Frock Flicks POV: Historical Female Body Size on Screen

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Alrighty kids, I’m going to try to take on something that is seriously complicated and seriously touchy for probably all human beings: body size/shape/type/whatever you want to call it. See, it’s something that’s come up in some of our posts (see: Keira Knightley) and our podcasts too. In fact, listener Pear left this comment about our Poldark podcast:

Your review was interesting, but why do you have to get down on ladies with smaller busts? I know you say bitchy is your brand, but that was just unkind and unnecessary. Couldn’t you just have left it as ‘Verity’s looks more in line with what was considered beautiful?’

Editor’s Note: In this podcast, we did say Verity’s ‘shape is a bit more conducive to that period’s style,’ and we made exactly one brief, perhaps flippant reference to the bust/size of the other actresses. Listen for yourself at the timestamps provided here.

Scared

This is a touchy subject, so could end very badly. Hold me.

The topic of female body size on screen is something we might not always discuss in the most nuanced manner here on Frock Flicks, when we’re talking about historical standards, both in clothing and in the time a film/TV show was produced. The hard thing is I know where we’re coming from when we say what we say, and I know myself, Trystan, and Sarah intimately and so know our own issues/concerns/outlooks about our own bodies and the media and society. Perhaps those have not been well articulated in every podcast or blog post. So I am going to do some speaking for all three of us, when I try to approach the issue of body size (please to read shape/type/whatever from here on out) in historical costume movies.

First, I feel like in a conversation like this, it’s important to situate yourself personally. I have always been fat. I embrace that word as a descriptor of size, mostly in the “so what?” sense of the word. My size has fluctuated, but I have always been at least slightly-bigger-than-average to curvaceous to I-think-it’s-fair-to-say-obese. I’m tall, so I may carry it off well. I’m also hourglass shaped, so I fit the socially-approved “curvy” model that many women don’t fit into. I embrace the word fat, because it is a word that has been thrown at so many people as a term of hate, and I choose to throw it back at those haters. I’m also a strong believer in Health At Every Size, which is the idea that you can be healthy at any size and that health does not need to be connected to size. I think BMI is bunk. If you need a primer on any of this, please check out this article at the New York Times, and then the FAQ at Shapely Prose.

Bitch I'm fabulous

Let’s let Gabourey ‘splain how upset I am about being fat.

I also realize that we Americans, and Western culture in general, live in cultures where people — especially women, but more and more men are experiencing this — are put under constant pressure to be thin. Thin = healthy, thin = beautiful, thin = morally superior, thin = worthy of existing. And everyone should be thinner, or so we are told, literally and figuratively. So I realize that no matter what your body size or type, you probably experience the pressure of being not good enough, and that body size/weight/etc. are probably painful topics for us all.

Be yourself and love who you are

With all of that out of the way … what are some of the issues with body size in terms of historical costume films? Why do we sometimes snark Keira Knightley (for example) for not suiting a particular era? I mean, women and men of all shapes and sizes lived in all eras, right? You can’t say a particular body type is “historically inaccurate,” right? I mean, let’s look at height: Mary Queen of Scots was six foot tall. So while that might not have been the average for late 16th-century Scottish or Western European, you certainly can’t say that tall women didn’t exist; and the same argument can be made for any individual body type.

Mary Queen of Scots via BBC

Mary Queen of Scots, one inch taller than me, via BBC. #fuckyeah

I think there are a couple of issues at play here, and I’d like to try to get into them…

 

Historical Beauty Ideals /= Modern Beauty Ideals

This is probably the biggest one, and the one we might not have made clear in every case. Of course, a person of any height, size, weight, etc. could and did exist in any particular era. However, when a person who is not suited to what was actually considered attractive in an era is cast in a role where we viewers are supposed to see them as attractive, it can be a mindfuck. Meaning, I know that in the late 17th century, for example, the women who were considered attractive were not only curvaceous, they were generally medium-busted and had a soft or double chin. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the mistresses of Charles II and Louis XIV:

Louise de Keroualle Simon Dubois

Louise de Keroualle, mistress of Charles II, who he nicknamed “Fubbs” meaning plump or chubby, 1683. Via Wikimedia Commons

Nell Gwyn by Verelst

Nell Gwyn, mistress to Charles II, c. 1680. Via Wikimedia Commons

Barbara Villiers Nell Gwyn Portrait of a young woman and child, as Venus and Cupid Peter Lely

Either Barbara Villiers or Nell Gwyn, both mistresses to Charles II. “Portrait of a young woman and child, as Venus and Cupid” by Peter Lely, via Wikimedia Commons

"Portrait of Madame de Montespan," mistress to Louis XIV, c. 1675, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Portrait of Madame de Montespan,” mistress to Louis XIV, c. 1675, via Wikimedia Commons.

So, when you take an actress who doesn’t fit that model — curvaceous, medium-busted, soft/double chin — and expect me, who has looked at tons of art and other visual sources from the late 17th century, to accept that she is considered a hottie in that era? My mind balks. Of course you’re casting what a modern, probably-uneducated-in-that-period eye will see as attractive. And of course, I as a viewer have that same modern outlook… but I also am busy comparing the actress on screen with all of the images I have studied of that particular era, and seeing the disconnect. Of course not all women in the late 17th-century fit the beauty ideal. And there were probably women who didn’t fit that ideal and were still considered beautiful for various reasons. But if I’m constantly looking at an actress who is very much not what was considered beautiful in the period, there’s a part of my brain that just goes “BZZZZZZT NO.”

