The striking thing about an 18th-century corset complete with an articulated pannier is that it begs the question, “Would any woman have been comfortable in such a contraption?” It’s hard to answer in the affirmative. Whether we like it or not, the notion of bodily comfort is going to be lurking in our minds when we observe such pieces of apparel through our modern frames of judgment. But it is obvious that for a long period of human civilization, the idea of status and the amount of physical space one occupied were inextricably connected.
Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette, an exhibition that is currently on display at Bard Graduate Center in New York City, goes beyond simply exhibiting accoutrements of intimate apparel from centuries past—though there are plenty of such pieces too. The exhibition also features mannequins wearing mechanized reconstructions of panniers, crinolines, and bustles in order to show how the undergarments were used to alter natural body forms.
An Intimate History
According to Associate Curator Ann Tartsinis, people are excited to see the different contraptions that women and men have endured in the name of fashion. Certain objects are more surprising than others, for example the so called “nursing stay”—a kind of corset with little flaps that open to supposedly allow the mother to breastfeed. Sounds plausible in writing until one sees the actual object because the little openings are rectangular, hence rather different to a woman’s anatomy. Enough said. Then there are babies corsets—yes, infants of both genders were molded into shape from a very early age under the belief that if they didn’t wear corsets they would grow up to be deformed.
Men also subscribed to altering their physical appearance through garments, but they augmented their silhouette with padding around the chest area in coats and jackets, and also their calves. On display is a curious sock dated 1750–1830 that looks like a very wooly leg, as if one’s calf had sprouted very long woolen hairs.
The cod pieces that were worn by men in earlier times are not on display but they are documented in the exhibition catalog. Edited by the exhibition’s curator Denis Bruna from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris where the exhibition was first shown in 2013. The huge catalog is quite an eye-opener as well. The book includes essays by European fashion historians and new photographs of undergarments from as early as the 14th century on.
The Justacorps (French suit) for a man, is displayed in the exhibition opening, revealing the padding involved in creating a masculine torso. The sumptuous embroidery on both coat and vest leads to the conclusion that if the wearer was naturally lacking in aesthetic appeal, his outfit would have, no doubt, held the gaze of a lady because embroidered into its very fabric was the unmistakable clout of status.
The Fair Sex Took Up More Space
Of the two sexes women were not just fairer but much larger, in dress that is.
“Women would use armature to create a dramatic waist and sculpt [the silhouette]. With panniers and bustles you’re adding bulk but using structures that are architectural and shaping away from the body,” Tartsinis explained.
The French court robe (grand habit) reached such horizontal amplitude as to ensure a displacement of other persons as one glided along creating one’s very own impromptu runway. An example of a grand habit is only to be found in the catalog, but there is a similar, though smaller, formal dress dated 1770 in the exhibition.
Still, the crinoline of the 19th century is the closest a women would have come to being a building—a small yurt comes to mind. In fact the crinoline became a source of satire and derision due to the fact that it made it hard for a husband to gracefully offer his arm to his wife while on a stroll. A colored mid-19th century lithograph on display shows ladies being airborne during a strong gust of wind due to the umbrella-like shape of the crinoline.
There is a natural progression in the exhibition from the 18th-century panniers to the crinoline, which rounds out the form, and then the lobster-tail and faux-cul (fake buttocks). Perhaps the faux-cul is the one augmentation that we can most readily relate to since the buttocks have become a prominent preoccupation in modern days for both sexes.
The Last Silhouette
In part of the installation there is a row of unclad dress forms that show the different body shapes through time that were created by the many types of garments on display. The very last one–the contemporary form “is the one that you can’t exhibit the garments for because the last form is about exercise, diet, and surgery,” said Tartsinis.
She continued to say that although there is contemporary shape-wear that serves to smooth out the natural curves and provide some containment, it is not to the degree that the under-structures of the past “moved the flesh around.”
Our ‘Corsets’ Today
The last silhouette, the one we all strive for, or rather, the one that we are told to strive for, is now achieved through the inner shackles of dieting.
Can we really claim emancipation from the corset when women can now remove their own ribs to achieve a smaller waist, have breast implants and liposuction just to attain the current acme of physical perfection?
But there is perhaps one item of clothing that could have been included in the exhibition—jeans.
Jeans have become the default firming and toning piece of daily apparel. One could easily argue that it is far less effective than a corset, proven by the fact that it is often seen in plus-size women who have obviously squeezed into them to fit into an idealized form, with the unfortunate result being what we have come to nickname “the muffin-top,” or “when the flab overfloweth from the waistband.” Despite this, one would be hard pressed to find a woman who didn’t own a pair of jeans.
Larger women wear them despite the fact that jeans only serve to emphasize the amplitude of one’s legs, hips, thighs, and other parts that would have previously been hidden. While on skinny women jeans simply show the lack of feminine shapes and volume. The proudest wearers of jeans seem to be the slim, toned women who, after much low-carb and high intensity training efforts, have managed to make themselves look like an effeminate man. And this last point brings us to the present day aesthetic—androgyny.
Where to go from here?
Who would have thought that after all the women’s emancipation movements we would one day be opting for this? However, interestingly we also look up to buxom bombshells like Kim Kardashian.
It is quite possible that she owes her popularity and much emulated status to the simple fact that she fills a void in popular culture for a more womanly female physique.
Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette
Through July 26, 2015
Bard Graduate Center Gallery
18 West 86th Street
New York, NY 10024
$5–$7 suggested admission