Times change and so do aesthetic ideals. Beauty standards have fluctuated throughout time, from the glorification of a Rubenesque figure to the emphasis on a tightly cinched waist. In order to achieve these, at times, unrealistic ideals fashion has required a series of “hidden devices,” as Bard Graduate Center refers to the behind-the-scenes mechanisms that work to achieve a distinct and desirable bodily silhouette. With a little help from these devices, such as corsets and girdles, fashion has reconfigured the natural body shape time and again. The Bard Graduate Center explores in their current exhibit, “Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette,” the ways in which fashion has been used to mold both men’s and women’s bodies to achieve an ideal silhouette from the 17th century to present.
“Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette” originated in Paris, France, at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in 2013 as part of a much larger exhibit. The original exhibit included items from 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries as well; however these items were much too fragile for shipment. The New York exhibit, with items dating instead back to the 17th century, displays panniers, crinolines, bustles, stomach belts, and much more. “Fashioning the Body” also exhibits a collection of moving mannequins in order to demonstrate the function of each device. The exhibit progresses vertically; with each floor the devices become increasingly modern, and the evolution of the fashionable silhouette is clearly mapped out.
Filled with devices to narrow the waist, emphasize the hips, and ultimately reshape the female figure what I found most interesting was actually a small segment dedicated to 18th century “male allure.” It’s easy to recognize the corset and the pannier, even if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology. We’ve all seen Pride and Prejudice, right? But what struck me were the lowered armholes in men’s jackets in order to thrust out the lower chest such that the chest would appear puffed up while also slimming the waist. This would hollow out the appearance of the back and make for an elegantly distinguished slim build. The image of Superman immediately came to mind, hands on hips, chest puffed up, gazing into the distance. It’s interesting to examine such stylistic alterations and recognize the impact they have had, not only on the history of the silhouette, but also on pop culture. Superman may not be wearing a jacket with lowered armholes, but the silhouette of his body with his chest exaggerated and his waist made slim reflects the same aesthetic ideals.
“Fashioning the Body” is truly worth a visit. As you progress to higher floors of the exhibit, and layers of certain devices are removed or simplified, as seen in the transition from corset to brasserie and girdle, the changing of times becomes increasingly apparent. And with these changing times, the alteration in each behind-the-scenes mechanism readily reflects a transition in aesthetic ideal.