Vatel (2000), Anne de Montausier

Uma Thurman in Vatel. Gorgeous, but not the late 17th-century ideal.

Versailles (2016)

Versailles‘s Madame de Montespan, same deal.

Meanwhile, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Elhe perfectly suited the era’s beauty ideals in A Little Chaos (2015).

While this video isn’t perfect, I think it’s a great example of how different periods did value different physical attributes over others.

Furthermore, you’ve got the modern-actor-who-looks-nothing-like-the-real-historical-person conundrum. I know what Henry VIII looked like, and when you cast someone who isn’t tall, or broad shouldered, or athletic (or later in life, obese), or redheaded, once again my mind says “BZZZZZT WRONG NOT HENRY VIII.” When you cast Keira Knightley as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, I think, “too thin.” When you cast Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria, I think “too pointy-faced.” Of course, whether an actor can channel a character in the spirit/personality sense of the word is totally important. I’m not saying you should only cast based on resemblance. But when I know what a historical person should look like, and the actor playing them is a very different physical type, I experience cognitive dissonance.*

*Note: We are aware that we are not representative of the viewing public as a whole.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783, via Wikimedia Commons.
I’m not saying she was chubby, I’m just saying she wasn’t skinny.

Keira Knightley in The Duchess (2008)

Keira Knightley as Georgiana in The Duchess. Lovely by current standards. Not the same body type as the real Georgiana, however, nor what would have been considered “ideal” in late 18th-century England.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

We can also compare Knightley with Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), to see what was considered attractive in the late 1980s (especially the fuller bust) is not the same as today’s beauty ideal.

"Perfect" female body over the past 100 years

Just looking at the last hundred years… Via Greatist

Keira Knightley in Atonement (2007)

Meanwhile, Keira Knightley looked GREAT in Atonement, as she totally rocked that 1930s look.

And I don’t want to harp on Keira, she’s just a good example in that she’s 1. a popular actress, who 2. gets cast in a TON of period movies, and 3. is on the particularly thin side… but I need to point out that she’s in talks to play Catherine the Great of Russia. CATHERINE THE GREAT. WHO WAS LIKE 2′ TALL AND TOTALLY ROUND. Okay, when she was older, but still. Girl was SHORT and buxom.

 

Everyone Wants to See Themselves Positively Represented in Media

We Americans, and again I would guess much of Western culture in general but I’m just going to speak for my own people, live in a world that is so very much influenced by media. Books, movies, TV, video games, you name it, what we see on screen has a huge influence on how we see ourselves and our world. I am personally convinced, in fact, that what we see on screen in terms of beauty ideals influences us more than what we see in real life. Think about how attractive you think you are. Then actually walk down the street and look at real people, and compare yourself to them — not in a mean way, just, a neutral comparison. I think you’ll be surprised how many perfectly-normal, differently-sized/shaped/featured/etc. people there are in the world, and how you’re actually doing quite well, attractiveness-wise.

So, when you are fat like me, or anything else our current culture tells us isn’t attractive — apple-shaped; big nosed; member of a particular ethnic group; older; etc. etc. — it can be painful to feel like you hardly ever, or never, see yourself represented positively in media. We all want to feel beautiful, and let me tell you, seeing someone like Christina Hendricks held up as attractive has done wonders for my own self-esteem.

Mad Men

Christina Hendricks in Mad Men. All gorgeous, all the time.

 

We Live in a Culture That Praises Particular Body Types and Shames Others

When we — the writers of Frock Flicks individually or viewers of historical costume movies/TV shows in general — feel like all or most of the people held up as attractive on screen are different from us, it just plain hurts. And sometimes instead of articulating that pain, we oversimplify and lash back by mocking those who are held up as examples of beauty. It’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s not what I believe or hold true. But none of us always behaves the way we would like, and sometimes our pain can overtake our hearts and minds and cause us to express ourselves in ways that aren’t true or positive or helpful.

So let me say it clearly: Everyone is beautiful. Everyone has a right to exist, to take up space, to be represented, to be heard. That applies to body size but also age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, you name it.

Everyone can be body positive

And, I would add, beautiful.

Would we at Frock Flicks like to see more representation of a variety of body sizes in Frock Flicks? Hell yes. Would we like to see more women who are not-conventionally-beautiful cast in roles where they are able to show their beauty? Hell yes. Would we ideally like to see someone who looks vaguely like the real historical person, or fits the particular beauty ideal of a given era, on screen? Hell yes, although we realize we’re yet again in our weird little specialized niche here. But hey, a girl’s gotta dream.

 

Alrighty, give us your take on body size in historical costume films.

100 Responses

  1. Trystan L. Bass

    As the main editor here, I’ve read most everything we’ve written, & I don’t think we’ve been particularly not body positive or especially judgmental of any one body size / shape / type. What we have done is point out when an actress does not reflect the historical beauty ideal in body size / shape / type for the period of the film / TV show. Just like pointing out the wrong hairstyle for the period, this is perfectly fair & within our purview as critics of historical costume in movies / TV.

