UCLA » College » Social Sciences » History
May 24, 2022
4:00pm to 5:30pm
6275 Bunche Hall

This talk investigates the eye-catching evolution of the ideal women’s physique in interwar Vietnam. In 1920, the “willow branch” figure—weak, thin, and small breasted—predominated media, literature, and other forms of popular culture. Slouching was considered attractive, exercise was shunned, and body parts were not to be revealed. By the early 1930s, Vietnamese urban culture and media became enamored of a very different physique: curvy, athletic, with an ample bust and bottom. Trendy clothing revealed women's curves, thighs, arms, or décolletage. Urban women rushed to department stores to purchase uplifting Western bras or rubber "falsies" to fill their dresses. At home, women diligently followed exercise routines intended to tone or round out specific parts of the body. These dramatic changes arose out of the activities and agendas of a wide range of actors. The colonial government launched a hygiene campaign to teach about germ theory and bodily hygiene, and Vietnamese intellectuals—many of them proponents of eugenics—endorsed these kinds of measures as a means of improving the Vietnamese race. A new generation of feminists called upon young women and girls to engage in more athletic activities than they had heretofore, such as bicycle races, tennis matches, and long-distance “walking trips.” The urban middle-class lifestyle drew young women into leisure activities that revealed more skin and allowed men and women to touch one another. Meanwhile, self-interested fashion designers encouraged women to cultivate the shapely, athletic figures best suited to the latest style of clothing.