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Old 12th February 2011   #1
Join Date: July 2005
Posts: 1,784
Default Plus-size modelling in the 1950s

When we recently posted a video showing the early years of plus-size modelling, we felt sure that this 1980s footage was the earliest that we would ever find. After all, various American agents have claimed that full-figured modelling originated in the '80s.

Not so.

A bright young Judgment of Paris reader recently sent us the links to a fascinating two-part newsreel showing a full-figured fashion show in Britain . . . in the 1950s.

All told, it is fascinating is to see how little has changed in plus-size modelling over the past 60 years of its existence.

The newsreel opens with shots of a bona fide plus-size fashion show, one that looks not so dissimilar from the first Full-Figured Fashion Week, apart from the elegant attire of the participants and the alarmingly narrow runway. (Heaven help any model who might lose her footing on such a circumscribed catwalk.)

As the first model is shown, the narrator intones, in a sophisticated British accent:

There's a fine woman for you, and from a man's point of view, a refreshing change from the pencil-thin models we meet at most fashion shows. But then, this is a fashion show with a difference, one where creations like this cocktail dress . . . pay eloquent tribute to the charms of the wearer, and not, as is so common, the other way about.

Isn't that interesting? Already in this 1950s newsreel, one hears the themes that still come up whenever plus-size fashion shows are discussed: the novelty of such an event, the contrast of the "fine" figure of the plus-size model with the underweight frames of the usual skinny fashion waifs, the observation that men prefer the full-figured model's physique, and even the statement that in larger sizes, the clothing conforms to the body, rather than the other way around.

The narrator even characterizes the show as heralding women's freedom from diet starvation. All of his comments suggest that this development represents a change in fashion, a liberation. Alas, 60 years later, each plus-size fashion event is still being billed as a similar proto-breakthrough.

After years of pandering to the diet sheet, the fine woman has come into her own again.

Did you notice the recurrence of the phrase "fine woman" in the two passages? Of all of the terms that have ever been used to describe plus-size females, this one is new to us. It is quite appealing. The narrator even comments on the coinage:

What do we mean when we say, "fine woman"? The dictionary defines the meaning as "well rounded, excellent in quality, form, and appearance. Beautiful."

The idea of recasting plus-size as gorgeous, as a superior, aristocratic aesthetic, is right in line with Judgment of Paris thinking. A "fine woman"? Yes, we favour the term and may try to reintroduce it.

Later in the video, the narrator observes:

Remember, all the dresses have been purposely designed for the fuller figures. They don't need to be stretched and altered and lose their shape. And the models who are wearing the dresses have been chosen for the same purpose: to show that you don't need to be a sylph in order to be elegantly dressed.

This too is a familiar idea, one that is reinvented with every generation of plus-size models--the notion that a woman need not be thin to be stylish. This "as good as" concept is positive, but we still prefer the "fine woman" mentality of plus sizes embodying a superior form of beauty.

* * *

But what of the 1950s plus-size models themselves? First, we note they are all U.S. size 14s or 16s (certainly not faux-plus models, no 8s or 10s or 12s), showing once again that the current New York push to banish fuller figures from plus-size modelling in favour of skinny size 10s is an aberration, and that "plus-size" has always meant size 14 and up.

Second, we note the same limitations in hairstyling and wardrobe that were evident in the 1980s video, linked above. The one way in which the plus-size industry has improved over the past decade is that the clothes and hairstyles have definitely become more attractive and feminine.

Third, in answer to the question that everyone is surely asking themselves ("Are there any timeless beauties among these '50s plus-size models?"), the answer is, yes. (Why else would we be sharing the video?)

One girl is so lovely that if she were modelling today, she would be a prime candidate for our site's survey page and would be one of the most attractive models in the industry.

This goddess enters at 01:33 in the video, looking for all the world like a plus-size version of Elisha Cuthbert; or, with her distinctive hairstyle, a more well-fed incarnation of Kim Novak from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.

She exhibits a distinctly Saxon type of beauty, the epitome of the timeless ideal: fair hair, round facial features, and a soft, gentle look.

Her personality is clearly evident from her images. She is unmistakably a pampered princess of the Georgiana Reed/Ginevra Fanshawe type, which Charlotte Bronte describes so well in her novels--a young woman whose extraordinary attractiveness has landed her a wealthy husband (perhaps an aristocrat) and a life of ease and pleasure. Since the wedding, she has been indulging herself lavishly (as she deserves), and as a result, she now shows a rich fullness in her facial features.

A close-up shows the hint of a curve under the chin. She has a touch of Shannon Marie about her.

A glimpse of her from the reverse view shows her distinctly plus qualities, with a luxurious breadth to her physique and a sensual curve of soft flesh spilling over the taut belt line.

As noted above, her resemblance to Kim Novak in Vertigo is remarkably pronounced. Beyond that, the video subsequently shows a lady in a design studio who is the spitting image of the other female character from Vertigo, the envious, resentful Midge. The fact that the two women so closely resemble the actresses in the film makes one seriously wonder whether Hitchcock did not personally see this newsreel as was inspired by it.

Other points of interest in the video include the sight of a distinctly plus-size dress form (note the full waist and hips),

as well as visual evidence that the fashion industry 60 years ago was influenced by the same brands that dominate it today.

Subsequently, however, the video changes tack and shows footage from the turn of the last century. The narrator's comments corroborate the point that this site has always made--that the Classical ideal of full-figured femininity, like the Western beauty aesthetic in all of the arts, prevailed right up until World War I. It was the consequences of that war (specifically the fall of the aristocracy, which had always defended the beauty tradition) that resulted in the toppling of the timeless ideal.

Even at the beginning of the present century, the fine woman was the most admired.

All of the women of that period looked like the figureheads of some splendid ships of the line. What an opulent age it was.

Let's have a look at Ascot--the last Ascot before the First World War, when the sun shone for the last time on a world which has now vanished as if it had never been.

That last comment, spoken in such a casual manner, is deeply moving. "Vanished as if it had never been," the narrator says--as if the Earth's history had bifurcated in two, and our world had suddenly entered an alternative reality, a dark mirror-image of what it should have been, an existence in which virtue was inverted, in which beauty and femininity and traditional values were slighted while ugliness and androgyny were mandated.

Here is the link to part one of the two-part newsreel:

- Click here to watch video

* * *

The second part opens right where the first leaves off, with the disgusting spectacle of the flappers of the 1920s starving themselves into androgyny. The narrator's comments are amusing, and they too anticipate the line that many critics of fashion emaciation have taken in recent decades:

It was only after the First World War that the fine woman went into eclipse, and was replaced by a long-legged, flat-chested, no-hipped figure, like that of a rather weedy boy. From now on, no more opulent bosoms, no more ample hips.

The line is absolutely straight. No chance for the fine woman here.

After progressing through the early decades of the 20th century, the video returns to the "present" (that is, the 1950s), and shows, among other things, an outdoor fashion show sponsored by the same plus-size label that hosted the runway event in the first reel.

It seems like a rather appealing venue. Perhaps today's event planners might wish to consider staging something like this (weather permitting).

The narrator's remarks remain overly optimistic for their time:

We have entered a new era. Female charms have once more asserted their rights, and today, no woman need aspire to be a maypole. The fine woman has come into her own again.

The words are applicable today, though, as we continue to hope that women will break free of the "aesthetics of guilt" and rediscover the beauty of their naturally full-figured physiques.

The video closes with a lovely ad for the plus-size label that sponsored the presentation. The text may not be punchy, by modern standards, and the image is a bit formal, but there is something charming about it as well--the gentleman giving flowers to his well-fed beloved. We still see male/female pairings in plus-size imagery, but to be honest, something about the elegance of this Old World presentation is more appealing that then raunchier interaction that one sees in contemporary images involving male models and plus-size goddesses.

Here is the link to the second part of the newsreel.

- Click here to view video

* * *

We thank our young contributor for alerting us to these videos. How fascinating to discover that plus-size models have been a part of the industry for at least 60 years, that the talking points of plus-size fashion have been the same since the 1950s, that plus-size models have always been size 14 and up (despite the current offensive push to shrink them to faux-plus proportions), and that timeless beauty existed in the fashion world even six decades ago.

Today's industry can still derive much inspiration from this historic celebration of the "fine woman."