    Now, do we do this with our usual snarky tone? Sure, it happens. But, again, having read our site in detail, I think we’re pretty good about snarking the clothing, the designs, and the choices made to costume or cast Actress XYZ in a way that doesn’t reflect the relevant historical beauty ideal & not just snark on Actress XYZ for being horribly too thin / fat / whatever size. Are we always doing it in a way that compliments Actress XYZ too? Maybe or maybe not, depends on other factors — we’re not here just to say nice things about movies & TV. We may snark on Actress XYZ for her acting, which is legit, bec. that’s a job she’s doing, & as critics, we can & should be able to critique it. (And yes, I’m saying “actress” bec. 95% of the time, it’s about women, go fig.)

    I think sometimes ppl confuse us saying “Actress XYZ is miscast in Role ABC bec. she doesn’t look right for the part & she sucked in the movie” for body-shaming. Nope — that’s us pointing out that the actress doesn’t fit the historical period’s beauty ideal & we don’t like the job she did in the movie. We are allowed to have these opinions, it’s called film criticism, it’s what we do, read our FAQs & POV articles on the topic. You can disagree! But ultimately, this is our blog & our opinions & us having strong opinions doesn’t mean we’re bad people.

    Reply
  2. picasso Manu

    I would have been a killer from Tudor to around 1910, since everything involving a corset is my friend (And I’m currently in the process to make me one dress from each era, to start with!)
    I’m a US size 20, And Mary Stuart tall, so I can carry it.
    As for my reaction to thin actresses on period films, I guess it depends. I don’t think I’ll be very original in saying that is the film is good, or the actress, I don’t really mind. After all, that’s what we’re used to, these days.
    But if that fails, the “nobody would have looked at you twice, you twig” snigger is not that far, I admit.
    I think that’s why Miss Knightley is an easy target: She has the waif thinness down pat, and to modern standard, she’s very pretty, but the acting level is not exactly there.
    And the” Kate Winslet is fat” thing is crazy. I know fat, I live it, and that ain’t it!

    Reply
    • Kristina

      I mostly agree about Keira Knightley; I think that her acting can be very good with the right material, but some directors seem to want her to play period characters in a very assertive and “modern” way, and that style of acting, paired with her thinness, does tend to make her an easy target for criticism.

      And, yeah, Kate Winslet isn’t anywhere near being fat. As I pointed out in another comment, she isn’t even plump enough to fit the 17th-century beauty ideal described in this article. Neither is Jennifer Ehle. Both of them lack the overall soft roundness of the women in the portraits. Their faces are more angular (befitting 21st-century ideals) and without soft or double chins. This hammers home the point that actors in movies are nearly always cast to appeal to modern, and not historical, tastes.

      Reply
      • Kristina

        On a different note, one thing that I’ve often wondered about is why so few portraits from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries depict the sort of deep cleavage that most (modern) people apparently get when they wear reproductions of certain types of historical corsets/stays. Usually, paintings just show the women with smooth, broad, and sometimes very fleshy chests. Is this simply an example of artistic license (as in the artists or the clients being reluctant to display paintings depicting deep cleavage), or did the undergarments really create slightly different shapes from what we typically see in movies? I know that during some eras (e.g., the 1800s and the 1810s), the fashions of the time actually DID call for separated breasts with little visible cleavage, and the corsets of those periods were designed to hold the breasts far apart (and, in the case of 1800s-1810s corsets, the bust was lifted extremely high, as well), but surely this wasn’t true of other eras.

        Reply
        • Sarah Lorraine

          So, one of the “ah-ha” moments I had years ago when I was neck-deep in 16th-century costuming, was that we (ie. modern costumers) put the neckline of the bodice too low, which causes too much cleavage to be exposed. Raising the neckline of a bodice by 2-3″ makes a huge difference. In my experience, we tend to keep it low for two reasons: 1) it’s actually easier to draft/drape the neckline in relationship to the shoulder straps if it’s positioned right at the point where the bosom begins to swell upwards; and/or 2) we put far too much emphasis on cleavage thanks to modern ideas about what’s sexy.

          Reply
          • Kristina

            That’s an interesting point that I didn’t consider when I wrote my comment. The gowns in many of these old portraits look very low-cut to me (just one random example from Wikimedia Commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/97/Antoine_Pesne_-Girl_with_Pigeons-_WGA17378.jpg), which is why it confuses me that there generally isn’t prominent cleavage, but I guess that the relative depth of the necklines would be hard to judge from paintings.
            I see no possible way that the normal stays from this period would NOT create deep cleavage on people who have at least medium-sized chests, so it makes sense that necklines on gowns — and especially on gowns for daywear — might have been quite a bit higher than is generally thought. As you say, our modern standards of beauty tend to be reflected in films set in historical eras. And, of course, I still also wonder how much of the “smooth bust” look in old artwork is due to artistic license.

            Reply
            • Kristina

              Something went wrong with the link.
              upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/97/Antoine_Pesne_-Girl_with_Pigeons-_WGA17378.jpg

              Reply
          • Kendra

            I’ve also heard from people in the millinery shop at colonial Williamsburg that we should be tucking our boobs down and in rather than lifting up… but I can’t bring myself to do it!

