We have to acknowledge that in this day and age – as it has forever been – beauty matters. Our definition of beauty is based on the media saturation which we are bombarded with on a daily basis. For instance, the idea of tanned = gorgeous has only appeared recently — it would stand to reason that with all the lead-based paints and powder that was used, pale was beautiful as it indicated that you had no need to stand about in the sun all day. As a society, we perceive people who have traits which we consider admirable: self restraint, indefatigable dedication to an idea, sacrifice to epitomise the current standards of beauty – mirrored so closely in the way we view the working world. So we end up with the size zero models and body-builders with ripped stomachs and veined arms as a societal idea.
Personally, all that leaves me completely cold. I find the rabid insistence in gay stories – but most especially gay historical – that people should conform to the current societal archetype of beauty slightly mad. Let’s be honest, it is not ALL that likely we see the majority of people conform to this ideal – if we did, it would be damn unlikely to be an aspiration! I like to see real people in books – be they consumptive clerks with weak arms and eyes from peering over the books all day, be they well-upholstered married aristocrats whose only exercise is taken between the front door and the handsome cab. While a cavalry solider would have a fantastic rear-end and muscled thighs, and depending on his weapons a certain amount of muscular development in the shoulders and back (Medieval knights looked like Props in rugby – muscle upon muscle with a massive amount of shoulder and neck development to support all the armour and thick solid waists to enable them both to shift and move and to take the impact of a swords’-blow).
Of course, lacking a tardis, I can’t go back in time and drag examples of said bodies to parade before you. And – as any artist knows – when one is being painted, one likes to be flattered – so I can’t really tell you that the painted historical record holds true of anything other than the upper-class archetypical view (think of today, you’d think we’re all size 0 if you believed Cosmo), but what it can do, with a bit of extrapolation, is provide a basis for what was revered, and the obvious counterpoint of what was the norm.
For the time periods, I’m shamelessly nicking the structure of “The List” from Speak Its Name. If perchance you’re a new Macaroni (fresh-mac? mini-mac?) you may want to go and check out this fantastic and pretty exhaustive list of MM fiction here: http://speakitsname.com/the-list/
By virtue of available and accessible historical documentation, a lot of this going to be western-centric. Note that this is a VERY ROUGH OVERVIEW and is taking the overarching concept rather than the nitty details.
CAVEAT: This deals with beauty in the ideal form, and what was admired as can be extrapolated through art. This therefore, while based in fact, does have a certain amount of interpretation, so feel free to discuss. However (as always) discussion should pertain to the point of this, which is a holistic overview of beauty rather than the detailed nuances. If people find this interesting, I may do a post on how jobs/circumstances affected musculature which would have changed how people were actually built and how they would have looked — as Alex Beecroft pointed out — sailors for instance would have had amazing upper body strength but relatively undeveloped lower bodies from all their wandering up and down the rigging (I am sure there is a technical term for that).
In the ancient world, transport and war were both pursuits carried out predominantly on foot and with an emphasis on speed. Between this and the idealisation of young men, it is therefore relatively obvious that the idealised young man would be one who was lightly muscled, had low body fat, and was developed in an equal fashion across his body. He had only light armour — if any — and so did not require a heavy shoulder musculature to keep weighty armour up. The advent of the Olympics as a trial for men (as well as the ‘unspeakable vice of the Greeks’) fed into this perception of male beauty. Note that while these statues are both lightly defined, there are no striations or veins that would be the hallmark of a body builder. Instead the physique is of someone who improves themselves through normal pursuits.
Now, besides this being a post for me to wave about half-dressed rugby players (YAY!) and write the word “Knigget”, there is a serious point on the musculature of people who wore plate or chain mail armour, as did the Knights in the Dark Ages. The weight of the armour hung about the neck, as illustrated above. Now, while they were on a horse, this was probably not so much of a problem, but just think about moving around in that weight, in that heat, swinging a clunking great sword with all that pulling down on your shoulders. No bloody wonder a knight needed pages — they were built like – if you pardon my French – a brick shithouse, and had the same ability to move!
This was a time when there was little to eat, the peasants were being pushed on all sides –by their Lords and their Churches, who needed their tithes, and to support the great peregrinations such as those of Henry VIII (such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold) and with the massed court that travelled with them. Between this and the incessant feudal and national wars meant that the average person was unlikely to be very well nourished. One therefore finds that the style of masculine beauty tends to an almost angelically clear and smooth skin, with a slight fleshiness that belies poverty.
The renaissance was — as the name suggests — an obvious return to classical ideals. Great founts of knowledge were springing up, and the old Greco-Roman notions of patronage and taking someone under your wing (with all that entailed) reared up again. There was a near-worship for creation, for genesis. This ideal of young, male beauty was pulled to the fore, both because it suited classical ideals, and because some of the easiest models for a master artist to get their hands on were their young male apprentices. We can see from the statue to the side, though, that while there is greater definition than in the Middle Ages, it is nothing that someone who was able to do a great deal of physical labour would not have. Note the lack of striae on David’s stomach, and then contrast that with the detail of his hand — it is not that there was an accepted fluidity in the portrayal that allowed details to be glossed over. Rather, the six-pack did not exist in the idea of fundamental male beauty.
We now move onto the 17th century where it became one’s duty is to look prosperous and well fleshed in clothing. Observe the way the coats on the 17th Century dress patterns are strained. It is quite difficult to find 17th century statues without clothing — this was the era of empire building , and the idea of nudity became associated not with the cleanliness of the Renaissance, but with the savages of the new world. There was a duty in the western world — promoted both by church and state — to show one’s superiority, which was greatly fetishized in the ridiculous accoutrements which denoted statues (see sumptuary laws). One’s body appears to have become wither a tool, or something shameful. This is one of those periods in history where you’d be more likely to consider the fact that someone is well fleshed as a positive thing.
The eighteenth century was very much a continuation of the same morals and ideas promulgated in the 17th, as the scope and vastness of the empires grew, but the essential avariciousness behind them didn’t. A Highly formalised pragmatism came to be seen in male dress, while women were very much idealised as ethereal virgins. In response to the growing middle class being able to ape the fashions of the elite, the dress of some members of society who were able do the Grand Tour took to aping the more outlandish continental fashions of the day. Contemporary sources cite the macaronis as being those completely jaded by life — it sounds like Pratchett got it right when he parodied it as The Grand Sneer. From a physical point of view, as the paintings show, there was still an appreciation of people being well fleshed to indicate prosperity.
The 19th century was dominated by the rise of the middle class. A differentiation both in dress and in physical characteristics was therefore required. Enter the concept of the dandy — a much more subdued offshoot of the macaronis. With the idea of being beautiful for beauty’s sake, the ideals of the dandy went back to those of the renaissance. But *grin* with a little bit of help, it was in this century that the Cumberland corset etc. became common wear for men to create that pinched-waisted look that was so prized and the mark of a man who had to do nothing for his money but exist. The men shown epitomise this physical aspect, it is almost effete and feminine, which would mean they’d have little time to build muscle — that was the preserve of those who had to work for a living.