Vintage for Every Body

Every woman experiences body image issues, Whether temporary or long term, caused by self-doubt or caused by society, I think we can all agree – being self-conscious sucks. Comparing ourselves with other women, particularly those flawless and airbrushed models seen in the media, contributes to a downward spiral of unhealthy thoughts and dissatisfaction. There’s a lot of romanticizing of other eras of body and weight ideals, such as how Marilyn Monroe’s “size 12 (or 14, or 16) body” was the “norm” and a desire to return to that, which I feel is a dangerous – and frankly, foolish – mindset to hold.  The argument is that our perception of beauty as a society now prefers waif-thin girls over the hourglass shape of the 1950s, but that ignores plenty of thin, beautiful women from the years past while also turning a blind eye to the weight and diet issues that women in our target eras might have faced.

Weight Loss 1900sWeight 1925  Weight loss 1940

Just like today’s crash diets, complicated food systems, and diet pills, the vintage decades provided their own “instant gratification” solutions that promised to rid you of unwanted weight. And just like today, the “Golden era” was a society that relied on creating insecurities for monetary benefit. I’m sure there were plenty of women out there who desperately reached for “sanitized tape worms” or amphetamine at the urging of ads such as these. A well-known example: Judy Garland was cruelly exploited by studio executives who first-handedly caused her addiction to amphetamines, or “pep pills,” for energy and weight loss (and then, to combat their side effects, barbiturates for sleep).

betty-brosmer-pinup-bg

Women then, like women now, came in all body shapes and sizes. Though the hourglass figure was indeed praised, I don’t feel it is any less desired in our modern times. Famously buxom stars such as Betty Brosmer and Jayne Mansfield quite clearly boasted this figure, but even before photoshop, Brosmer’s 18 inch waist, or Mansfield’s and Monroe’s slightly less drastic 22 inch waists, were quite a difference from the average 25 inch waist of the 1950s.

Marilyn thinMarilyn M

Marilyn herself, upheld as the ideal 1950s hourglass figure and the focus of many extreme claims, was a real woman with a fleshy stomach – I think that’s more important to remember than focusing on what dress size she may or may not have been. And like many of us, her weight clearly fluctuated, her celebrated tiny waist disappeared and reappeared, though she is considered no less beautiful by others for that.

Weight gain 1940s Weight gain 1960s

Alongside the weight loss ads stood weight gain advertisements, which used “skinny” as an insult. These products claimed to quickly pack on ten pounds and bring along a sudden rise in popularity and sexual appeal. I’ve found evidence of the above “Wate-On” product from the 1930s through the 1970s. Existing all at once, there are images telling you to both gain weight and lose weight. So what does this suggest about a societal ideal, after all?

September vogue 1956 Sunny Hartnett

Contrary to what people may proclaim about the 1950s body, many models from the fifties were quite thin with a very straight figure. No less celebrated and famous than the hourglass-shaped Marilyn, Audrey Hepburn was a tall, thin actress with a small bust (she reportedly wore a 34A) and slim hips. I don’t see any negative comments about her figure from the era that apparently idolized Marilyn’s style of extreme measurements.

Audrey Hepburn Audrey

My point is that there were women of all shapes and sizes in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond. Betty Grable’s legs were insured by her studio for $1 million. The waifish Audrey Hepburn existed alongside the buxom Marilyn Monroe. There were stunning burlesque performers boasting bodies that look like an approximation of our modern ideal, those with a slim and well-proportioned figure, as well as those with some banging hips that I could only dream of. All of these bodies existed and everything in between – and all of these bodies are equally “vintage.” Which means, so is yours.

Janie Gregg 1940sSherry BrittonEthelyn Butler 1955
Janie Gregg (1940s), Sherry Britton (1940s) and Ethelyn Butler (1955)

My absolute favorite images while searching for content for this post are those showing the stars with a little bit of realism and humanity. Jayne with visible flesh, Marilyn with thick thighs, a cute little belly pooch, and a large scar on her torso – if we should be claiming anything about this era of bodies, it shouldn’t be that Marilyn was one size or another, or that hers and Jayne’s figures were the only kind admired in their time. It should be that it was an era full of real women with real bodies, straight figured and hourglass shaped and everything in between. Some had more of a backside and large bust, others had little bust at all; some were admired predominantly for their legs and others for the entire package. All are beautiful.

Jayne mansfield Marilyn MOnroe by Bob Beerman 1950

Marilyn Monroe with gallbladder scar 1961

I find myself comparing my own body to the more extreme measurements of the pinup body, when there were absolutely women like me in my favorite decades. And there were also women like you. Why pick and choose, when we all have a vintage body?

I’m leaving you with a little bit of Hilda, who was the star of a pinup series drawn by Duane Bryers from the 1950s through the 1980s, alongside a piece by Gil Elvgren. Not all pinups look the same!

hilda20 Gil_Elvgren8780c76bcaf5198dce7783abda4cfa10

How do you feel about the commonly touted “vintage/pinup body”? Do you find it to be limiting like the modern ideal?