            Reply
            • Sarah Lorraine

              Oh yeah, that too. We tend to pull the “girls” up (and I dunno about you, but it’s more comfortable to do that, honestly), but the period method appears to just to let them squish flat against the chest.

              Reply
              • Kristina

                I wasn’t aware of that method of wearing stays (I had always assumed that the breasts were supposed to be lifted, not tucked in), but it would certainly help to explain that smooth-bosomed look in old portraits. Like I said, it’s just something that has confused me for a while.

                Reply
              • Bess Chilver

                If one has bottom heavy bust (fairly common in a larger bust as well), then attempting to squash flat simply isn’t going to work….to much flesh in the way. It.will.hurt.

                Reply
              • Kristina

                For the record, I have never worn 18th-century-style stays (or any other reproduction stays, for that matter), but it seems to me that the method of “tucking down” the breasts or letting them be “squished flat” would actually allow for the stays to be laced LESS tightly, thereby increasing comfort. Lifting the breasts high in order to create prominent cleavage would seem to require tighter lacing, just below the bust line, for extra support. This might explain why actresses in period dramas frequently comment on how uncomfortably tight and restrictive their stays are; in all likelihood, they are being laced too tightly around the ribcage and waist, because producers and directors believe that audiences want to see the most dramatic cleavage possible. groan One reason why I suspect this to be the case is that historical reenactors’ experiences with stays generally appear to be very different from those of TV and film actresses, who almost invariably have complaints.

                Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I jokingly refer to myself as a “Sixteenth Century Supermodel.” Short, slightly plump, big breasted, weak double chin, pale, small mouth, straight blonde-brown hair (before I started dyeing it, obvs). TOTALLY Henry VIII’s type.

      Reply
    • eldalorien

      My biggest beef with the casting of Kiera knightley in roles like Anna Karenina (and potentially Catherine the great — what?!?) is that there’s no way she’d be able to survive a Russian winter.

      Reply
  3. Julie

    Wonderful post, much love and props to you ladies! I think you made your points very well, making sure to emphasize your historical eye and personal beliefs! Well done!

    Reply
  4. Val

    Loved this! I get so frustrated that the only fat women we see are the loud, annoying older women, the servents, or nuns. F that. Give me a plus size lead! And please, for the love of all that is green, stop casting Katherine of Aragon as a tall, dark haired, olive skinned woman. Sigh

    Reply
    • Kristina

      I completely agree. As is mentioned in the article, many historical figures (as shown in their portraits, anyway) had bodies that were considerably larger the current beauty ideal. Why tamper with that? Isn’t it more interesting (as well as more educational) if actors resemble as closely as possible the historical figures that they are supposed to be portraying? No one would think of casting a short, chubby male actor as Abraham Lincoln, for example, and there should be no reason to have a lower standard of accuracy for female historical figures.

      And as far as fictional characters are concerned, I’ve noticed that many, many female characters in historical novels are described as “plump,” but are still usually portrayed by thin actors in movie adaptations. I think that these are missed opportunities to cast lesser-known people (since the most famous performers tend to be thin) and to show what historical beauty standards actually were.

      Reply
      • Trystan L. Bass

        The point about casting a physically accurate Lincoln is so apt. While I’m sure male actors have to live up to impossible body standards in film/TV too, women seem to bear the brunt of it.

        Reply
        • Sarah Lorraine

          The ONE exception to that rule is casting Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII. He’s basically the exact opposite of Henry’s body type. I get that Michael Hurst liked his intensity and the fact that he seems slightly unhinged at all times, but the cognitive dissonance with this short, scrawny, dark haired, pale skinned creature playing the god-like young Henry who was 6’4, broad-shouldered, swarthy, and had red-gold hair just did not work.

          On a side note, that sort of relates: In “The Making of Anne Boleyn”, Natalie Dormer makes a point in her interview with the author to say that she had to fight Hurst to let her play Anne with dark hair. Dormer is naturally blonde, and when she was cast, she ran out and immediately dyed her hair dark brown and then was chastised by Hurst for dyeing it because he had intended to have Anne be blonde. She apparently really put her foot down, feeling like she was probably even risking her part in the show, by insisting that Anne had to be brunette and to have her be anything but would be tantamount to ruining the character. Hurst gave in and let her keep the dark hair, and the result was probably one of the only characters in that entire show that looked at all like her historical counterpart.

          I have to admit that reading that gave me a lot more respect for Dormer.

          Reply
          • Kristina

            Good for Dormer! Producers (and directors) do need to be told sometimes that their “vision” doesn’t always serve their films well.

            Reply
            • Sarah Lorraine

              Natalie Dormer earned a special place in my heart by standing up to Michael “Fuck History, I do what I want” Hurst. She’s the only reason to watch The Tudors. Once Anne died, I lost any interest in finishing the series.

              Reply
            • Bess Chilver

              Apart from the rather obvious issue that JRM is a short. Henry VIII was 6 ft 4. He towered over everyone. The Duke of Suffolk (Charles Brandon) was close in height. JRM was towered over by everyone else.

              Reply
              • Sarah Lorraine

                Yeah, plus the whole red haired thing. His height, and his coloring, made him iconic. Why get rid of the two major physical attributes that were constantly remarked upon? At that point, it ceases to be “Henry VIII”.

