The Body Is Considered in Relation to Fashion in a New Show at the Museum at FIT
The Body: Fashion and Physique opening today at the Museum at FIT offers a historical and chronological overview of changing silhouettes from the 1800s to the present, at the same time that it takes on two of fashion’s hot topics, body politics and inclusion. “I hope this [show] will add [to the ongoing conversation] by giving the historical perspective,” says curator Emma McClendon.
Since Eve left Eden, bodies have required clothes, and clothes bodies—but not just any body. The idealized form is McClendon writes, “a cultural construct”—one that has often been quite literally supported by controlling garments like corsets, and girdles, and Wonderbras, and Spanx. Not often found in nature, the fashionable body is a paradigm and a censuring measuring stick against which non-conforming shapes were/are unfavorably compared. Included in the show are satirical cartoons from the 1800s mocking plus-size women or older women trying to adapt to the trends of their time, proving that trolling is anything but a new phenomenon. McClendon credits social media for democratizing fashion and giving a platform to previously marginalized constituencies.
Greeting visitors to the exhibition is Martin Margiela’s dress form dummy-tunic from Spring 1997, which can be read as a commentary on the artificiality / standardization of fashion. After that introduction come the corsets, crinolines, and bustles, as well as early examples of “stoutwear,” which we know today as plus-size. Sizing, notes the curator, is another arbitrary and pernicious industry standard that bears reconsideration.
Demonstrating positive strides in that sector is a 2015 Chromat ensemble and the strapless red stunner Christian Siriano created for actress Leslie Jones after the SNL star tweeted: “It’s funny how there are no designers wanting to help me with a premiere dress for a movie.” That was in 2016, mind you. “We have this idea of fashion history that corsets were there and then they went away, that everything’s so different from how it was in the past,” observes McClendon, “but the reality is that all of these things [prejudices and the garments that reinforce them] still exist and are around in certain forms.”
Reduced to bare bones, fashion history is a dance between controlling and (supposedly) liberating the body. This was dramatically illustrated in the 20th century when in the 1910s Paul Poiret “freed” women from the corset and the unnatural pouter pigeon silhouette; when Dior’s heavily sculpted “femmes fleurs” gave way to Twiggy wanna-bes who shunned fit-and-flares for swingy, A-line frocks with ever diminishing hemlines; when Thierry Mugler’s couture robots gave way to waifs in filmy slips.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this exhibit is that while codified ideals of beauty exist, the only real way to free the fashionable body is first to free our minds.