Deconstructed: How womanly curves have been lauded through history

Rihanna's curvy mannequins for Fenty and Nike's new plus-size figurines might be making headlines, but the curvaceous female form has long been coveted

Powered by automated translation

In 1908, archaeologist Josef Szombathy unearthed a tiny figurine in Austria. Undeniably a female form, the voluptuous carving was dubbed Venus of Willendorf, after the area in which it was discovered, and dates from between 28,000 BC and 25,000 BC. This figurine is miraculous not only for surviving for so long, but also for showing that in human prehistory, curvy women were prized enough to be immortalised as art.

Several other examples abound. The ancient Greeks worshipped Hera, the goddess of women, marriage and childbirth, who was often depicted with what are probably best described as matronly hips. The most famous depiction of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is the wonderfully rounded Venus de Milo in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The Romans, meanwhile, worshipped Juno, who was often depicted with heavy hips and armed for battle. They also worshipped Venus, who was painted by Botticelli in The Birth of Venus (in the 1480s), one of the world's most recognisable artworks that shows a woman with long blonde hair and a decidedly wobbly belly. A few centuries later, French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres painted his curvaceous La Grande Odalisque in 1814, which was a celebration not only of Europe's new obsession with the Middle East, but the perfect proportions of a woman.

Over most of these years, of course, European women were squeezing themselves into corsets designed to shrink the waist. While Coco Chanel may have championed a sportier figure (sans corset) during the 1920s, the fashion for curves didn't vanish overnight. Quite the contrary. The 1930s actress Jean Harlow stood just 5'1" tall, and was a comfortable UK size 12. Mae West was the same height and the equivalent of a UK size 16, while Marilyn Monroe stood at 5'5" and was a curvy UK size 12.

Nike's London flagship store has unveiled plus-size and para-sport mannequins. Courtesy Nike
Nike's London flagship store has unveiled plus-size and para-sport mannequins. Courtesy Nike

Only during the 1960s did curves really go out of style with the arrival of models such as Twiggy (so called because of her stick-like form) and Jean Shrimpton, signalling a shift towards a lean, almost boyish figure; perhaps it is no coincidence that Weight Watchers was founded in 1963. The look was downsized further with the arrival of Kate Moss and the waif look in the early 1990s.

In 1997, however, when the so-called supermodels were ruling the industry, plus-size model Emme appeared in People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful list, and became the first plus-sized model to star on a Times Square billboard. She also landed a beauty contract with Revlon in 1998. That same year, Ford Models became the first big-name agency to launch a plus-size division, called Ford+, and in 2010, one of its models, Crystal Renn, starred in five major advertising campaigns and seven fashion stories in Vogue, as well as walking in two Chanel runway shows.

In 2016, Ashley Graham (UK size 18) donned a bikini for her first cover for the magazine Sports Illustrated, becoming its first-ever plus-size model in the process. Graham has gone on to star in innumerable fashion shoots and advertising campaigns, and was appointed a judge on America's Next Top Model in 2018. She is now a vocal advocate for body confidence, and has designed her own lingerie line. Closer to home, in 2018 Tunisian-French model Ameni Esseibi became the UAE's first plus-sized signing.

This month, Nike’s London flagship store unveiled plus-size and para-sport mannequins, while earlier this week, singer, fashion designer and feminist champion Rihanna picked mannequins that were full-chested and curvy-hipped with realistically proportioned waistlines and even a little belly, prompting many to take to social media to express gratitude at seeing a figure that reflected their own body shape.