Have our bodies changed shape in the last century?

posted in: Designing, History of fashion | 17

Ever since Terri the Tailor drew my attention to it, I have been wondering about the changing shape, through history, of the male physique. There are two things at stake here. Firstly there is the actual changing body shape due to changes in diet and lifestyle. Secondly there is the change in the “ideal” male body – the sort of body which is seen as desirable throughout modern culture, which to some extent men will aspire to. They may seek to change their body shape through dieting, weight lifting, surgery etc. Contemporary fashions will flatter and emphasise the contemporary, desirable shape.

In terms of the underlying raw material young men today have longer legs than previous generations, mainly because of our improved diet. During their childhood the legs grow faster than the upper body and if food is scarce or poor quality then the legs will not make it up later. 100 years ago men were significantly shorter than they are today, lighter (by about two stone/30lbs/13kgs), and died younger.
Class differences were very obvious in terms of physique, height, weight, child mortality and age at death. When working class men were required to fight in the Boer war doctors found they were in very poor physical shape (this led to many of the social reforms that the Liberal Party introduced).  Most were anaemic and suffering vitamin deficiency. They would have had weaker bones and poor dental health. Although medical advances have helped fight disease, diet and lifestyle are thought to be mainly responsible for changes in the shape and health of our bodies. The average man was only 5′ 3″ in 1900 (women were 5′ 1″), but poorer people until the 1930s were two or three inches shorter. They were three stone lighter than they are today, even taking account of the increases in height.
1870s, 1930s, 1960s, 1980s, 1990s to present



Babies were born small and during this period, there was unlikely to be any ante-natal care and babies would often be fed diluted cows milk. As a consequence in the 1920s the average young woman would have measurements of  31″ bust, 20″ waist and 32″ hips, mainly due to poor nutrition. Basic food was generally prepared, and sometimes grown, at home. Certainly most people lead a much more active life in terms of their work, house work, leisure activities and getting about. PE was compulsory in the schools. Housework was gruelling – washing by hand, lighting and cleaning out fires, heating water etc – these tasks took hours of heavy physical labour.


Despite the war years the “scientific” approach to nutrition that lay behind universal rationing ensured that working class people ate butter, and the rich corned beef, for the first time. Milk was introduced in schools where all children drank it, contributing to the strengthening of the national bones and the lengthening of legs. The overall improvement in nutrition increased women’s bodies by about one inch, compared to the 1920s, with an average 33 inch bust. Due to the shortage of petrol and cars many people did lots of walking, helping everyone stay fit and relatively slim.

The very feminine shapes adopted by women after the war – the new look, delicate hosiery, “bullet” bras, – all contributed to the curvy, feminine silhouette and well-defined waist. And the ideal man had a reasonable physique, but looking at these pictures of Clark Gable, John Wayne and Gregory Peck we can see that they all have a rather natural “well-built” look.

Gable, Wayne and Peck
Gable, Wayne and Peck


Women and Men were still relatively slim in the 1960s, and some of the most iconic women – such as Twiggy – had an almost child like figure. The reaction against masculinity and the consumer society meant that middle class men started to adopt a more feminine look with long hair, soft and slighter figures and a somewhat “unhealthy” look from today’s standpoint. Everyone was getting taller and men were now, on average, 7″ taller than they were at the turn of the century. The average woman’s “vital statistics” were 34-24-35. Life started to become much more sedentary – car use, the TV and the explosion in the availability of convenience food – much of it sweetened and enriched with fat.

Jagger, Plant and Lennon
Jagger, Plant and Lennon


The female figure continued to expand with the average statistics now being 35-24-37. Women were becoming “bottom heavy” with the hips being, on average two inches larger than the bust.

Our life became more sedentary over the last century in terms of changes in the nature of work, and leisure time moved from children playing outdoor games to a focus on TV and computer games. During the 1980s exercise classes became fashionable and people like Jane Fonda fought ageing through vigorous exercise and men got into body-building in a big way.

Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damm
Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damm


By now not only had the hips expanded the average woman’s waist was 4″ bigger than it had been in the 1980s. Although we consume fewer calories than 60 years ago we lead far less active lifestyles. There is now widespread concern about childhood obesity and the impact of sedentary lifestyles of the body. Health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension all lead to premature death. Today 63 per cent of men are either overweight or obese.


While obesity and high levels of chronic ill-health conditions caused or encouraged by our unhealthy lifestyles and toxic environments are the norm,  the ideal body is probably a one that is young, fit and healthy. David Beckham has nearly universal appeal as he is tall, lean, muscular and strong without being overdeveloped. His body is not intimidating, despite his sporting prowess and his image as a family man in touch with his feminine side is important. The “metro-sexual” physique is not that different from the type of body young women also aspire to today. Slim, but not anorexic, toned, healthy and fit.

David Beckham



17 Responses

  1. Jay

    The ideal or popular look definitely changes with fashion. Nutrition changes have deeper effect. We see the influence of cheap sugars in diet, the removal of school milk and vitamin rich cod liver oil and orange juice (given to children in the post war years as I recall), and now wait for the results using hunger as a political weapon through benefit cuts and sanctions. And yes, my shape has changed in the last decade too!

