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Social studies

Of female bondage: from bone to Lycra

The Feminine Ideal

Since Simone de Beauvoir's observation that "One is not born a woman - one becomes one" there has been a burgeoning school of gender theorists concerned with the cultural construction of femininity. This focus on the politics of identity includes the now-familiar critique of the patriarchal relegation of woman's body to aesthetic object, never quite her own, subject to conformity to the prevailing ideal of beauty.

There are those who would argue that this debate is now moribund, informed by a kind of misguided puritanism. Yet the contention that much of a woman's experience and identity depends on how she and others see her still rings true. As John Berger put it, "Men act and women appear. Men look at women I Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relationships between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves."

In the UK today, there are more women in the workplace than men. Equal opportunities are culturally sanctioned, yet at the same time there has been an enormous growth of the fashion industry, in the use of cosmetic surgery, and we are continually bombarded by media images of female youth and beauty. The highly individualistic values of contemporary western society put a premium on appearance which women reject at great cost.

How are we to understand this persistence of woman's role as sex object despite greater opportunities in the workplace? Has the 1990s woman simply "chosen" femininity, as Marianne Thesander asserts? Or is it all a bit more complicated? By looking at the fashion history of underwear from mid-Victorian times to the present, Thesander seeks to show how changes in ideal images of female beauty directly reflect changes in woman's role. With a strange mix of gender theory, populist assertion and dense description - where she comes into her own - and many illustrations, she traces an unrocky path of female emancipation. Yet her evidence clearly shows how relatively static the female aesthetic has been, something which she strains to interpret.

The historical recurrence of the corset is remarkable, from its extraordinarily restricted Victorian form through its many fine permutations to the body stocking of today. Even the loose chemise dress of the relatively emancipated "boyish" 1920s woman was worn with a lightly boned, elasticated corset. The 1930s saw an echo of the tiny corseted waist of the Victorian ideal in a return to softly accentuated, corseted female contours, and echoed the Victorian values of respectability, decency and compliance. In 1947 Dior's "new" fashion shape was even more emphatically feminine: the very small waist required a boned corset in an hourglass shape. The corset remained alive and well during the 1950s, albeit that it was now made of nylon, and eventually Lycra.

The impact of the 1970s women's movement on underwear was short lived. Though stockings were replaced by tights, and a "natural look" bra was introduced, by the end of the decade the feminine ideal returned to its old form and lingerie sales boomed. Nylon stockings and suspender belts returned, and by 1989 sales of underwired bras had rocketed.

Thesander concludes that the "very feminine" ideal of today with its emphasis on the bust signals a form of liberation. Women's apparent embrace of femininity shows a newfound self-confidence. This is not far from the one-time editor of Cosmopolitan magazine Helen Gurley-Brown's infamous statement that women can now have it all. Thesander wants to stick to her premise that when women beautify themselves it is largely to adjust to the prevailing ideal, but somehow, she argues, being a sex object has ceased to be oppressive. She cites Madonna as a role model. Furthermore, women now play a far greater role in fashion design. She welcomes the cultural importance of looks - after all, don't we all want to be successful? She claims that relationships between the sexes have "obviously changed". She ends on the curiously triumphalist note - and a full-page photo of a man modelling Calvin Klein underpants - that men have now become sex objects too.

This is a minutely researched but confused and unconvincing book. It cannot explain why images of female beauty have changed so little, nor throw much light on women's complex relationship to these images. For in Thesander's world, sexual politics have ceased to exist and the deep psychic roots of femininity have disappeared. Women show no ambivalence towards being sex objects and liberation is simply a matter of an underwired bra.

Mary Tomlinson is a fiction editor, Bloomsbury Publishing.

The Feminine Ideal

Author - Marianne Thesander
ISBN - 1 86189 004 4
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £19.95
Pages - 228

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