The Fit New Body

A hit song in My Fair Lady, which opened on Broadway in 1956, had the refrain “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” sung by the misogynist Professor Higgins. In fact, he was too late. Women were already more like men than most men realised. We’re not talking the feminist mind-set here, but the whole question of the female body and its culture. Corsets had already gone, and bras were to follow in the next decade. The cult of the toned and tanned body had begun. But there were some who were a jump ahead, demanding that the feminine body be treated exactly as the male.
This meant a lot more than not shaving under the arms. The idea that the female body could be powerfully muscled and still look not only sexy but feminine was brought home with
Lady, a book of erotic photographs of the American body builder Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe, which has influenced Steven Meisel with his photos of Madonna, and Herb Ritts with Cindy Crawford. Leather, rubber, bondage and fetishism were all explored in the photographs, but most powerful were images showing the magnificence of Lyon’s body in traditional ways: in a ball gown, wearing an elegant picture hat or, as here, in a provocative bikini by the American swimwear designer Liza Bruce. The effect they had was to make us question what a modern feminine body should be.
And we’re still questioning. For many, the powerful body remains a male prerogative, and for women to cultivate it, antifeminine. For others, it is a positive role model to counter the stick-thin archetype of fashion perfection. Yet few people today are ready for fashion models to assume highly developed biceps; and just look at the hysterical reaction to Madonna’s muscle-bound arms. Things are changing, however. We’re talking a new toughness in which fashion echoes what is happening in society. In 2001, we were surprised to see tattooed models showing the glamorous clothes of top fashion designers. Two seasons later, they looked perfect wearing ultra-feminine ball gowns, with Omahyra Mota and Eleonora Bose, butch stars of the catwalk in the early years of this century, carrying forward ideas first promoted by Lyon and Mapplethorpe 20 years ago. What appealed about their uncompromising runway presence is the way their boyish looks were matched by feminine figures: a frisson fashion has looked for since the days of Caravaggio.
(First published September 2002)

Picture Source, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Lisa Lyon, 1981