Fleeting fashion trends come and go but behind the mainstays of sex appeal are stories, statistics and legend...
A slick of red lipstick is the timeless weapon of choice for the femme fatale, and with good reason. Scientists at Manchester University have used eye-tracking software to prove that men are hopelessly drawn to a bright red mouth. When shown photographs of a women for 10 seconds each, men spent 7.3 seconds looking at red lips compared to only 0.95 seconds on the eyes. Pink lipstick held the gaze for just 6.7 seconds.
And perhaps it’s because that flash of Chanel Rouge Allure is nothing less than a glimpse into a girl’s knickers. Naturalist Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses, summarises the leading anthropological theory on lipstick: “The lips remind us of the labia, because they flush red and swell when they’re aroused, which is the conscious or subconscious reason women have always made them look even redder with lipstick.”
Rouge has been used since Ancient Egyptian times and has been popular in Britain since the Renaissance, when the population was so sickly looking that even the men needed a cosmetic perk up. Along with lipstick, Queen “Killjoy” Victoria banned rouge, so a century of women were left furiously pinching their cheeks to fake a rosy glow.
In times of plague and pestilence, rouge was a mask of health. It fakes hearty circulation and a hot-blooded flush – no wonder NARS now make a blusher called Orgasm. And no wonder we still love blusher – with our modern day obsession with youth, how could we resist a cosmetic that calls to mind chubby pink baby cheeks?
Excluding a flat-chested plateau in the 1920s, a full bosom is an enduring obsession. Thanks to Pam Anderson et al we don’t bat an eyelid at bras that look more like a melon stand but the push up look really took off with Wonderbra’s 1994 Hello Boys advert. The posters, starring Eva Herzegovia, were blamed for causing car crashes across the world.
So why do we drink in a cup that overfloweth? The theory goes that cleavage mimics the buttocks, which is how four-legged animals signal sex – just think of the baboon…
They might not have had the Wonderbra, but a heaving cleavage was all the rage from the renaissance right up to Victorian times. For centuries women were laced into corsets with waists as small as 18 inches, despite the potential damage as internal organs were squeezed and scrambled. Legend has it that the corset was made fashionable by the French queen Catherine de’Medici, who banned thick waists at court during the 1550s.
Originally known as stays, corsets were a mainstay of fashion from the 16th century all the way through to the 1920s – and you could argue they’ve now been replaced by Spanx.
Small waists are supposed to be a sign of high oestrogen levels and fertility. Even now, doctors recommend a large hip to waist ratio as an indicator of health – so maybe our ancestors were on to something when looking for a mate. And of course, a tiny corseted waist also emphasises full breasts and child-bearing hips – all signs of fertility.
Until the 1920s a suntan was associated with the working classes who laboured in the sun. Pale and interesting was very much ‘in’, since only the rich and pampered could afford to be untouched by the sun’s rays.
But in the 1920s the fashion designer Coco Chanel caught the sun while on holiday and suddenly a tan was the height of style. Just as pale skin had once represented wealth, in the age of commercial flights a suntan soon symbolised enough disposable income to go on holiday abroad. A tan was associated with classiness and exclusivity. Thanks to Jordan and The Only Way is Essex, it looks like we’re coming full circle…