Western Fashions

For the Western fashion historian, the corset is perhaps the first example of extreme fashion that comes to mind. Stiffened underbodices were worn by women from the 1400s through the early twentieth century. The corset, or "stays" as they were also called, was condemned when incidents of "tight-lacing," to make the waist appear as small as possible, began to appear. In that form, it was seen as deforming and detrimental to women's health almost from its inception. However, not all societies value a diminished female waistline; in Japan the waist is emphasized but not minimized with the obi—a wide sash of contrasting fabric—wrapped over the kimono, and tied at the back with an elaborate knot of huge proportions.

The exaggerated skirt appeared in the form of the round sixteenth-century farthingale, the wide eighteenth-century pannier, and nineteenth-century hoopskirt or crinoline. All of these skirt shapes in their largest forms could prevent a woman from moving freely. In her classic study of undergarments, Norah Waugh surmises that upper-class women could afford to be more physically burdened by fashion, as they were not required to be active, as in battle. This premise has led to a situation where women's fashion is more often criticized for its extreme manifestations in Western society, but men have participated in extreme displays as well.

The pleated collar known as a ruff is one example of a style worn by both sexes in Western Europe, notably at the court of Elizabeth I. It developed from a simple embellishment of the collar and grew to the cartwheel proportions evident in portraits of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The face-framing function of the ruff was appreciated by men and women alike.

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