                Reply
    • Charity

      If you watch the recent “Six Wives with Lucy Worsley,” her Katharine of Aragon is… a Spanish RED HEADED BLUE EYED ACTRESS. I almost fell over with joy. Thank God, it’s about damn time.

      Reply
  5. Melysa

    Ladies, I LOVE this post – great job! I can’t agree more with all that was said. When watching The Borgias, I wished the women were a bit more plump. I believe I said that aloud to the screen more than a time or two lol! Thanks, and let the snark flow! <3

    Reply
  6. Sarah F

    Perfect. Thank you. And frankly, stuff like this is part of why I first started making my own clothes- I realized that the styles I was supposed to wear didn’t actually work for my figure. I feel that mainstream fashion decides on a silhouette they want, cuts everything that way, and then many women spend the next year or so not being able to buy anything in stores (or buying something that doesn’t quite flatter them because they feel like they don’t have options. This happens with color too).
    I spent my late teens and early 20s wondering whether the next trend would look better on me.
    Then I had that lightning bolt moment when I realized that instead of looking wistfully at pictures of clothing from the 30s and 50s I could just Make Them Myself.
    Sewing, and particularly historical costuming, has given me incredible body positivity.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Re: sewing and body positivity– ME TOO, particularly because I realized just how individual we all are, so how could standard sizes suit everyone? I still remember my mind being blown the first time I drafted a bodice for myself and saw the comparative tiny shoulders and big bust.

      Reply
    • Lindy Shopper

      I feel this a lot – I’m an attorney and have slowly been transitioning my closet into 40’s and 50’s suits because modern cuts just don’t work on my body. Most people can’t even tell the difference and are surprised when they compliment me and I tell them the suit is vintage.

      Reply
  7. Kristina

    “We Live in a Culture That Praises Particular Body Types and Shames Others”

    I couldn’t agree more with this. Society can be relentlessly cruel to women who don’t conform to current “standards” of attractiveness, which are usually unattainable for the majority, not to mention contradictory — e.g., be thin, but not so much so that you lose your breasts/curves; be youthful, but don’t have obvious plastic surgery or use “too much” makeup. It’s a no-win situation.

    One nitpick, though…

    “Meanwhile, Kate Winslet and Jennifer Elhe perfectly suited the era’s beauty ideals in A Little Chaos (2015).”

    I would argue that they really don’t. Both Ehle and Winslet look significantly thinner in that screenshot than any of the women in the 17th-century portraits that you posted. You can tell by looking at their faces (which aren’t round and don’t have soft/double chins). Ehle in particular has large breasts, but she’s still pretty slim (e.g., see how she looks in Pride and Prejudice). Articles I’m finding online mention that Winslet was pregnant during the production of this movie, so she was probably a bit larger than she usually is — but her weight isn’t distributed in the “ideal” way for the period.

    In a way, though, these observations of mine really just emphasize the accuracy of one of your main points: actors are VERY rarely cast in historical roles for which their body types are appropriate. This has been the case for as long as movies have existed. Actually, even illustrators frequently do this; see how Hugh Thomson, an artist of the late Victorian era, illustrated a Jane Austen novel (https://austenonly.com/2011/03/08/accurateauthenticrelevantfashion-in-thomsons-illustrations-for-sense-and-sensibility/). The fashions are pretty accurate for the late 1780s to early 1790s, but the women’s waists are depicted as much slimmer than the 18th-century ideal. Thackeray went even further in Vanity Fair, eschewing accurate 1810s fashions in favor of Victorian ones: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_19c/thackeray/fashion.html.

    Reply
  8. Heather Rose Jones

    Thank you so much for this post! Cultures have this awful habit of considering the tastes of the moment to be some sort of eternal truth. And sometimes we aren’t even offering the language to express contrasting tastes. I remember back when Xena first come out being delighted with Lucy Lawless’s body type and simultaneously being frustrated that I couldn’t find a neutrally positive way of describing that type.

    Reply
  9. Saraquill

    Good article, unfortunate gif. The one showing idealized figures of the past century concludes with an image based on a racist caricature of Sarah Baartman, a Khoi African woman exploited in life and death for her figure and genitals.

    Reply
    • Colleen Crosby

      This almost had me in tears: “Think about how attractive you think you are. Then actually walk down the street and look at real people, and compare yourself to them — not in a mean way, just, a neutral comparison. I think you’ll be surprised how many perfectly-normal, differently-sized/shaped/featured/etc. people there are in the world, and how you’re actually doing quite well, attractiveness-wise.”

      Reply
    • Colleen Crosby

      I can’t tell you how excited I am about the Star Wars Episode 8 character Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, played by Laura Dern, who is one month older than I am! (Please let her have a good part and not just be set dressing!)

      Reply
  10. Ellanyx

    It is for that very reason that I like the A&E P&P’s Jane better than the Kiera Knightley P&P’s Jane, which is to say, while Rosamund Pike looks “prettier” to modern eyes, Susanna Harker look far closer to the early 19th century’s ideal of Beauty.

    Reply
  11. alexandriaweb

    God yes THIS!
    I would also like to add that I’m an occasional extra, and I would love to do historical dramas, but I never have because almost every casting calls for women much thinner than me (The Paradise wanted women no bigger than a UK 12, the casting for men had no such restrictions of course). Although recently I have noticed a few fuller figured background artists creeping in (very happy to see a larger woman in the series of Poldark that just aired), which has delighted me!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Oooo, now I definitely want to see the next season of Poldark — I’d already seen some images floating around of the costumes that looked like a cut above the last 2.

