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Old 5th July 2008   #1
HSG
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Default Picture a better world


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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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,

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

As mentioned earlier, flowers feature prominently as accessories in Victorian photographs, underscoring as they do the natural beauty and femininity of the models.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

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.

Click to view image source

* * *

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

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Old 6th July 2008   #2
Madeline
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Default Re: Picture a better world

I see a few images here that are rather artistically inspiring. Have you read Zaftig:The Case for Curves? You would really enjoy all the voluptuous imagery found in art history.
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Old 6th July 2008   #3
Emily
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Default Re: Picture a better world

Quote:
Originally Posted by Madeline
Have you read Zaftig:The Case for Curves? You would really enjoy all the voluptuous imagery found in art history.

It's been a while, but I remember that a review of Zaftig was one of the very first posts on this forum. The premise of the book is good, but it's haphazardly arranged, and the visual selections could have been better.

As for voluptuous imagery in art history, the best collection I've ever seen is the Pinacotheca (art gallery) at this very Web site:

http://www.judgmentofparis.com/pinacotheca/

It features hundreds of images of plus-size beauty from all periods of Western civlization, from Classical Greece to the First World War (after which art went into permanent decline).



It really proves the point that the fuller female figure was the ideal of beauty in every century throughout history, before the modernist takeover in the 1900s.
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Old 7th July 2008   #4
MelanieW
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Default Re: Picture a better world

When you look past modern propaganda and see the Victorian period for what it was, you discover that it was a beautiful time in which men and women were happier and more fulfilled, because they recognized the natural order of things and embraced it.

Quote:
Originally Posted by HSG
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.

Click to view image source

All of the images are lovely, but this one struck me as especially beautiful and meaningful. What I noticed especially was that although there is a sewing machine in the picture, it isnt an image of mechanization at all. Sewing is still a folk art here (just with a new tool), and thanks to the flowers, the dress, the pose, everything, the impression is still an organic one. The Victorians confronted the rise of technology, but subsumed it into a romantic existence. It didnt dominate them - they humanized it.

Today, the opposite has happened. Instead of techology being humanized, it is women who are becoming mechanized - from plastic implants to gym torture to career drudgery to cold, "tough," unemotional behavior. Media culture and modern ideology has taught women to be unnatural, but it turns out that maybe the natural, traditional way was better after all.

It really makes a person long for that more beautiful time - which wasnt even all that long ago...
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Old 7th July 2008   #5
Maureen
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Default Re: Picture a better world

Thank you so much for sharing these. eBay is a surprisingly rich source of Victorian photography.

I noticed that the woman in "The Wedding Night" appears to be beginning to slip her robe off her shoulders. Her smile is sweetly innocent, yet holds a hint of sensuous anticipation. Once I noticed the position of the bride's hands, this image took my breath away with its subtle eroticism.
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Old 8th July 2008   #6
Nisha
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Smile Re: Picture a better world

The women in all the images look so healthy, happy, and real.

Where did all this hysteria for an anorexic look come from? In my opinion, it came from the drug and diet companies wanting us to believe that we really are not good enough.

The pictures are real treasures, thank you.
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Old 9th July 2008   #7
Chad
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Default Re: Picture a better world

Quote:
Originally Posted by HSG
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:...with masculine values regularly belittled

It may be off topic, but this is SO true. As much as femininity has been suppressed in the past few decades, masculinity has been under assault as well, and for the same misguded, politically-motivated reasons.

It's amazing how much healthier the Victorian notion of manliness was - not surprisingly, since the Victorians simply embraced masculinity in its natural state. Young boys grew up reading literature that post-modernists now condemn as politically incorrect, but was actually wholesome and edifying - like the "Boys' Own Adventures" that appeared in magazines and novels, and then the grow-up equivalents penned by writers like R.M. Ballantyne (The Coral Island), H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon's Mines), Ruyard Kipling, etc. These stories taught young men basic principles like courage, self-reliance, resourcefulness, honour, loyalty, and thinking of something bigger than yourself. Plus, they were darned exciting tales.

People today complain about how boys are falling behind in reading and doing poorly at school - well, small wonder, since the kinds of stories that appeal to them, and are in tune with their nature, are suppressed for ideological reasons.

Instead of trying to re-shape young men and women into some kind of unnatural, androgynous beings (as the modern world tries to do), society should consider the possibility that maybe the more natural approach favoured by the Victorians was better after all.

- - - -

Anyway, that's tangential. The images in this thread are lovely, and they do testify to a nobler, more beautiful time. But pretty as the pictured girls are, none can hold a candle to Lillian Russell. No wonder Lillian was acknowledged as the reigning beauty of her day. She was to Victorian actresses what Shannon Marie is to plus-size models: no one can rival her beauty.
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Old 13th July 2008   #8
Madeline
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Default Re: Picture a better world

Thank you for the link to the Pinacotheca. I don't know why I haven't seen it before. It's good to see which art I'm familiar with and not. I was fortunate to see Gustave Courbet's, "The Bathers" earlier this year. That painting caused quite a stir in France because it showed women in all their voluptuousness!
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Old 30th December 2008   #9
Graham
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Default Re: Picture a better world

Going back over some of the 2008 posts, this was one of my favourites.

I don't know if anybody noticed this, but early in the year, Emily posted a link featuring several plus-size-model images (incl. Shannon Marie's and Kailee's) that were creatively filtered to look like Victoriana:

http://www.judgmentofparis.com/boar...read.php?t=1306

The results were very successful, I think, especially comparing them with the authentic Victorian images in this thread.
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