Full-bodied skirts with padded bustles, molded corsets, crinoline petticoats, and pannier style frames are more reminiscent of the fuller-figured, bottom-accentuating fashions of the late Renaissance and Victorian periods than a contemporary Alexander McQueen ready-to-wear collection. But for SS19, Sarah Burton’s “celebration of womanhood” embraces these age-old design techniques to present a curvier figure – where the bum is once again in favor. Previously confined to music videos featuring Sisqó and awestruck mentions of JLo, the bottom has muscled its way into the hearts of fashion’s top brass. Sourcing original vintage dresses and photographs by Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron for inspiration, Burton added modern elements like chunky waist cinching belts, side-pleated dresses, and leather-sculpted skirts to add volume around the hips and buttocks, with curvy model Jill Kortleve displaying the garments with aplomb. Burton’s isn’t a lone voice. Corseted and nipped-in waists, fuller skirts, and bodycon dresses made an appearance at Balmain, Matty Bovan, Elie Saab, and Zuhair Murad’s SS19 collections. Size-inclusive models displayed curvy behinds at Christian Siriano and Chromat; Ashley Graham walked for Michael Kors and Dolce & Gabbana; and Prabal Gurung gave his activewear-inspired collection a bootylicious edge, not only using curvy models in figure-hugging jersey dresses but applying pull cords from climbing equipment to highlight the waist and hips in his sportier looks.
This sartorial homage to the bottom isn’t new. Pigalle Tavakkoli, a lecturer in fashion history at Central Saint Martins in London, says the lens of fashion has moved up and down the female form for centuries. “During certain periods, the spotlight was kept firmly on the voluptuousness of the hips and buttocks,” she explains. “These traits acted as primal signals of fertility, in particular the scale of buttocks indicating the shape and size of the pelvis, signalling the promise of a woman’s reproductive abilities to ensure the successful propagation of the species.”
It isn’t just fertility that makes the bum a popular fashion feature. Dr Veronica Isaac, curator, dress historian, and lecturer at the University of Brighton, says, “The relationship between the female body and fashion has been shaped by social and cultural factors, relating to gender roles, class, and ideas about wealth (and how you communicate it), together with social etiquette regarding gesture and movement and control of the body.” In the 18th century, there was a fashion for extremely wide skirts, supported on panniers, she continues. “The width of these skirts demonstrated that you could afford to wear a garment made from a great deal of expensive silk, whereas during the 19th and early 20th century, ideas about the attractive body type had a significant influence on fashion, and appropriate underwear was required to shape the body into the of-the-moment silhouette. Design elements can be traced back to and beyond the 16th century, with women wearing ‘farthingales’ (structured underskirts) and ‘bum rolls’ to add fullness at the waist and rear.”
In more modern times, Christian Dior’s designs in the late 1940s brought the focus back to a nipped in waist and rounded hips through the use of highly structured corsets, hip pads sewn directly into the garments, and full-flowing skirts – a trend that continued into the following decade, championed by screen sirens like Marilyn Monroe. The use of corsetry re-emerged in the 1990s, with designers such as Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano at Christian Dior, and Jean Paul Gaultier. “This culminated with Alexander McQueen’s controversial ‘bumster’ trousers, shifting focus on the bust by dropping the waistline of tightfitting pants to skim below the hips and reveal buttock cleavage,” comments Tavakkoli.
It’s not just the Western world that has favored the posterior curves of the female form. From classical Arabic literature of the seventh and eighth centuries, where men praise the narrow waists and large bottoms of women in their songs and poetry, to the depiction in images and prose of the voluptuous hips and buttocks of Scheherazade, the Middle Eastern hero and storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. The eighteenth century Egyptian Almeh dancing girls would dress in skirts that showed off a narrow waist and large hips and buttocks. Meanwhile, the golden age of Egyptian cinema saw silhouettes echo that of the femme fleur as sculpted by Monsieur Dior in France.
Despite designers like Yousef Aljasmi, Reem Acra, Elie Saab, and Georges Chakra gracing red carpets with their bootyhugging creations, talking about the buttocks can still be taboo in the Middle East. But the region’s ties to the most famous bottoms in the world remain solid; with the Kardashian sisters attributing their curves to their Armenian roots. With growing celebrity and catwalk coverage, the big bottom has become desirable among the masses. The internet is saturated with exercises to grow your glutes, tips on which separates can accentuate your rear, where to buy “butt lifting” jeans, bootyshaping workout leggings, and padded underwear. Now, women are taking to even more extreme methods to achieve the perfect posterior.
Dr Laurentiu Blaga, specialist plastic surgeon at CosmeSurge, has seen a spike in the requests for buttock augmentation treatments in the Middle East. “The buttock size is of utmost importance, and compared to the European ideal of small, thin thighs, larger JLo hips are on trend here,” he explains. “Generally, the hourglass is considered a desirable feminine body shape and liposuction, followed by the Brazilian butt lift, is high on the list of requests. This is an innovative way of diminishing the waistline circumference through lipoaspiration of the love handles, abdomen, and lower back and then using this fat to enhance the buttocks by fat transplant.”
Naturally, such surgical procedures come with risks: “There is the option of silicone implants, which are bound with infection, bleeding, and misplacement,” explains Dr Blaga. “The fat transfer option has been linked to intravascular injections, lung embolism, and even death, but numbers are so small that it does not seem to stop patients or surgeons.” Is there anything positive to take away from the desire for a surgically enhanced derriere? Dr Isaac thinks so. “A more positive and empowering perspective might be to ask whether it could be interpreted as a reclamation, and celebration of the fuller, curvier, and South American body type, previously rejected by white colonial commentators in the 18th and 19th centuries, as ‘other’ and undesirable.” Meanwhile, after centuries of looking West for fashion and body ideals, Arab women can count on the support of regional designers, who are more than ever setting international trends and influencing society to champion a silhouette that is wholly theirs.