      Reply
      • Nonnymus

        I can’t wait for you to review the new season! Lots of lovely zone front gowns, and good hats on everybody. And Demelza finally gets some new stuff, like a new cloak besides that old wool wrap thing (but it’s sadly only worn in one or two scenes).

        Reply
  12. indiaedghilli

    A lot of actresses in historical films are like the heroines in historical novels, or, “But in 300 years I’ll be considered GORgeous!” You know, she looks in the mirror and bemoans the fact that she’s Too Tall, her Eyes Are Too Large, her Mouth Is Too Wide, and she’s Too Slender To Be Considered Beautiful. Extra points if her hair is also red.

    The only time I’ve thought casting in a movie got it sort of right was when the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi) was played by Ava Gardner in MAYERLING. Ava was as OMFG gorgeous as Sissi was. Romy Schneider wasn’t bad as Sissi either.

    Reply
  13. Janet Nickerson

    Madame de Maintenon had quite a generous figure (particularly after nine pregnancies) but was considered one of the sexiest women at the French court. Even a priest counseling her on her sinful relationship with the king wrote about her allure.
    I remember 15 years ago some model who was mouthing off about how ‘fat’ Marilyn Monroe was (as she wore a size 12). The model was handed one of Monroe’s dresses to try on – the model couldn’t get into it! Sizing today is just ridiculous and ensures that anyone with a figure feels fat. I’m surprised designers haven’t started using negative numbers.
    One more thing – my grandmother (born 1908) told me that as a child, she and her sister would sit with their heads down, chins on chests, trying to develop a double chin, as that would mean they came from a well-to-do household that could afford to feed them well.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Re: double chin – Years ago, I was having a convo with someone who was telling me that her mother used to praise her and her sisters for having thighs that touched (this woman was my age and of course we grew up in the dreaded era of the Thigh GapTM). In her mother’s day (c. 1960s) having thighs that touched was considered the ideal, and the emphasis was on having a gap just below the knees when standing with your legs together. And then there was my mom, who, lemme tell you, has THIGHS, who would proudly wear mini-skirts so tiny that she could barely move in them. And here’s me, who won’t even wear shorts because I’m ashamed of my touching thighs… Fucking society, man. You never can win.

      Reply
  14. Linda Merrill

    Excellent post. I heard from either the costume designer or show runner of Outlander that when the Claire character started to really dress in 17th century garb, there were actual corporate meetings over whether they should use a bum roll or not, for fear it would make Catroina Balfe (a tall, thin model) look fat. Pretty much nothing could, but there you go…

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Yeah, Caitriona Balfe freaking gorgeous no matter what she wears. And honestly, she’s perfect for the role, too. A few deviations here and there, but overall she’s very close to the ideal 1940s silhouette (tall, slender, very Dior model-esque), which is great considering Claire is supposed to be from the 40s. It’s also interesting to see how her body type is paired against the other actresses who play 18th c. characters — she stands out like a sore thumb.

      And hell, if anyone can carry off a bumroll, it’s her.

      Reply
  15. Jeanne

    “we made exactly one brief, perhaps flippant reference to the bust/size of the other actresses..” :/ sometimes u just gotta admit what you said was hurtful and/or wrong. great article, but you kind of didn’t talk much about the original conversation point. I’m of about average weight, and I’m taller than average but I have a /very/ small bust, and dear lord, in the days of victoria’s secret and what have you, it is very hard to love your breasts when you have so little there. I’m sorry, but I got enough teasing and being called “flat as a board” in school.

    also ehle and winslet look very little like the ideals you mentioned so I’m confused by that

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Did you listen to the actual podcast? Bec. it wasn’t an actual topic of discussion in the podcast! I think it’s entirely accurate to describe that as one brief flippant reference. And sorry if you find that hurtful, but we’re not here to give everything & everyone 100% praise all the time. If you don’t like it, you’re not being forced to listen to our podcast or read our blog.

      Reply
    • Kendra

      Nodding. I guess I was thinking of small chested as generally being part of being on the thin side, but I should have added it to my list of “things people get shit for re: their bodies which is totally ridiculous because we’re all just people doing our thing.”

      I think that Ehle and Winslet DO look like the period ideals, minus their defined chins.

      Reply
      • Kristina

        IMO, it isn’t just the chins; it’s that Ehle and Winslet are quite slim, and just happen to be large-breasted (or at least Ehle appears to be — Winslet was apparently pregnant while making the movie, and has mentioned that her breasts got bigger during the production). In their portraits, the mistresses of Charles II and Louis XIV look fleshier (for lack of a more apt term), rounder, and less toned than the “fashionable” body type of today. (And, on a side note, it’s hard to determine whether some of them are large-busted or not, given the style of clothing they’re wearing.) I know that Winslet gets a lot of praise for her message of body positivity and for being curvier than most Hollywood actresses, and, honestly, that’s great! Diversity is important. But that doesn’t mean that she isn’t still much thinner than the average woman.

        That said, this is basically just a nitpick.

