Tina “The Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll” Turner turns 77 today, and though the iconic artist is best known for her powerhouse vocals, her perfectly toned legs deserve their own place in the history books. Back in the ’70s, 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. As we marveled at the pictures, we began thinking about the shifting cultural ideals surrounding a slender calf, willowy ankle, or sculpted thigh over the past 100 years.
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. 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.
All of the women in our slideshow have enviable legs, but they stand tall in our collective memory for reasons beyond genetic luck. As ZZ Top put it, they knew how to use them.
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