While fashion trends may speak to some of a society’s current values, there’s a difference between these body ideals versus real life, says Kjerstin Gruys, Ph.D. candidate at the UCLA Department of Sociology whose dissertation focuses on the evolution of clothing size standards in the fashion industry over the past century.
“It would be a mistake to assume that all women in the 1950s had a perfect hourglass physique,” she says. “A society’s ideal bodies are not necessarily the same as our real bodies were at any given time in history.” As she points out, “Why was Marilyn Monroe so famous? It wasn’t because she looked like everyone else, but because she looked so special.”
Gruys has compared women’s clothing in Sears catalogues between 1892 and today, which has offered her a fascinating window into fashion trend versus reality: “In the 50s, Sears advertised tons of highly structured undergarments, like girdles, for sale. It suggests that women were striving for that ideal, Monroe kind of body type, but clearly, it wasn’t so easy to achieve!” Another fun fact Gruys dug up: Marilyn Monroe's famously 23-inch waist was half an inch smaller than the tiniest size available at Sears in 1955.
Still, there’s no denying that over the decades, as the width and length of our fabric has increased, so have our average body sizes. According to a study commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control in 2002, the average height of women ages 20-74 rose from 5’3” in 1960 to 5’4” in 2002, where it remains today. The average weight for women in the same age group rose from 140 pounds to 164 pounds. A healthy weight for a 5’4” woman is between 110 and 140 pounds.
The study also found that women aged 20-29 were nearly 29 pounds heavier on average in 2002 compared to 1960. Perhaps the most alarming statistic: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that a whopping 64.1 percent of American women over the age of 20 are considered obese. Between 1950 and 2000, American obesity rose by 214 percent.
While we may be taller and curvier than ever—more fat equals larger breasts and bottoms—we’re far from hourglass: Some research links our expanding waistlines and extra belly fat to an increase in cortisol caused by modern-day stress. Our figures are more, gulp, barrel-like. The large-bottom line? No wonder those waist-cinching vintage clothes don’t fit.
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