and rites known as manners resulted in men treating women with great respect, and women holding men in high esteem.* * *
They would compare they world that they saw with the world that they had left behind, and they would wish never to return.
Alas, science is no closer to building a time machine than it was during H.G. Wells's day. However, by perusing the photographic record of the 19th century, we can at least catch a glimpse of the nobler and more beautiful world of a century ago.* * *
The vintage images displayed here come from an eBay seller named Lunagirl, who collects Victorian and Edwardian postcards and markets them on photo CDs. She has allowed us to post several images from her collection for the purposes of this thread.
The first thing that catches the eye when one views postcards from the late 1800s is that the women are much more elegant and serenely beautiful than the "edgy," hyper-toned, plastic-looking beings that one sees in media culture today. The women of the 19th century appear soft and gentle, angelic even; vulnerable, and in need of protection. Their clothing is dream-like, their expressions idyllic, yet their eyes communicate tremendous depth of feeling.
These spiritual qualities mix harmoniously with sensual elements as well. In the following image, consider the nobility of the lady's profile, and the opulent beauty of her headdress and hairstyle. Yet the neckline is open, and the rose that adorns her chest draws attention to her full bust.
As one might expect, the figures of the women depicted in these vintage images are much softer and fuller than those of the anorexic models who blight the pages of modern "women's magazines." Note the plumpness of the model's arm in this postcard,
and in the next picture, observe that the dress is strapless and sleeveless, and that the fur wrap has strategically slipped off the shoulder, to exhibit the model's rounded arm. Indeed, that generous arm is the focal point of the image.
Victorian and Edwardian images celebrate the traditional feminine crafts. Moreover, they exhibit them in aesthetically appealing ways, showing that these distaff arts were pleasurable pastimes. In this loving depiction of needlework, notice that the lady's sumptuous reverse-view curves are unabashedly on display. Yet the delicate dress and the flowers on her lap soften the effect, creating an impression of modesty mixed with allure.
Even a more prosaic womanly task such as doing the wash is depicted in a sensual, attractive manner, showing that such traditional household undertakings were not unpleasant, and could even serve as courtship opportunities. The attire is practical, but also effectively displays the woman's sumptuous charms.
Observe how frequently flowers appear in these images. Their natural beauty is intended to compliment the beauty of the models, intimating that feminine attractiveness is merely one component of the overall beauty of the organic world. Here, a model in a gently provocative, yielding pose is ensconced amidst a profusion of flowers in full bloom, which compliment her own full-blown charms.
Similarly, this enchanting image shows a group of doves fluttering around a young maiden. Symbols of peace, these winged companions endow the young lady with angelic qualities (as do her fairytale wavy tresses), yet the image also shows her buxom and reverse-view contours. Again, ethereal femininity mingles harmoniously with unmistakable sensuality.
In sharp contrast to the vulgar images that are presented as "sexy" today, the depiction of Victorian allure was far more refined. The following image shows how even a rural scene could become an enticing presentation of feminine beauty. It is the model's expression and pose--one of pure rapture--which infuses the picture with sensuality. The stone well, the folk dress--each element identifies her as a fair maiden, the prettiest girl in an Old World village. These rustic attributes make her far more desirable than any crude, modern, "provocative" guise ever could. This image depicts the attraction of innocence
--which is more profound than the modern equivalent: the attraction of vulgarity.
Vanity is among the many feminine attributes that 19th-century images depict in loving terms. In the following postcard, the model's beauty is much enhanced by the self-love that she reveals in adoring her own reflection. The pleasure that she takes in her own beauty becomes a pleasure to the viewer of the postcard as well. Note her adorably traditional, rustic attire.
Such postcards were not merely designed for meaningless enjoyment. A hundred years ago, the power of feminine beauty to inspire artistic creativity was fully acknowledged and understood. (How regrettable that this inspirational power has been denigrated, in our time, by feminist ideology.) In a fascinating mixture of art forms, notice how the following postcard shows an image of a buxom model superimposed onto a painter's easel, intimating that it is the dream of such luscious beauty that fuels the artist's creativity. It is not coincidental that the suppression of feminine beauty in the modern age century coincides with decline of visual art in general.
Even when Victorian photographers ventured into more overt sensuality, they retained a sophistication and elegance that the modern world has forsaken. The fullness of their models' figures achieved gently erotic effects while preserving modesty and taste. Note, in the following image, how the fabric clings to the model's body, showing off her womanly hips--features that modern stick insects pointedly lack.
