Our obsession with body image dates back centuries as a new exhibition in York reveals. MAXINE GORDON takes its measure

WE all know that fashion is a fickle business - but it's not only clothes that change like the wind, body image does too.

Twenty years ago, "heroin chic" was the look of the moment, with models chosen for their pale skin and skeletal frames. Today, the large derriere, tiny waist and generous bosom of the likes of Kim Kardashian and J-Lo are back in vogue.

However, this is only repeating a trend that dates back centuries. Women have been re-fashioning their body shapes for hundreds of years. Today, they might consider plastic surgery or a bout of botox; in the past, they used corsets to shape and cinch the waist and tied pads around the hips to create a well-rounded rump. These "bum rolls" were used to accentuate the curve of the hips under a full skirt.

They were especially popular until the Regency period - from around 1811 - when the female silhouette changed again, becoming more simple and the body-skimming empire-line dress was introduced.

It was the Victorians who resurrected rear padding, adding the "bustle" to their daily attire.

Fashions through the ages will be on display at a new, permanent, exhibition opening at the Castle Museum for Easter. Curators at the York Museums Trust have spent two years putting together Shaping The Body: 400 Years of Food, Fashion and Life, which opens on March 25.

Visitors will be able to try some reproductions of these outfits for themselves at a special catwalk area in the exhibition area, where original fashions will also be on show.

York Press:

KILLER FASHION: Corsets were used to give women tiny waists and above right, the green dress made with arsenic

Reproductions were necessary because the originals wouldn't fit, we are much bigger now. Senior curator Ali Bodley explains: "Body shapes have changed. The average farm worker would burn 4-5,000 calories a day, while women working in the home might use 3,000. Most people today are doing quite sedentary work, sitting at computers, and tend to drive not walk to work, but are eating more calories. That's why we are in this situation."

We may all be bigger now, but Ali points out that historically larger bodies have tended to be more fashionable than skinny ones. "A good thing about the exhibition is that it gives us the long view. And it's good to see that being skinny was a relatively minor fashion trend."

Looking pale and interesting was all the rage in the mid 19th-century, when people turned TB into a fashion statement. "TB was prevalent in many of the upper classes," says Ali. "It gave a pale demeanour but with flushed cheeks. It changed their posture too, and sun dresses were designed in order to try to imitate that. There are parallels to 'heroin chic' of the 1990s when the models were very thin."

A fascinating area of the exhibition explores this avenue further, where the idea of killer fashion takes on a sinister, literal meaning. Fashion history is awash with items that should have come with a health warning. On display will be a stunning green gown dating from Victorian times. However, the vivid colour was created by using arsenic. Ali says: "When they sweated they would absorb arsenic, so the dress was quite dangerous." Symptoms included rashes and ulceration, dizziness, confusion and weakness of the hands and feet, for which there was no cure.

Mercury was another dangerous substance used, often in the production of felt for hats. Inhalation brought on a host of ailments from insomnia to a sense of small insects crawling under the skin. Ali says: "This was the origin of the phrase 'mad as a hatter' - and the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland represented a person suffering from mercury poisoning."

York Press:

FLAIR DOWN THE AGES: Some of the period clothes on show at the Castle Museum's new exhibition

Menswear also features in the exhibition. While women's fashion is celebrated in the 21st century, it was the apparel of gentlemen that would turn heads in centuries' past.

Visitors can learn about the "fops" and "Macaronis", the flamboyant male fashion lovers who were often teased for their OTT styles. "Gentlemen at the cutting edge of fashion would be wearing higher heels and more frills on their clothes than some women," says Ali.

Gadgets to help change our appearance are commonplace now, but were seen as revolutionary a century ago. On show will be an ear straightener that was strapped to a child's head at bedtime in an effort to pin back sticky-out lugs. There is also an early hairdryer that worked by being attached to a vacuum cleaner. As electricity took off in the 1920s and 1930s, women began using electric hairbrushes and combs.

Ali says the exhibition shows clearly that our predecessors were no different from us today in the lengths - and risks - they took in an effort to look good.

She says: "People did crazy things years ago, and the crazy keeps coming."

Shaping The Body: 400 Years of Food, Fashion and Life, opens at York Castle Museum on March 25. Find out more at yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk