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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Do You Know that African Women Inspired 19th Century European Fashion?

Several years ago in the 1990s, I was flipping through a British fashion magazine which was discussing the science behind the well sculptured dresses; bustles from the Victorian era (1800s) which enhanced women's features especially the bust and the buttocks area. Back then I could not help but observe the striking similarities between the dresses and the physical features of African women, especially Southern African
women known to be very, very voluptuous. See images.
Not long ago, I was reading about the 'Hottentot Venus'; I recall reading about Hottentot Venus figurines with exaggerated genitals in one of my mother's books on African Pre-History. The term flashed through my mind so I became curious to know more about the Hotenttot Venus. What I found completely left me dumbfounded. I will not go into details about the enlarged genitals in this blog post as I am more interested in how her presence in early 19th Century Europe may have influenced the fashion of the era.
Around 1811, a Khoisan woman from Southern Africa named Sarah Baartman was brought to Europe on display because of her enormous breasts, genitals and buttocks. Her features caused so much frenzy that even Charles Darwin  alluded that 'the posterior part of the body (which) projects in a wonderful manner' inspired the transformative bustle which seemed to enhance the sexual appeal of the 18th century women. Sander Gilman an American Cultural and Literary Historia, in 1985 also admitted that there was a nineteenth century fascination with Sarah Baartman's behind.
One shocking poem from the 19th Century by Berry Printer, sums it up - it explains how the presence of the Hottentot Venus (Sarah Baartman) overthrew  hitherto perceived notions of art, entertainment and a woman's sexuality. According to him in a ballad;
'The fashionables...are stiring every stump with pads, and hoops... to imitate her rump.
In days of yore.... a sterling English play was then to men of sense a feast, but now a Hottentot's the rage - good Lord, how chang'd is taste!'
While it has been widely reported that the young woman suffered humiliation in the hands of her captors who saw her as nothing more than a creature worthy to be displayed like an animal in a circus, the fact remains clear; with the racism of the time, she was objectified and with her tribe, relegated to the lowest rung of humans in the evolution ladder. If she and her kind inspired the fashion of an era, that implies that her shape was desired and secretly admired. So when you feel like you have to conform to stereotypes about what a woman's body should look like to be beautiful and desirable, take heart and be more confident. You may just be more beautiful than you know.
This post is part of my series 'Towards a New Media Redefinition of Womanhood in the 21st century'. You can catch the previous one here

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