Recommended Reading: Seeing Through Clothes, by Anne Hollander

NOTE: This post is illustrated with many drawings and paintings of nude figures. If you would be offended, Please Stop Reading NOW!

I put off writing about this very influential book (first published in 1978) because I don’t currently have a copy. I kept buying Seeing Through Clothes in paperback and giving it away to friends! (And my public library is currently closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.) (For a range of other opinions and reviews of Seeing Through Clothes, click here.)

Artist drawing a model while using a grid. By Albrecht Durer, via Wikimedia. From a book published in 1538.

For costume (and art) historians, Hollander’s book is fascinating because one of her chief topics is the difficulty of ever “seeing” a person or image without screening what we see through our own cultural bias. To some extent, we automatically “correct” a human face or body as we draw it, to conform to our learned ideas of beauty. We usually realize that “fashion figures” — and especially editorial drawings — are exaggerated. But even “realistic” drawings of human beings can be influenced by current fashions.

About Life Drawing
My own two bits: Remember, we don’t just see with our eyes; we see with our brains. The lens of the eye turns the image upside down; our brains turn the image right side up, and also interpret what we’re looking at. For example, many years ago a small part of my retina was damaged. The eye doctor assured me that my brain would be able to “fill in” the tiny blank near the center of vision in my right eye — and after a few weeks, it did. It’s like a computer program deducing from other clues what “belongs” in the blank spot.
If my brain does something that complex without my being aware of it, imagine how powerfully our learned, cultural conceptions of beauty (or normalcy) may be re-interpreting what we see.

Sketch from a Life Drawing class. I didn’t intend to generalize her face as if I were making a fashion sketch, but that’s what I did.

I have also spent many hours in “life study” art classes, so I do know something about the process of drawing or painting the human body from a live model. David Hockney has pointed out that we are always drawing from memory; we look at the model, and then we have to look at the paper when we make our marks: a few seconds looking, a few seconds drawing; repeat; repeat; repeat…. Yes, artists do practice “blind drawing,” i.e., looking at the model without looking at the drawing they are making. This practice teaches them to match the speed of their pencil moving across the paper to the speed of their eye traveling along the object. It’s hard, especially since our glance normally skips rapidly from place to place. But few artists do all their drawing by this method. In practice, we look; we draw the tiny bit we remember; repeat.

The apparently pregnant belly and wide hips of the woman at left (drawn by Durer, 1493) echoes the fashion silhouette of the 1400s, painted by Van Eyck. (1434.)

Since I can’t share the images from Hollander’s book, I’ll fill in with a few of my own — and “Thank you!” to all the museums now making paintings available online! (For images not in public domain, I linked to them, so please do follow the links.)

Hollander uses many paintings from Western culture to support her thesis. Nudes are especially interesting, because — once she points it out — we can see that artists working from a live model will unconsciously adjust the figure to reflect the silhouette of current fashions. Waists become as narrow as if the model were wearing a corset. This painting from the 1840s reminds me that the full skirt (below a tiny waist) covered big bottoms and hips. (Plumpness was admired, to some extent.)

Tiny waist, wide hips. Fashion plate from Casey Collection, dated May 1840.

Busts sometimes become impossibly high — again reflecting the influence of the corset. (We might quibble that wearing a corset from childhood on will deform the body somewhat, but not in defiance of gravity!) Nude hips may also become wider or narrower as fashion dictates.

Dress dated 1747, from Metropolitan Museum collection. The corset pushes the bust up, flattens the bottom of the breasts, and elongates the waist.

The torso may be lengthened to match an 18th century fashion silhouette, as in this painting. Note the distance between the high breasts and the waist. In the two “Graces” at the sides, the lower body, hidden by 18th century skirts, is not nearly as slender as the upper torso. Also, take a good look at the breast of the woman at left. It might as well be corseted.

Detail of The Three Graces by Carl van Loo, dated 1765. Public domain in US et al, via wikimedia.

Legs may be longer, shoulders may droop, depending on the ideal “beauty” of the era. There are fashions in faces, too. Full, natural eyebrows go in and out of fashion. Mouths are sometimes exaggeratedly full (as now) or tiny and heart shaped, as in the early Victorian period or the 1920s.

Tiny, “Cupid’s Bow” lips, from a Kleenex ad, 1925.

My mother with “Cupid’s Bow” lips. 1920s.

Once wearing makeup became respectable, women could alter their natural lip shape and eyebrows. Even the fashion in faces is subject to change.

All this influence of fashion on drawing is important for costume historians, because we only have about 190 years of photographs for research. Before that, everything we see in historical research was filtered through an artist’s eyes. [And the cost of being painted means we mostly see rich people. There’s a problem with accuracy there, too: if the portrait does not show the sitter as he or she wants to be seen, the consequences for the painter of kings and queens and dictators can be more serious than just not getting paid!]

Contemporary image of the Queen of the Eglinton Tournament, 1839. Click here to see it larger.

One especially obvious era when secondary sources cannot be trusted is the Early Victorian period. There was a great interest in the Middle Ages because of the very popular novels of Sir Walter Scott, especially Ivanhoe, set in the reign of Richard Lionheart. The Eglinton Tournament of 1839 was an excuse for members of the upper classes to commission costumes to wear for the re-enacted Tournament and to many costume balls. Many aristocrats had their portraits painted while wearing fancy dress. (Click here for Victoria and Albert in “medieval” dress.)

Detail of 1839 Tournament of Eglinton. Note the Victorian silhouettes, hairstyles, and ruffles. (Not to mention kilts….)

The Queen of the Tournament and her attendants (behind her) wear gowns with the drooping shoulders of 1839.

Evening dress fashion plate; May 1840.

Many “great houses” now open to the public contain portraits which were painted ( or “restored”) in the Victorian period. This portrait of Louisa Anne Berenson was painted in 1859-1860. It’s a Victorian idea of Renaissance dress — not to be mistaken for a primary source in 16th century costume research!

Some 19th century actors strove for authentic costuming, but they didn’t have access to the research materials we have today. And adaptations were made to keep the actor looking attractive to the audience, as defined by contemporary styles. Here is an evening gown from 1824:

1824 fashion plate from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum.

The high waist and long, relatively narrow skirt with a decorative band around the bottom influenced the following costume illustration for a Tudor queen; in 1828, Sara Siddons (who retired in 1812) was illustrated in the role of  Queen Catherine, wife of Henry VIII, in Shakespeare’s play.

Mrs. Siddons as Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England, divorced by Henry VIII circa 1529.

Portraits of Catherine made during her lifetime do not show a high waistline, even through she was rather portly.

Costumes for the theatre sometimes show bizarre adaptation to fashions: to conform to Victorian notions of modesty, Mrs. Charles Kean wore a hoop or crinoline under her “Roman” costumes! Here she is playing Lady Macbeth in 1858. ( The historic Macbeth died in 1057. No crinolines!) **

Mrs. Charles Kean plays Lady Macbeth opposite her husband, Charles Kean. The Keans were proud of their historic accuracy…. 1858; public domain image.

Click here for a portrait of Mary Queen of Scots painted in her lifetime; this is how she was portrayed in 1885.

If Dover’s Historic Costume in Pictures sometimes looks a little “off” to you, consider that its plates were drawn between 1861 and 1890.

** The subject of costumes for Shakespeare’s plays is long and complex. After all, “Contemporary dress” can mean “contemporary with the date when the play was written, [Macbeth circa 1606]” or “contemporary with the date when the play is set, [Macbeth circa 1050]” or even “contemporary as in ‘right now.’ ”  [modern dress.]”  I gave a lecture on how Shakespeare’s plays were costumed over four centuries for a meeting of the Costume Society in Ashland, Oregon, many years ago. If I am ever able to convert my slides into digital form, I may post it here, someday!

7 Comments

Filed under 1800s-1830s, 1920s-1930s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 16th century, Costumes for the 18th Century, Musings, Resources for Costumers, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade

7 responses to “Recommended Reading: Seeing Through Clothes, by Anne Hollander

  1. “Seeing Through Clothes” has an honoured place on my bookshelf. Have you read “Hollywood and History”? It makes the same kind of argument as Hollander’s book, but takes its examples from film costuming (through to the mid 80s, when the book was published).

    • Sounds interesting! All those clean, sharply tailored coats on men in
      westerns — I’m thinking 1940s -1950s shoulderpads), 1950s corsets
      under bustle dresses, false eyelashes and mascara in the wild west….
      I’ll look for Hollywood and History!

  2. I’ll have to look for these books! It fascinates me that pornographic renderings of nudes, both illustrations and photographs, also tend to follow fashions in body type and facial features. From Thomas Rowlandson to Tijuana Bibles to “Spicy Stories” to “Playboy,” the images of people look vastly different. But I don’t think many consumers of these pictures really have any idea. From what I’ve gleaned, they often think that they’re responding only to 100% natural inclinations, and don’t realize they’ve been influenced by society’s current ideals of beauty.

    • Especially disturbing is the unconscious acceptance of Western European standards of beauty. For example, women are still dying from using “skin bleaches.” A friend once surprised me by remarking that her five year old son didn’t have “good hair.” She explained that her own hair was straight enough to be styled like Caucasian hair, but her son’s hair was tightly curled, like his father’s. It’s great to have options (I used to perm my own straight hair) but sad to think of centuries of children thinking they are not beautiful because they don’t match expectations created by mass advertising, movies, etc.

      • “sad to think of centuries of children thinking they are not beautiful because they don’t match expectations created by mass advertising, movies, etc.”

        Yes, this is such a big problem!! And it seems like young people are trying to break out of that (body positivity; racial inclusion) while simultaneously trying to adhere to a rigorous standard (all those Instagram influencers).

        Incidentally, there is debate about how strongly Western beauty standards affect the world–some Asian countries, for example, idealized pale skin long before they had free trade with the west, and still prefer different kinds of features (this article isn’t very scholarly, but I thought some of the points were interesting: https://tinyurl.com/yc9dgfjc).

      • Yes, pale skin as a marker of social class — separating the peasants from the aristocrats — goes back a long way. I was thinking more of dark-complected friends (e.g., from India) who think light-colored skin is necessary for beauty, while I try to convince them that I admire thick, dark eyelashes and well-defined lips more than white skin and thin lips like mine!

      • Well, that’s just depressing! Indian skin is so beautiful in all the shades.

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