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Derived from Etienne de Silhouette, who first made portraits in black with no background details, the Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion defines "silhouette" as a term indicating trend in length and general outline of garments for the coming seasons. Ever since Marie Antoinette's handmaiden first fastened her into a corset, women have been contorting themselves into an idyllic silhouette.
Archetypal silhouettes are often associated with a historical reference. In retrospect, each decade of the last century has told a story with a signature silhouette, reflecting the political and socio-economic issues of that time and more often than not was a sartorial response to the decade immediately preceding it. Some trends by decade: 1910s -- mid-calf hemlines; 1920s -- women wearing trousers in public; 1930s -- androgyny and surrealism; 1940s -- whittle waists and fuller skirts; 1950s -- cocktail dresses and lingerie; 1960s -- futuristic looks and Woodstock Bohemian; 1970s -- extreme silhouettes, loud colors, flashy designs; 1980s --- padded shoulders and the three L's -- leggings, leotards, legwarmers; 1990s -- grunge, street wear, instant fashion; 2000s -- online publishing, social media, sustainable fashion.
Silhouettes vary in composition and shape. An ensemble's foundation will either include one garment or layered separates. The shape may be fitted, A-line or boxy. The most polarized fashionphiles are minimalists who require streamlined, tailored pieces with subtle enhancements or maximalists who yearn for more avant-garde looks with beading, appliques and exaggerated dimensions. Balancing and manipulating proportions is key. Some guidelines: Pair a fuller top with a fitted bottom and vice versa. Broader shoulders balance a fuller bustline. An empire waist elongates your torso. Belting the narrowest part of your ribcage is slimming. High-waisted pants lengthen your legs. Leggings emphasize lean legs. Boot-cut pants balance larger thighs. Feature one erogenous zone at a time.
Silhouette is not only created by the precision of cut and masterful sewing; optical illusions of colorblocking, gradation and monochromaticity also alter the perception of a woman's figure. Draping can cleverly conceal flaws, deemphasizing one body part; conversely, ruching adds volume, accentuating another. The proper foundations (such as padded push-up bras, corsets and shapers) also mold your figure.
For decades, the "ideal" measurements (36-24-36) have had women desperately striving for an hourglass figure, but the most successful silhouettes accentuate a woman's best attributes and minimize self-perceived flaws. It begins with identifying your body type --- whether you're lean and want to create womanly curves or petite and want to add height. Knowing your body will help you select pieces that best suit your frame. It will not only save you time and anguish, it will also make shopping more enjoyable. Remember, not all items have hanger appeal -- when in doubt, try it on.