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Old 13th February 2011   #2
Join Date: November 2005
Location: Savannah, GA
Posts: 47
Default Re: Plus-size modelling in the 1950s

This is lovely! Notice how the narrator says "as if the natural figure were not enough, crinolines swelled up the hips . . . Petticoats and bloomers all helped to swell the outline" in the Victorian/Edwardian era. In other words, fashion was designed to enhance the womanly qualities of the wearer's figure, instead of concealing or diminishing them.
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Old 14th February 2011   #3
ZoŽ Josephine
Junior Member
Join Date: February 2011
Posts: 6
Default Re: Plus-size modelling in the 1950s

I was delighted when I found this video. I too had always heard that plus-size modeling started in the '80s. I had always found that strange, since there has always been a plus-size market. Lane Bryant started selling plus sizes during WW1. But now we know that plus-size models have been around for much longer.

I love the idea of the "fine woman." What a lovely phrase.

I wish we knew the name of that blonde model. She is so lovely. One of the things I love about plus-size models is how happy they always look.
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Old 20th February 2011   #4
Join Date: July 2005
Posts: 1,784
Default Re: Plus-size modelling in the 1950s

We would like to thank ZoŽ for discovering these newsreels and welcome her to the forum. ZoŽ was indeed the "bright young Judgment of Paris reader," as we dubbed her, who brought these videos to our attention. With her permission, we are sharing an excerpt of her introductory message:

Hello, my name is ZoŽ. I am 16 years old, and a US size 18/20. I have spent most of my life hating my body. It is only in the last year that I have started to accept my body, and then started to love it. I think your collection of plus-size modelling pictures really helped me. I have really loved learning all about Lillian Russell. Thank you for that.

I also wanted to send you a few links. I found these on a British website. They are all from the 1950s and are about plus-size women. I think all your readers would enjoy them.

It is always gratifying to learn of young girls who are overcoming their media-induced and societally induced body issues, and recognizing the beauty of their naturally full figures. At an 18/20, ZoŽ is at a perfect, comfortable size for her age, and she is right to love her appearance. Indeed, Lillian Russell at a similar size was proud of her stunning figure, a figure that the rest of America worshipped as well.

One wishes, however, that girls like ZoŽ had more present-day plus-size models in their own size, a size 18/20, to admire. America is filled with gorgeous young women with this body type. They deserve to be represented in the media by icons of beauty with comparable dimensions.

* * *

Further to a point that we made in the initial post, it is astonishing how closely the gorgeous blonde model in the newsreel resembles Kim Novak's character from Vertigo, in appearance, wardrobe, makeup, and hairstyle. Found online, here is a collage of screen shots from Hitchcock's masterpiece showing the dreamlike beauty of Madeleiene, perhaps the most desirable female persona ever to appear in a major motion picture:

And here, for comparison, is a screen shot of the 1950s plus-size goddess (reversed to match the direction of the hairstyle). She smiles, whereas Madeleine's expressions are always steamier, but the resemblance is uncanny.

For further emphasis, here is Madeleine in profile (a recurrent visual motif in the film, and crucial to the plot),

and here is the gorgeous "fine woman" from the newsreel, now correctly oriented. The facial features, the hairstyle, the makeup--it is all so similar that we remain 100 percent convinced that Hitchcock, a British native, viewed this newsreel, and that it helped to inspire the character styling for his film.

To assess the curvaceousness of Kim Novak's Vertigo physique (and by Hollywood standards, even those of the late 1950s, she was quite opulently proportioned, far more legitimately full-figured than all so-called "curvy" actresses today, such as Christina Hendricks, who are gaunt by comparison), readers are encouraged to view the cinematic masterpiece for themselves. This screen shot, however, shows the visible fullness at her neck area, a fleshiness that few leading-lady ingťnues have ever possessed. Believe it or not, at one point in the film, when the couple is about to head out to a restaurant, she even coos, "I'm going to have one of those big, beautiful steaks."

Vertigo is worth watching for many reasons apart from being one of the finest visual presentations of plus-size beauty ever captured on celluloid. It is one of the few movie masterpieces that actually deserves its reputation as a legendary work of art, and is easily one of the five greatest films ever created. It may be the most insightful and truthful essay into the nature of love and desire, particularly male adoration for the eternal feminine, that the cinema has ever produced. Not to be missed.

- Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo

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