The Museum at FIT presents: The Body: Fashion and Physique, an exhibition
that examines the complex history of the “ideal” body in fashion and considers the relationship between the fashion industry and body politics from the 18th century to the present.
The Body features more than 50 objects from the museum’s permanent collection, many of which have never been on view. Within the exhibition, garments
are supplemented with images from the popular press, fashion media, film, and other sources to highlight how the fashion industry has contributed to the marginalization of certain body types within our culture.
Fashion is inextricably linked to the physical form of the wearer. The cut of a garment draws the eye to zones of the body, simultaneously accentuating and concealing in order to achieve a desired silhouette. Elaborate undergarments, diet regimens, exercise routines, and plastic surgery have all been promoted as tools for attaining the ideal fashion figure. However, the fashionable body is a cultural construct that has shifted and changed throughout history to emphasize different shapes and proportions.
Fashion and Physique opens with a dress by Martin Margiela that mimics the look of dress forms, which are used to fit garments as they are designed. By transforming the wearer into a dress form, Margiela highlighted the artificial nature of the idealized fashion physique.
Also on view in the introductory gallery is a video featuring interviews with industry insiders discussing key themes explored in the exhibition. Among them are designer Christian Siriano, model Iskra Lawrence, and activist Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance. The exhibition’s chronology begins with an example of stays (now referred to as corsets) from the 18th century. Stays were constructed to artificially narrow the wearer’s waist and push up her bust. During the19th century, the cultural obsession w ith a narrow waist intensified, and corsets became available to a wider demographic through mail order catalogs and department stores. Examples of corsets from throughout the 19th century are on view, including a maternity corset and a child’s corset.
Skirt silhouettes changed a number of times during the 19th century. By the late 1850s, the diameter of a fashionable skirt had widened to an extraordinary degree, thanks to a hooped under structure called a crinoline. An example from circa 1865 shows how use of a crinoline created an illusion, making the waist appear narrow. Within a couple of decades, skirts began to slim at the sides and front, yet protrude considerably at the back. Equipped with caged under structures known as bustles, these skirts created a silhouette that suggested the wearer had a full and pert posterior, as seen in an ensemble from circa 1887.
During the first decades of the 20th century, designers experimented with new silhouettes that did not need to be worn with a corset. A brown velvet dress by Liberty of London from 1910 is on view alongside an elaborate, fur-trimmed tea gown from the same period. Together, they illustrate the wide variety of uncorseted styles that emerged during this period.
By the 1920s, the fashionable ideal had shifted completely away from the corseted waist to favor a long, lean body with slim hips and a small bust.
Two 1920s dresses are displayed side-by-side, along with a rubber girdle, a popular undergarment worn to slim the hips during this period—indeed, rubber girdles were advertised as a way to “melt” unwanted fat away from the region.The interest in a slender body continued through the 1930s, but with a new focus on an athletic and classically proportioned physique highlighted by the bias-cut gowns that filled couture salons and Hollywood screens. A shimmering gold example from the House of Paquin demonstrates the body-skimming quality of these dresses.
However, the Paquin gown (with a waist measurement of 31 inches) and a pair of evening pajamas from the same period (with a waist measurement of approximately 40 inches) demonstrate that designers were creating fashions for a variety of body shapes and sizes.
The dominant silhouette of the 1940s was still slim in the hips, but included broad, padded shoulders. This look was popularized by the designer Adrian, who was based in Hollywood. An Adrian evening dress illustrates how strong shoulders were used to create the illusion of a narrow waist. However, by the end of the decade, Christian Dior had introduced his “New Look” silhouette, which removed the padding from the shoulders and exaggerated the narrowness of the wearer’s waist by reintroducing boned corsetry and a full skirt, reminiscent of the 19th-century crinoline. A Dior cocktail dress and a Charles James evening gown show how this sculptural treatment of the body evolved during the 1950s.
In reaction to the structured styles of the 1950s, a wave of young designers began making clothes that were much shorter and looser. While the new, 1960s styles “freed” the wearer from constricting boned undergarments and petticoats, they were cut to emphasize a lithe, youthful physique, which imposed a
new expectation on the female body.
Creations from designer Rudi Gernreich, including a mini dress with clear vinyl side panels, show the ways the fashionable body became far more exposed at this time.
The interest in “freeing” the body continued during the 1970s as clothing—and undergarments—became still less constricting. The ideal continued to be a thin, young body, but the girdle was rejected, giving rise to dieting as a modern way to control the fashionable physique.
The interest in “freeing” the body continued during the 1970s as clothing—and undergarments—became still less constricting. The ideal continued to be a thin, young body, but the girdle was rejected, giving rise to dieting as a modern way to control the fashionable physique. By the start of the 1980s, a new culture of physical fitness had begun to develop for both men and women, with aerobics at its core. A selection of menswear in the exhibition includes a Jean Paul Gaultier sweater with a padded torso that mimics the idealized muscular body that became fashionable during the late 20th century. Also during the 1980s, the strong-shouldered proportions of the 1940s returned, along with a tight, structured silhouette that emphasized a fit body. Designs by Thierry Mugler and Donna Karan illustrate the different ways these proportions were interprete.
The toned body of the 1980s gave way to a waifish ideal during the 1990s.
Concerns about obesity have been on the rise since the 1980s, which has likely influenced body ideals, making the extreme opposite more desirable. Calvin Klein pioneered the waifish trend with provocative ads and slinky slip dresses. Klein’s aesthetic was dubbed “heroin chic” for the gaunt appearance of his models. Examples of both his ads and garments are on view.At the start of the 21st century, the waifish physique continued to dominate much of the fashion industry, but a renewed interest in prominent buttocks began to emerge as well, which some scholars have connected to the globalization of the fashion industry and the influence of different ideals of beauty from
around the world. A Roberto Cavalli ensemble from 2002 includes a dramatic cut-out just above the posterior, drawing the eye to this particular zone of the body.
The rise of the internet and social media, including personal style blogs and platforms
like Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, have changed the way people consume and engage with fashion and opened up the industry to an ever-widening cross section of people.
Certain brands have embraced this diverse view of the fashionable body.
Becca McCharen-Tran is one such designer. The runway presentations for her label Chromat are some of the most diverse in the industry with models from across races, sizes, and
gender identities, including some who wear prosthetic. A look from the Chromat spring 2015 collection plays on historical undergarments, demonstrating McCharen-Tran’s interest in the ergonomic,mobile body of all shapes.
Likewise, designer Christian Siriano includes plus-size models on his runway, produces his eponymous line up to size 26, and outfits celebrities of all sizes, including actress Leslie Jones. Jones took to Twitter in the summer of 2016 to expose the fact that no fashion label was willing to dress her for an upcoming premiere.
Siriano responded, saying he would be proud to dress her, and he designed a glamorous red dress that is featured in the exhibition.