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The midriff makes a modest comeback

  • Washington Post
  • Published Monday, July 9, 2012, at 12 a.m.

Oops, they did it again. They cut the shirt too short and outed our jiggle, signaling an end to America’s prolonged cupcake binge.

In 1999, it took a schoolgirl and her harem of back-up dancers to put the crop top in closets of tween girls across the country. A 17-year-old Britney Spears exposed her taut tummy and inspired an influx of ab-centric trends. Extra-low-rise jeans. Belly bling. Salamander henna tattoos curling around studded navels.

More than a decade later, abdomens are again on display, except by now, teen queens have aged into wiser 20-somethings. And pop stars such as Carly Rae Jepsen, Katy Perry and Rihanna are resurrecting a milder version of midriff exposure, no crunches required. Even actresses Rooney Mara and Gwyneth Paltrow are flashing four inches of flesh directly above the navel.

“This midriff is different than the one of a decade ago,” said Lourdes Font, a historian and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “The previous trend was borderline disgusting, so extreme that pants barely covered the lower body. Now, fashion is anchoring the waistline at the natural waist, and it’s shifting our eyes above the navel. It’s much more elegant.”

And modest.

In the early 2000s, the bare midriff became the polarizing bellwether of Middle American morals, banned from classrooms across the country. But stomachs weren’t always such controversial sights.

In 1932, the first hint of the midriff appeared on an evening gown created by French designer Madeleine Vionnet, now part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Font thought the gown would have inspired controversy or at least coverage in fashion publications such as American Vogue, but it was largely ignored at the time.

“It may have been considered beyond the pale or too experimental, but by the ’40s, there were many examples of evening dresses with cutouts,” Font said.

American actresses then flaunted their bellies in film. In the 1930s, Betty Grable wore midriff-exposing evening gowns in studio photo shoots. Lauren Bacall, too, showed a few inches of tummy flesh in the 1944 film “To Have and Have Not.”

Abdomen-baring sportswear became the norm, too. Vogue first reported on “brassiere bathing suits” in 1932, spotted on the beaches of the Italian Riviera. By the mid-’40s, women tied up their blouses at pools across the country, exposing modern two-piece swimsuits and making way for the bikini.

Alluring and practical, the midriff wouldn’t become a symbol of sexual freedom until the late 1960s. On television, however, navels were taboo. Barbara Eden, who played the magical servant in “I Dream of Jeannie,” wore the pants of her magenta costume above her belly button to ward off censors on network television.

Singers adopted the trend in the ’70s. Cher and Chaka Khan bared their midriffs with bell-bottoms on stage. Khan famously performed in stomach-baring bras and shirts while pregnant. In the ’80s, Madonna exposed hers (and much more) while wearing her infamous cone bra, further sexualizing the look. After fashion adopted low-rise jeans in the ’90s, popularized by a waifish Kate Moss in Calvin Klein ads, the midriff, oddly enough, promoted the boyish, stick-straight silhouette still popular in fashion today.

But raising the waistline means a resurrection of the hourglass figure. Font hopes that this incarnation of belly madness will lead to a meatier, healthier shape for women and the fashion industry.

“You can’t emphasize the natural waist of a woman without curves,” Font said. “This extreme skinniness in fashion was always unsustainable. I hope these new proportions lead to curvier hips, actual breasts, an ideal body that exists in nature.”

Take heart, America. The cupcakes can stay.

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