Swimwear was only in its infancy in the 1800s, therefore few images of contemporary swimwear are notable, except insofar as they reveal that the models for this attire were visibly full-figured as well.
But a century ago, the captivating beauty of water-situated imagery was achieved in different ways, and with different clothing. The following picture is highly alluring, yet actually displays very little. What makes the image so sensual is the lacy fabric of the model's dress, and the way in which the straps have slipped off her shoulders. Note the rounded swell of the model's midsection pressing against the fabric, along with the suggestion of full hips and a generous reverse view. The moonlit-lake background enhances the dreamy effect. The soft fullness of the model's figure, the delicacy of the dress, and the vulnerable way in which she wears it, all charge the image with desire, yet the model herself isn't even particularly attractive. Consider how revoltingly graphic modern so-called "sexy" imagery is by contrast--yet for all of their vulgarity, modern images cannot achieve even a trace of the frisson
seen in this vintage picture.
Most alluring of all is the following breathtaking image, in which the model is dressed in the most delicate, lacy attire imaginable, and sinks heavily into a bed of soft pillows and coverings. She seems to be a high-born princess, incapable of any exertion, living a pampered, spoiled existence, delighting in constant pleasure, her every desire provided for, her every whim obeyed. Her body is not revealed, but the softness at the neck area, with the clavicle submerged in flesh, testifies to the fullness of her figure. The setting is opulent, yet the profusion of ribbons that adorns her dress endows her with a youthful, girlish quality, enhancing her desirability still further. Yet for all of the image's sensuality, consider how mild and modest it actually is. In that respect, the title is especially significant: "Dans la nuit de noces,"
which means, "On the Wedding Night." The lady in the image is therefore not wanton, but rather a maiden who has lived chastely, and has preserved her virtue for this sacred night, in anticipation of the matrimonial sacrament, and the fulfilment that it brings. In this context, one can interpret her attire as a grown-up version of the angelic dresses (ribbons, lace and all) that young girls once wore for their first communion. The outfit underscores the sacramental context of the image. A mixture of the sacred and sensual--this epitomizes the Victorian feminine aesthetic.
In the days before glossy fashion magazines, Victorian and Edwardian postcards also showcased contemporary fashions. In the following image, which displays the "mode" (i.e., the fashion) of 1909, notice how very full are the model's facial features--as full as those of the most well-fed plus-size models of today. The designers and photographers of the day knew that their apparel would be better presented on models with comfortably well-fed visages than on models who looked like famine victims.
As mentioned earlier, flowers feature prominently as accessories in Victorian photographs, underscoring as they do the natural beauty and femininity of the models.
Fashion images from this time are often set in idyllic parks and gardens, the beauty of which compliments the elegant designs and the charming models. Today's bridal magazines are the last refuge of this timeless aesthetic, which once featured in the presentation of fashions of ever kind.
Prior to this post, the only Victorian and Edwardian photographs that we discussed at The Judgment of Paris were the breathtakingly beautiful images of fin-de-siècle
actress Lillian Russell. It seems fitting, therefore, to end with several images of other actresses who were popular in Lillian's day. None are as gorgeous as Miss Russell, of course, but they do embody the look of the time, and show that while Lillian was the greatest beauty of her age, her opulent appearance was the norm, not the exception.
Notice the soft, full arms of the actress depicted in this playbill.
In the following image, the actress (named "Dolley") displays the well-fed, full-faced visage that also distinguished Lillian. This is the look of true feminine beauty--as every age prior to our own recognized.
A turn-of-the-century performer from the famous French cabaret the Folies Bergère
shows that the figures of the girls in the revue were certainly not thin.
And finally, the following image of a stage performer in a dress and pose obviously designed to achieve an alluring effect shows how much more generous was the ideally attractive figure type of a century ago.* * *
To return to our original premise, if someone from the present were to step into the Victorian age and be forced to return to the here-and-now, they would undoubtedly come back with one thought uppermost in their mind: "What can be done to infuse the modern world with some of the beauty and nobility of the past?"
Victorian photographs, such as those featured in this post, are the closest thing that we have to a window into that bygone, better world. They enlighten us about the superior aesthetic of another time, and will hopefully prompt present-day artists to emulate that aesthetic.
If the visual environment around us were to resemble that of the past a little more closely, then perhaps the social environment would follow suit. The return of nobler aesthetic could lead to the return of nobler values, and some dignity might return to a culture that desperately needs it.
- Particulars of Victorian Beauty