Have you ever looked at an old portrait or image of a woman and thought how odd the over-exaggerated neck was? That’s how my research started, with the difference between my own body and representations of women’s bodies in the past. Why was the female neck praised in literature, exposed by fashions and exaggerated in images?
My research examines the neck as a key site of the construction and experience of femininity in England from 1838 to 1953, a period framed by the visual spectacles of the coronations of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II. Studying the female neck in ideal and actuality - as a site imbued with particular cultural meanings and as a site of physical and sensory experiences - this project places the body at the centre of the analysis of gender and sexuality. This project considers the motivations and constraints informing women's experiences of their bodies and animating the choices they made. My research thus permits analysis of the desires, fantasies and politics of envy that colour women's relationships with their dressed bodies. This project takes seriously the decisions women made about the dress, and exposure of their bodies, offering a corrective to narratives of changing ideals of femininity in this period. Women consistently wore dresses and accessories which exposed and emphasised the neck, a continuity which has been overlooked despite the ubiquity and persistence of the ideal of a long pale neck.
The female neck could signify youth, wealth, beauty and whiteness, but it also experienced extreme violence, through strangulation and throat-cutting. This is important in a context of on-going male violence towards the female neck, as recent cases highlight. Indeed, non-fatal strangulation, so often a component of domestic violence and sexual assault, was only just made a criminal offence in the UK in June 2022. My research thus uses the female neck as a way to better understand the lives of women in the past, and the way their experiences and aspirations were shaped by both beauty and violence.