Conference Paper

Building a Better Body: Fashions for the Stout Woman, 1915-1931


Lauren Downing Peters

Association for Art History


Speaking to the Richmond Times-Dispatch in April 1916 Albert Malsin, an engineer-turned-fashion designer, expounded the underlying principles of his design practice. Invoking the high-minded discourses of architecture, he explained to the newspaper that he could think of “nothing better for the designer of clothing for stout people to keep…in mind than one of the great Gothic cathedrals” in creating the “pleasing illusion of height” and of “weightlessness.” Using Malsin’s modernist design ideology as a starting point, this paper will examine the visual and textual discourses of “stoutwear” design in early-twentieth century fashion media (i.e. fashion and women’s magazines, fashion plates and trade journals). Embedding this research within a broader consideration of the relationship between bodies, architecture and modernism, I argue that the mediums and discourses of fashion can open up pathways for thinking about the body itself as “designed.” As sociologist Joanne Entwistle has observed, “human bodies are dressed bodies,” and therefore dress may be regarded as the armature or, to borrow an architectural phrase, scaffolding of the social body. Drawing upon this notion, this paper argues that “stoutwear” was a vital medium for bringing order to the disorderly fat, female body—one which also evidences the web of power in which bodies, and particularly women’s bodies, are entangled.

Drawing upon the literature and methodologies employed within the interdisciplinary field of fashion studies, this paper will examine the broader visual culture in which the stout body was produced, juxtaposing images of disorderly or “failed” bodies (e.g. caricatures, weight loss advertisements, etc.) with representations of the fat, female body utterly transformed through the medium of stoutwear. Less reminiscent of stylized and attenuated fashion illustrations than of architectural blueprints, these richly textural, schematic renderings provide a rare glimpse into the discourses and ideals that undergirded stoutwear manufacturers’ desire to “build a better body”—an idea that resonates in fashion discourse and practice to this day.

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  • Status:
    Work in progress
  • Type:
    Conference Paper (peer reviewed)
  • Conference:
    Association For Art History
  • Language:



About the Author

Lauren Downing Peters

Lauren Downing Peters is a PhD student at the Centre for Fashion Studies. Prior to beginning her studies at the Centre, Lauren graduated summa kum laude from Washington University in St. Louis where she received her BA in art history and anthropol... Read more