Until next time,
Lauren || The Homemade Pinup

15 thoughts on “Vintage for Every Body

  1. I admit that one of the reasons I got into vintage style was because of that whole tiny waist thing. I was pushed towards 50s styles initially because, as a bigger girl, they emphasised the smallest part of me (and because everyone told me Marilyn was a 16 – she definitely wasn’t the 16 I was!). So in that respect, I definitely felt like I was limited in vintage styling, but that was only until I started looking around at more styles and talking to people who actually understood vintage fashion (and to people who went all in for body positivity!)
    Now I’m more into 30s and 40s, styles I never thought I could wear but that actually suit me far better and make me feel way more comfortable and confident because they’re not squeezing parts of me in. I feel elegant and grown up in those styles – compared to when I was shoved into poofy skirts and tight belts and felt like I had to bounce around like a toddler. (Seriously, the early years were like the Lindy Bop categories on Strictly Come Dancing. So cute, but definitely not for me!)

    I’ve found that the important thing to remember is that clothes then (whenever then was!) were designed to make you look good, to celebrate form. There were ordinary women who sat at home and ate a lot of cake just like I do and they still would have looked every bit as glamorous to me, simply because the style is so different! Every era has a physical ideal, a body type that makes a lot of people a lot of money while they try to sell it women. We shouldn’t let that cloud our judgement of an age, trick us into thinking there were specific body types, or that we wouldn’t have fit in!

    There’s no right and wrong way to embrace your inner vintage/pinup goddess. And that also means there’s no right or wrong body to do it in!

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  2. The history of beauty/body ideals, especially for women, is interesting…It can be quite concerning at times to really sit and think about whether or not what we consider “beautiful” from the past and how we incorporate those rituals into our daily life as the norm help or hinder women.
    When I was around 16 I found that vintage styling (from various eras, but preferred 1930s-early 1950s) flattered my naturally (although disproportionate but still beautiful) hourglass figure I inherited from my mother–I don’t think I’ve ever declared my body beautiful before! There’s a first for everything, lol–anyway, is it wrong to want to feel beautiful? No. Do I still struggle with insecurities? Yes, daily. The point I’m trying to make is that there’s an issue that arises from this; when our self worth becomes intrinsically tied into the neverending quest for the perfect body–in this case, perhaps, the next vintage pinup model–there’s a harmful problem hidden beneath the surface. It’s an ugly truth I don’t hear many people in vintage community circles speak up about.
    Are we really striving to look a certain way to make ourselves happy? Or is it the combined pressures from society, of imposed, and often sexualized ideals made by men for women? I know for myself personally, I was in denial of these questions for a long time until I realized how true they often are. I’m not saying every woman’s experience is the same, but I know it is common. I urge all women to really reflect on this.
    As you so wonderfully stated in this post, essentially any body is a vintage body! “Being” vintage or dressing so is purely a form of self expression through style (and sometimes values, depending on who you ask. Although I think we can all agree a lot of “vintage values” are problematic, to say the least.) Vintage is a style, not a specific body type. It’s harmful to ourselves and other women to believe otherwise, especially if one doesn’t seem to “fit” into the idea of what a “traditional woman” “should” look like.
    Traditional femininity is very celebrated as the ideal in vintage communities that another concern to me is how we can help other women who may not identify so strongly as being feminine feel welcome and celebrated, too. Gender norms/roles were so prevalent back in the days we look to for style inspiration I just feel that it’s important to think about how those influences can still effect us currently, and often negatively.
    Something I’m mindful of as well is how vintage beauty ideals were almost always created from the male (heterosexual) perspective. A large sum of makeup artists, costume designers, illustrators and the like dominated the industry that was Old Hollywood (it was, unfortunately, referred to as “a man’s world”, after all) in turn, this has shaped what society has accepted (or forcefully been told through advertisements, as shown here) as beautiful/sexy/desirable, as if women must be these things to be respected & loved.
    There are certainly pros and cons to loving vintage style, clothing and certain aspects of the past and the people who lived it. But in the end, I think it’s great to inspire others and start discussions like this–thank you so much for making this post!

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    • Excellent response, thank you for thinking so much about this topic! I completely agree that comparing ourselves to an ideal is harmful, no matter what era that ideal comes from. It’s important to evaluate whether we want to look a certain way because it makes US happy, or because it helps us fit into a certain box, vintage or modern.

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  3. Those adverts for weight gain/loss clearly show that nothing changes! The “vintage look” seems to me to be based on the ideal of whichever era one is attracted to. As mentioned before these ideals come from Hollywood, magazines, other media and due to the society of the time they are looks that are designed for the male gaze. Sadly, although we have come a long way since then, this is still a very strong influence on how women present themselves today – even subconsciously.

