Back in the ’70s, Tina Turner helped spark a collective yearning for strong stems by letting hers peek out from thigh-skimming skirts and boy shorts in photographs from that era, a stark contrast to waifish ’60s limbs. Of course, like many iconic women who came before her, Turner stands tall in the collective memory for reasons beyond genetic luck: Yes, she had legs, but as ZZ Top put it, she also knew how to use them.
Drumsticks, gams, pins, pillars, uprights, getaway sticks—the sheer number of American colloquialisms for women’s longest limbs are an indication of their power. Legs, of course, are more than a means of support and locomotion. They’re the symbol of women’s freedom. And a quick look back over the past 100 years confirms the shifting cultural ideas surrounding a seemingly innocuous slender calf, willowy ankle or sculpted thigh.
Despite the Victorians’ attempts to conceal them under crinolines and cages, the turn of the century found them kicking free and giving birth to what Vogue referred to in 1957 as “beautiful American leg legend” (which the likes of Cindy Crawford and Karlie Kloss continue to perpetuate today). Legs certainly haven’t remained static since coming out of hiding: Not only does each decade have its own fashions, but its own ideal leg proportions—often best embodied by the celebrated stems of a cultural icon.
The long, solid limbs of Mistinguett—once the highest paid actress in the world—were insured for about half a million francs in 1919. While flapper fashion only revealed the leg to the knee, the long, form-following looks of the ’30s required a few extra inches of skin to realize the line of the fashion. Who better to stand for that decade of glamour than Ginger Rogers, who seemed to float on air with Fred Astaire? Marilyn Monroe represents the fuller ’50s leg, which supported the curvy, hourglass shape, an ideal that was shattered by Twiggy’s seemingly endless, and childlike toothpick limbs. The late ’70s/early ’80s fitness craze idealized the athletic aerobicized leg (cue Cindy Crawford in her Pepsi commercial, or, shown here, posing on the beach for Vogue). These days, we have the 6’2” Karlie Kloss, whose “stilts” combine sinewy strength with a dancer’s fragile extenuation.
Here, a look a back at the some of the most memorable legs of all time.
Ginger Rogers in Rafter Romance, 1933
Mistinguett, ca. 1910
Louise Brooks, 1928
\Marlene Dietrich, with comedian Freddie Lightner, during a USO show for U.S. servicemen, 1945
Marilyn Monroe 1950s
Tina Turner 1970s
Grace Jones, 1989
Cindy Crawford 1990s
Gisele Bündchen 2000s
Karlie Kloss 2010s