        Reply
        • Kristina

          …While I’m at it, I’ll admit that I haven’t seen the film A Little Chaos. I have read one of the articles about it on this site, though. It sounds like such a disaster from both a costuming perspective and a general historical one that I doubt choosing actors with appropriate body types was a high priority for the producers. ;-)

          Reply
  16. Peacoclaur

    Am I the only person who finds it interesting just how little ideal body shapes for men have changed compared to women?

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      Interesting point. But note that it used to be OK for men to be a little portly as well; fleshiness could symbolize material success, plenty of money for food and drink, etc.)

      However, I have noticed in recent years that actors cast in historical roles are getting thinner. The dreadful Jonathan R-M, for one, and Damian Lewis for another. The latter at least has red hair and acting skills, but even done up in his Henry VIII gear, he resembled Bill Walton, ready to sprint down the court for a lay-up. (Speaking of Tudor-era dudes, Mark Rylance, wonderful though he is, couldn’t suggest Cromwell’s physical menace and his ruffian reputation. He looked like a skinny priest. I thought he should have played Thomas More.)

      Reply
      • Peacoclaur

        Agree, it’s the same with Richard Harris as the other Cromwell – too tall, too slim and too good looking despite the stick on warts. But you’re right, the men in a lot of costumehave been getting leaner compared to older productions, and have been disrobing a lot more as well. It’s not as dramatic as the women but its still notacible and can be distracting.

        Reply
        • Karen A.

          Actors also seem required to be much more muscular in the past few years. Even actors who have been successful before this trend are suddenly bulked up. In my opinion it looks unnatural and unattractive.

          Reply
          • Peacoclaur

            Dr Nerdlove* had somthing to say about this aesthetic and about how its really about a desire to impress other men and not being attractive to women. It’s unattractive and in the context of historical fiction out of place as the diet and exercise science needed to achieve that kind of physique is a late 20th century invention; and is unattractive and distracting for their same reasons the anachronistic female body types in HF Kendra talks about in the article are.

            *http://www.doctornerdlove.com/new-impossible-standards-male-beauty/

            Reply
  17. Shalmestere

    …and this is why I liked Keira Knightley as Lizzie Bennett: by the standards of the day, she would have been considered scrawny and sallow, with only her fine eyes to recommend her. (As opposed to Jennifer Ehle, who was so close to the Regency Beau Ideal that I found myself asking, “Now, wait–which sister is supposed to be The Pretty One?”)

    Reply
  18. Diana

    Thanks for a great post (even more than usual). I’m an actor and first-person interpreter who wears 1770s costume for my daily work, and as a medium-sized, hourglass-shaped woman, I really enjoy wearing a period that works well with my body type. I also have very long dark hair and very fair skin, which is a boon to both my current job and the 17th century impression I performed previously. My colleagues include women of almost every body type, ideal and unideal for every time period, and we all look real and fabulous on a daily basis. One comment I will throw out is that for professional women actors working in film, musical theatre, and to a somewhat lesser extent “straight” theatre, non-modern-ideal body types are an actual disadvantage to getting work. The unbalanced expectations of producers and casting directors determine, to an absurd degree, if women can actually earn a living, and so the pressure to fall within an acceptable margin forces an artificial lack of diversity.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yep, that goes back to the casting forcing whatever the current fashionable body ideal is into all movies / TV shows. We get why it happens, just like modern hairstyles & makeup being used in historical movies / TV bec. it’s fashionable (or worse, to be “relatable”), but it’s not cool.

      Reply
  19. Pear

    Lovely post! Sorry if my original comment stirred things up, it wasn’t intended as a huge criticism, just something that I found irritating. Also, as someone who is pretty flat-chested, it’s something I hear a /lot/ and have been laughed at for, so to hear it thrown out, even flippantly (especially flippantly, perhaps) is a touchy thing, and I’d wager likely is for many flat-chested women.
    That being said, I totally agree though that there’s definitely a tendency to cast to our beauty standards, which disadvantages larger women far more than thinner women and that there is a lot of fat-shaming in media. I’m absolutely with you that having more Christina Hendrickses would be /amazing/, and really given the social implications of having a very limited portrayal of beauty, historical accuracy for period movies and TV should extend to casting people who fit the beauty standards of a given era as characters that are considered beautiful “in-text” as it were.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Well, if we can reclaim “fat” & be OK with calling ourselves that (much like “queer,” which I also identify with), maybe you can reclaim whatever term you find so offensive so that it doesn’t offend you so.

      Reply
      • Pear

        I may be misreading your tone, but your reply here feels rather either rude or condescending. Kendra laid out where she was coming from, so I did the same. There’s no need to snark at people with different body concerns. I feel I’ve always been polite, so I don’t quite understand why you’re reacting this way.

        Reply
          • Pear

            I was just explaining myself as I was alarmed that it seemed to have sparked a whole post. But arguing here or on the other post seems out of proportion to either original comments, so I’m happy to drop it.

            Reply
  20. Dinah White

    What an interesting post, and some fascinating replies too.

    A few points…..I hope they help.