    I like 50s dresses because I’ve always liked swishy skirts, but I also like pencil skirts and dresses. Like most ordinary women I need to smooth out my lumps and bumps with what my Great Aunt called “A good foundation” but there are times when I will just wear ordinary underwear and let it all hang out. If other people don’t like it then don’t look! I am increasingly attracted to 30s and 40s styles as all three eras seem to have styles that are designed for women who wobble a bit, as well as those who are more straight up and down.

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    • It’s true that the 50s often seem less forgiving, in terms of body ideals, whereas the 30s and 40s have “grittier” and more real elements. I guess that’s the result of a depression and a war, right? When the 50s rolled around, so did “perfection,” physical and otherwise. I do love your aunt’s reminder of “a good foundation” – because it’s not a bad thing to call in the troops and get a little extra help when we ask for it 😉

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  4. I thinkit isn’t as limiting as the modern ideal, but only because most pin up girls are quite feminist and body postive towards any body shape. Still, I think the Marilyn hourglass is the preferred, by far before every other shape. So since my hips are quite small, I don’t feel like wearing pencil skirts. I don’t have a problem with that, but I don’t like the “yeah, back then it wasn’t a problem to be a bit chubby (it’s kinda like the real men like curves…)” etc. Maybe it wasn’t as relevant, but as the ads show, losing/gaining weight has always been a common ploy. I’m so glad, you mentioned all this above.
    It’s difficult to fully embrace your body, there’s always something you don’t like, but I think vintage fashion & the community helps us to be happier and confident with our bodies. And if you like it, wear it, even if it isn’t “designed for your body type”, I think confidence can make it look good.

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  5. Hi Lauren!

    Body ideals is something that I struggled with a lot as a pre-teen/teen. When puberty hit me, no one explained what was going on and I hated that I was “growing fat” (when in fact, it was just my hips getting wider and my thighs gaining more volume). The fact that my mum used to comment on how fat my thighs were didn’t help. And so, I starved myself.

    Fortunately, those days didn’t spiral out of control and didn’t last for too long. Over the years, I gained confidence and grew increasingly comfortable in my own skin.

    And then, I got into vintage/pinup/rockabilly style and I started envying girls with “all that bass”. It is frustrating to see only models with a minimum cup size B on almost every single page on pin up style when all I have is 32AA (or 32A on a good day). So perhaps what pin up companies are trying to tell me is that I can’t be a pin-up if I’m not well-endowed…

    But, like you said, there has been women of all shapes and sizes since the dawn of time, so people really shouldn’t have to dress a certain era/style according to their body shape. No, I’m not a big fan of “dressing vintage according to your body”. And so I can’t be a true pin up girl if I don’t have an hourglass figure? What if I’m busty but I like the 1920s flapper style? Sadly, there are countless pages out on the internet (written by women) suggesting the specific vintage style you can wear, depending on your body shape. At the end of the day, wearing vintage (or any other kind of style) is about doing what you feel most comfortable and confident. Vintage makes me feel confident, which is why I choose to wear it. I hope people who are wearing vintage/pin up continue to wear what they love and not feel the restricted on the account of societal beliefs or what they see on the internet, on Instagram, in magazines etc..

    x Gwen (#flatchestedpinup)

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    • Such a wonderful response! I’m getting tired of seeing mainly one body type being represented in pinup (especially in photography for pinup brands). PUG, for example, really stresses showing off the figure, including the bust, but as a slimmer girl with a 30DDD I’ve always felt VERY uncomfortable showing cleavage.. So I disguise it pretty much every day. Am I less pinup because I don’t wear such body conscious shirts? And then I remember the high necked trend that spanned the 20s straight on to the 60s. It’s important to remember that pretty much ANY concern or consideration we have with dressing today existed in our vintage periods!

      There’s absolutely something to be said for dressing in a way that best suits your specific body type, in the same way that I know that your adorable pixie cut would make my head look like a big round moon face (haha!). But in no way does that ever mean that you CAN’T wear something that’s not “best” for your type. Of course there were busty women in the 20s! And I’m sure they looked no less perfect in their period than those with the more fashionable “boyish” figure, right? I think we should all keep these things in mind, or else we risk putting ourselves in yet another stifling box – just one from another era.

      Thanks for your awesome input. Keep on rocking the vintage however you choose!!

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  6. I don’t think there are many women who fit the “ideal” shape in any era, whatever the body shape may be. I wonder if maybe the unattainability isn’t part of the reason why people want it so badly – people always seem to get caught up in what’s rare and unusual.
    One of the things that I really appreciate about the modern pinup movement/style/community/whatever is that there seems to be a genuine appreciation for a wide variety of body types. Thin women, hourglass women, curvy plus size women – any and all of them are considered beautiful, and might be featured in ads or catalogs. It’s just a little bit healthier than the uniformly thin figure popularized in other areas of fashion.

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