The female form through time

Explore how the female silhouette has changed from the Victorian period to the modern day.

Corset (1941/1947) by AvroDiscovery Museum

Women have been artificially changing the shape of their bodies for centuries in order to follow the latest fashions. Body sculpting undergarments, padding and optical illusions have all been used to create the desired silhouette. Here we will look at some examples from the Victorian period up to the end of the 20th century.

Victorian corset (1866) by UnknownDiscovery Museum

Victorian (1837-1901)

While fashions and dress styles changed, women wore corsets throughout the Victorian period. This corset, dating from the 1866, opens at the front and is pulled tight with laces at the back to create a small waist, smooth hips and full bust. The health problems associated with wearing corsets were well documented in the press but there was social pressure on women to wear them. The tightness of a lady's corset was believed to reflect her sense of propriety, hence the term ‘straight laced’ or ‘loose woman’.

Underskirt (1860/1870) by UnknownDiscovery Museum

Several layers of stiff petticoats, called crinolines, or hoop skirts would be worn underneath dresses to keep their shape. This was very hot and unhygienic. In 1856, the cage crinoline was invented, this was a supportive frame of steel hoops worn beneath the dress. It was lightweight and provided support for the large skirt without the need to wear so many petticoats.

Purple and black silk dress (1841/1844) by UnknownDiscovery Museum

This dress dates from the early 1840s and shows the large bell-shaped dresses that were popular at the start of the Victorian period. These huge skirts made moving around difficult for women.

Mdme Hamley dress (1887) by Mdme HamleyDiscovery Museum

From the mid 1860s to the mid 1880s the emphasis of the skirt moved to the back. Padding was worn to create the exaggerated shape we can see here.

Outfit, bodice and skirt. (1897) by UnknownDiscovery Museum

In the last decade of the century dresses became more slimline and tailored with an A-Line skirt. These outfits gave women more opportunity to take part in exercise and sports, such as hiking and tennis, more comfortably.

Fenwick catalogue (1900) by FenwickDiscovery Museum

Edwardian (1901-1910)

In the Edwardian period the s-bend silhouette became desirable. This involved a full bust and bottom, creating an exaggerated shape. This shape was created through the use of corsets and clothing styles that emphasised the bust and waist, as well as padding at the back of the skirt.  

Evening dress (1911/1914) by UnknownDiscovery Museum

1910s and the Great War (1914-1918)

High necked and flouncy blouses, paired with long A-line skirts and several layers of undergarments, remained the fashion of choice but by 1910 ‘hobble’ skirts were becoming popular. These were dresses and skirts that tapered towards the bottom of the skirt, becoming quite tight around the ankles in some cases. This style was incredibly difficult to wear, hampering movement drastically.

Dress and coat (1917/1920) by UnknownDiscovery Museum

During the Great War clothes became simpler in style. Many housemaids changed careers to do war work, leaving wealthier women to dress themselves, in many cases, for the very first time. Towards the end of the decade a barrel shape had emerged, as shown in this coat and dress ensemble.

Silk chiffon dress (1927) by HandsewnDiscovery Museum


The 1920s saw dramatic social changes as the impact of the Great War radically altered society. Women were gradually granted the vote and other social freedoms, such as smoking and wearing make-up, became more widespread. Dresses became simplified in their cut in this decade and waistlines dropped. This obscured a woman’s shape and created the androgynous, childlike silhouette typical of the period.  Hemlines became shorter, to the knee sometimes, showing off a woman’s legs for the first time. The wearing of corsets was no longer in favour and simple crop tops were worn.  

Wedding dress (1934) by GeorgesDiscovery Museum


The main influence on fashion in the 1930s was Hollywood and its film stars. A more fluid, soft and feminine female shape came back into vogue in this decade, directly opposing the androgynous and geometric look of the 1920s. People craved a simple, elegant and luxurious look and a more natural female figure. Evening dresses became full length, creating an elongated silhouette. Dresses cut on the bias became fashionable as this allowed the material to cling to the body, emphasising curves. 

Acques dress (1941/1945) by AcquesDiscovery Museum


The Second World War, and the resulting rationing of fabric, was the main influence on fashion in the 1940s. Many women replaced men in the workplace, meaning they had to  swap dresses for dungarees and overalls. Skirt lengths became shorter, in order to use less fabric. Shoulders were highly padded, creating the typical square box silhouette of the time. Corsets had been abandoned in the 1920s but shapewear was definitely back by the 1940s.

Wendy dress (1960) by WendyDiscovery Museum


The introduction of Dior’s New Look (so named by Carmel Snow, editor in chief of American Harper's Bazaar) in 1947 led the way for the fashion styles of the coming decade. The ‘New Look’ consisted of a full flared skirt, cinched tight at the natural waistline, worn with large petticoats to create volume. It was a very feminine look, emphasising an hourglass figure.

Mini-dress (1965/1970) by UnknownDiscovery Museum


The wide skirts of the previous decade remained fashionable into the 1960s. However later in the decade the mini skirt arrived and became popular with young women. These dresses showed off the wearers legs but were often unfitted and hid natural curves. 

Florrie Carr dress (1971) by Florrie CarrDiscovery Museum


There was a wider variety of styles in the 1970’s than had been seen before. There was an emphasis on individuality and personal style. Long, short and midi lengths skirts were all in fashion. This gave women more freedom to dress for their shape rather than making their shape fit the current trends. Women's and men’s fashions started to overlap. There emerged styles that could be worn by everyone, these included flares, platform shoes, batwing collars and denim for casual wear.  

Two-piece suit (1985) by St Michael for Marks and SpencerDiscovery Museum


The fashion of this decade was flashy and bold, which reflected the booming international economy of this time. 'Power suits' emerged that were designed to make women feel professional and confident when taking on jobs that had previously been unavailable to them. The padded shoulders and blazers mimicked men's clothing. 

Shell suit (1990) by ReebokDiscovery Museum


As the century came to a close the last decade of fashion became more diverse than ever before. Sportswear and casual apparel were very popular, shell suits disguised curves. The grunge movement came across from Seattle, loose fitting dresses were worn with oversized denim jackets and baggy jeans were popular, further masking a woman's shape. 

Jeans (2009) by Kate MossDiscovery Museum


The 2000s have given women more room to express their own individuality with their choice of clothing. The difference between women's and men's fashion has continued to narrow, reflecting women's increasing roles in all sections of society. Body positivity has become more mainstream and, thankfully, women manipulating their bodies in uncomfortable garments for the latest trends has become less prevalent.

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