  2. Giorgia

    This makes a lot of sense. I’m particularly drawn to the idea of how prepackaged food, aggressive marketing and hyper-active lifestyle standards are changing not only the way we interact with each other but also our physical shape. There are all sorts of habits we are picking up that are changing our standards and are mostly a consequence of needs artificially engineered to promote sales.

    Food for thought K!

  3. Rebecca

    On a slightly related topic, I teach art history and I always point out how the female body has changed through the centuries. Our idea of beauty in the female body is actually much more malleable than the male. Look at Michelangelo’s David and that statue is not that different from David Beckham’s very handsome physique. Looking at female nudes through the centuries, however, gives us a very different opinion of ‘beauty’ as the eras progress. Very interesting topic – thanks so much for sharing!

    • fabrickated

      A very good point Rebecca. I guess the female side has been discussed alot so I thought I would read up – and share – what I could about the men. Now I am sewing for blokes I felt I needed a bit more background…

  4. Linda Galante

    Lots to think about here! I love the feminine shapes of the forties and the natural ‘heft’ of the male physique of Gable and Peck. But wearing clothes that were designed back then is so difficult unless you have a tiny bumble bee waist (I do not). I just visited a exhibit of ball gowns worn by local women in the early 1900’s. They were so, so, small that the beautiful dresses remind me of doll clothes. You can really see the consequences of poor nutrition.

  5. Hila

    I think that people’s physiques are going to change into a more stooped back (as a consequence of constantly looking down at a screen) with enlarged stronger digits (for increased screen swiping stamina). So glad you mentioned the holy trinity of my childhood movie memories: JCVD, Stallone and Arnie! I hadnt thought about those guys in a long time. I dont find David Beckham at all physically attractive. Sam Heughan is the epitome of the male physique IMHO .

  6. BMGM

    Where are you getting these statistics? Are they for UK only? I’ve looked at the US and Japanese statistics and there are minor to significant differences from this.

    The US Center for Disease Control and Department of Defense (uniforms) have long records of anthropometric data, much of which is online. The Japanese public health system also publishes data in academic journal articles, which I have downloaded while at .edu libraries.


  7. Stephanie

    I second BMGM that the data can be quite different when you look across continents. One of the most fascinating types of data to look at in economic history is from military records showing how size and weight changed in different cohorts impacted by different economic events lIke major crop failure. That said, the general point is there. Personally I like intellectual types so the David Beckhams of the world get a “meh” from me. Bring on the stooped and uncool.

    • Hila

      Beckham might also be intellectual. I feel bound to defend the stereotype that muscle-y is not intellectual. My older brother is an intellectual and works as a high level arctuary, but he also loves bodybuilding. So he is like a Van Damme in corporate suits. At 6 ft 5″ he is huge and looks like a bouncer – which is quite funny when people finally meet him in person. Apparently its always hilarious watching someone have a paradigm shift in front of your eyes while they try to reconcile 2 opposing stereotypes. Just saying Beckham might also love reading Nietzsche

      • Stephanie

        PS I know many athletes, including Olympians, who have been highly successful in intellectual pursuits. I thought my tone would communicate my intention but next time will leave a smiley.

  8. Bunny

    Very interesting post. I remember watching kids come out of school when my girls were in high school. As a group they were far heavier than my high school generation. They were the 80s and I was the sixties. Now I see my grandchildren’s events and there seems to be less across the board obesity but more instances of in the group of what could be far more serious obesity. I take it these are the children with unlimited access to snacks and all the screen time they could want. Giving a kid a bag of Doritos and all the latest computer games will go down as lazy, bad parenting that will contribute to worsening health as that generation ages. As parents we are responsible for our children’s physical needs and that requires pro active education on diet and exercise. A child will not wither if they are given an apple and sent out to play.

    It is fascinating to see vintage garments and compare sizing. What a difference!

  9. Sam

    Lots to think about here, some of it ‘no brainer’ regarding food intake and lifestyle. Over 40 years working with children I have noticed they are much, much taller now. There were always those overweight children but as a general rule they followed on from their parents’ size, noticeably eating high fat, sugary processed food in comparison to others eating a sandwich and fruit, with water to drink, for recess and lunch breaks. What amazed me is that the parents couldn’t see the food choices given to their children was impacting on their energy levels and eventual educational outcomes! Attempts are being made over here to tax the sugar content of soft drinks to make them more expensive hopefully to limit the purchases and help with the obesity levels in the community. I am of a mature age – LOL and am heavier than I used to be, but making careful choices so that at my annual health check be well below the grossly overweight or ‘morbidly obese’ line on the weight chart! Thankyou, Sam the Aussie

  10. Kim

    Interesting topic. I knew that ideals in figure requirements changed over the decades, and I suppose it’s obvious how much diet and transport have changed with the inevitable changes to our bodies. Interestingly you credit the milk given in schools for taller children – my father-in-law swore it was down to M&S ready meals ?.

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