    It’s very difficult to avoid looking at history through the filter of our own age. I’ve seen several “historically accurate” costume movies made in the 1960s and 1970s that look just that….1960s and 70s.
    Believe it or not, both women and men come in all sizes and shapes. It’s just unfortunate that the fashion of the moment favours only a few of us (and that doesn’t include me!). Yes, there were Twiggies at the same time as Marilyn Monroe and also curvy, busty girls in the time of Twiggy.
    It’s very difficult to find out what historical people really looked like. We should take care about the accuracy of painted portraits. The painter was paid to produce “acceptable” works, and did as was expected. The desired criteria included “acceptability” and not” accuracy”. He wanted to get more paying clients, and you don’t get that through “real” likenesses? Of course, the camera never lies….
    …oh yes, the camera lies. Ask any professional photographer and they MIGHT tell you some of their tricks. Moles etc can be added or removed according to the fashion. Even in the early 1900s photography books gave information on how to “improve” photos.
    Example….on the internet you can find images of late 19 century actresses. They often have extremely small (and fashionable) was waists. Even without the use of Victorian Photoshop they were laced for the photo, and probably could not act and project their voice (no microphones!) when very tightly laced. We’ll do anything to look good in a photo?
    I’ve got a granddaughter who works in fashion publicity. She made the comment that it takes a lot of money, time and effort to look like your publicity photos.

    Reply
  21. rejectedbondgirls

    Interesting post! Sometimes I definitely see actresses in period dramas and they just feel ‘too modern’ in a way, just like I sometimes see old pictures or paintings and the people in it suddenly look weirdly modern for their era. It’s a shame that many roles are cast only in regards to what we think is beautiful, completely ignoring the fact that fuller figures were once the ideal because Hollywood can’t handle larger sizes. And man, do I wish ideals weren’t a thing to begin with, because they’re always some random idea that most women’s bodies aren’t naturally going to adhere to; right now you have this weird situation were women with bigger sizes are given a very hard time, but then there’s also a big emphasis on ‘curves’ (which I don’t like to begin with, because it seems to imply that having curves or not is still the most important aspect of a woman’s body) that skinny women often don’t have so there’s only this overlap in the middle that’s considered ‘ideal’? And we all end up feeling self-concious about at least one thing that’s ‘wrong’ with us, so when you hear a comment directed at your insecurity, it always hurts, no matter if the rest of your body is considered ‘ideal’. Body standards and body shaming are two really annoying aspects of our culture and I hope that once we’re aware of them, we can all try to forego any comment on another woman’s body. (except maybe stating an objective fact, like ‘this body type was/is considered ideal’)

    Reply
  22. Meowskers

    If you try to cast a role like this and restrict yourself to the physical characteristics of that person then you are limiting yourself to only white people.
    What about talented black or Asian actors?
    Most people don’t actually KNOW what Catherine the Great looked like, why is that so important to the story? It’s not.
    And if there is something important like so and so was short and everyone else was tall giving her an inferiority complex that could easily be faked.
    Anyways, I care more about costumes and hair. :)
    (And if we’re so concerned let’s get rid of those teeth veneers!)

    Reply
  23. Avara Knights

    I don’t think Keira is too poorly cast. She has a great face, a little angular perhaps.. and clearly she is not as pear shaped as the Duchess of Devonshire. The Duke of Devonshire on the other hand is very poorly cast. He was only meant to be 25 when he married the 17 year old Georgina. Although politically incorrect to say so…. everyone is usually too dark in these 17th century period pieces. When you consider the lead paint or mercury/urine baths they were pouring all over their bodies; it could not be clearer, that pale alabaster like skin was the ‘beauty’ of the era.

    Reply
  24. melponeme_k

    The graphic of 100 years of female beauty shows MALE bodies. It is next to impossible for a woman to have shoulders wider than her hips. That is a male feature. It is also impossible for a woman to have shoulders that fit 3 head widths. Our shoulders are much narrower.

    What does this mean?

    Well look at big models and actresses. Are you really looking at women?

    Alternatively, many of the big male stars have HUGE hips.

    Really look at the regular people around you then look at media stars. Yeah, something is wrong.

    Reply
    • anniebuck

      I have shoulders wider than my hips. Most of the women in my family also have shoulders wider than their hips. I am also not a thin person, so it’s not as though I have exceedingly skinny hips. My shoulders are 46″ round and my hips are 43″.

      Reply
      • melponeme_k

        There are always exceptions. Men usually have a ring finger longer than their pointer finger. Women have pointer fingers that are the same size as their ring finger. I have small hands but my ring finger is longer. I think I’m one of the 3%(!) of women who have this feature.

        What does this mean? You have a body shape that is EXTREMELY uncommon. The odds of all the women in media being the same as you are extremely rare. Especially when ALL men have smaller hips by nature.

        This isn’t the only thing to look for. Is your skull large (male skulls are larger, they have larger brains than women). Are your hands large enough to cover your entire face including your forehead? Do have a brow ridge (men have larger eyes than women)? Are your arms extremely long? There is more to look for than just a single feature.

        Believe me, if all of this wasn’t true, they wouldn’t be teaching this in medical school or in anthropology classes.

        http://anthropology.si.edu/writteninbone/comic/activity/pdf/Skeleton_male_or_female.pdf

        Reply
          • melponeme_k

            I’m reading into it because I’m concerned for young women who are looking at these gifs and many media pictures, despairing that their bodies don’t look like what they see in media. In fact it will be physically impossible for them achieve this look. This is all very preventable.

            Reply

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