by Rachel Kinnard Double panniers with pockets. France, 1775–80. Photographer: Patricia Canino.
“There is no natural body, but rather a culturally-defined body that reflects the social requirements of the period in which it exists,” Curator Denis Bruna notes in the accompanying exhibition texts to "Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette." The exhibition, at the Bard Graduate Center, tells the history of western fashion through the undergarments that provided its foundation. The collection includes such varied items as 400-year-old “Spanish doublet,” corsets for children, and the contemporary push-up bra. During the curatorial tour for the show, Bruna insisted that the exhibition was about “the body--not fashion.” While the exhibition narrates the history of the western body through shaping undergarments, "Fashioning the Body" brilliantly demonstrates how fashion and the body are inextricable from each other. This is an exhibition about the fashion and the body.
Situated in the Bard Graduate Center Gallery’s six-story townhouse, the exhibition spans three floors connected by a spiral staircase. Considering the prudish nature of the items’ original owners, the intimate gallery setting feels appropriate for examining garments that were never meant for public view. The show traveled to New York City from the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris. It was originally shown in 2013 under the title "La Mécanique des dessous," which translates to "The Mechanics of Underwear."
Displayed on mannequins hidden under black velvet, these shells from past bodies seem to float in mid-air. The exhibition design is perfect, allowing an unusual intimacy between viewer and object. A whalebone stay is displayed at the particular angle which reveals its internal architecture, the side that was once pressed up against its wearer’s flesh. It’s a rare chance to see the complex skeleton of these bodily casings usually seen only from the exterior.
The ancient underpinnings are brought to life through animated reconstructions placed throughout the galleries. Deliberately displayed on white, full body mannequins to differentiate them from historical garments, the mechanized reconstructions serve as ghostly tour guides wearing self-animated clothing. An articulated panier slowly collapses onto the mannequins hips, demonstrating how a woman would flatten her wide silhouette to pass through a narrow doorway or board a carriage. On another reconstruction, a hoop skirt rises from the floor to encase the frozen mannequin’s lower half.
Bridal corset. United States, ca. 1860–70. Photographer: Patricia Canino.
Like most fashion exhibitions displaying historic dress, "Fashioning the Body" commissioned unique mannequins to fit the garments. The mannequins themselves are important to this exhibition, receiving their own portion of a gallery dedicated to viewing them undressed. Shown bare, we can see the variants of the ideal western body through the centuries. The forms are displayed chronologically to illustrate the changing shape of the idealized female form. It’s an unusual and ingenious approach to displaying the body in the context of a fashion exhibition. Instead of relying on period ephemera such as paintings or photography, the exhibition exposes the bodies directly from the display cases. In this approach, the viewer can interpret the garments on display and the bodies shape these highly structured garments would have called upon and helped construct.
Experiencing the transformation of the corset through its various incarnations is a powerful demonstration of how the female body has been forcibly controlled by western fashion. Corsets are generally known by most as uncomfortable and restrictive undergarments of history. But the experience of "Fashioning the Body" strips the corset of any romanticism and presents the harsh physicality of the contraption. It’s made clear in the exhibition that a women’s stay was her second skin. As noted in the accompanying exhibition text, there was a time when a gentlemen might present “a rod made of metal, horn, wood, ivory, or whalebone that is inserted at the center front [of a women’s stay] in order to stiffen the torso,” as a gift to his dearest. A gift that at once is held close to the heart (literally) and acts as an aggressive torso stiffening device for his beloved.
Today, undergarments such as the metal caged crinolines and whalebone corsets on view seem archaic to the contemporary body. But although the contraptions have changed, the need to fit a fashionable ideal through a controlled body remains to be a powerful aspect of western culture. On the same day of the exhibition opening in New York City, the French National Assembly approved a bill that would punish modeling agencies for hiring malnourished models. If passed into law, the measure would also require labeling on photos using retouching to alter a model’s appearance. The fashionable silhouette is ever changing, but the pursuit to control and shape the body into an ideal is timeless.
"Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette" is on view at Bard Graduate Center Gallery from April 3–July 26, 2015.
Rachel Kinnard is Assistant to the Chair of Fashion Design at Pratt Institute. She holds her BFA in Fashion Design and MA in Fashion Studies from Parsons The New School for Design. Rachel’s research interests explore the boundaries between fashion and body, specifically within technology and medicine. www.rachel-kinnard.com
Bra (and bustier). France, 1920–30. Photographer: Patricia Canino.