While I was in New York, myself and my two friends visited the FIT Museum. The exhibition that was on was called The Body: Fashion and Physique and was held in the Fashion & Textile History Gallery. Fashion and Physique explored the complex history of the ‘perfect’ body in fashion. I particularly enjoyed seeing the relationship between the fashion industry and body politics from the nineteenth century to the present.
The exhibition is centred on the idea that fashion is closely 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 even plastic surgery have all been promoted as necessary tools for attaining the ideal fashion shape.
I found it interesting the way the exhibition transitioned between eras, showing how the idealised fashionable body changed over time and became the pinnacle of beauty: full hips, narrow hips, feminine waists and boyish frames. The exhibition included 50 objects from the collection of The Museum at FIT, alongside clippings, photographs, and videos from the popular press. The Body: Fashion and Physique explains the impact the fashion industry has had on how people have viewed and treated their bodies throughout history. It also considers how the fashion industry has contributed to the marginalisation of certain body types within our culture.
The fashionable body is a cultural construct that has shifted throughout history to emphasise different shapes and proportions. However, I feel that the fashionable ideal does not feel fluid; it can appear to be a fixed expectation, affecting how we view and treat our bodies, as well as how we view the bodies of others. The garments are supported with images from the popular press, fashion media, film, and other sources.
I do not feel that body image and self-acceptance is spoken about widely and openly enough. The fashion industry has historically treated the female body as something that can be moulded and changed.
The exhibition showed how the ‘perfect’ body changed:
Pre twentieth century: a mature, curvaceous body, punctuated by a narrow waist. Women wore boned undergarments called corsets, or stays.
Eighteenth century: stays were largely reserved for women and girls of the elite.
Nineteenth century: technology developments made corsets available to a much wider demographic of women. Skirt silhouettes changed a number of times during the nineteenth century to emphasize particular proportions.
Late 1850s: a hooped understructure, a crinoline, allowed the diameter of a fashionable skirt to widen, creating an illusion of a narrow waist.
1870s: skirts became slim at the sides and front, yet protruded considerably at the back. Equipped with understructures known as ‘bustles’, they suggested the wearer had a full bottom.
Early twentieth century: a shift from a soft, curvaceous figure to a thinner, younger physique. Women were encouraged to exercise and engage in sports. Garments grew looser and shorter, and corsets were replaced with stretchy foundation garments known as girdles.
1930s: long, body-skimming gowns.
1940s: strong, padded shoulders dominated.
1950s: narrow- shouldered, full-skirted ensembles. The fashionable physique remained slender, as evidenced in fashion magazines, which continually recommended wearing foundation garments and keeping a regimen of light diet and exercise to maintain the ideal fashion shape.
1960s and 1970s: young and thin, epitomised by the model Twiggy. Designers began making clothes that were more body-revealing, rejecting girdles and other foundation garments. This gave rise to a dieting craze.
1980s: a new culture of physical fitness had begun to develop around aerobics. The ideal became a hard, muscular body for both men and women.
1990s: concerns about obesity were on the rise, making this extreme opposite more desirable. Teenage model Kate Moss pioneered the look, going against the gaunt appearances of previous models.
Since the start of the twenty-first century: some brands have attempted to achieve greater diversity, yet most runway models continue to be thin white girls. But the internet and social media have changed the way people engage with fashion. On the runway, some designers now use models from across races and sizes, including transgender models and some who wear prosthetics. They also produce their lines in a variety of sizes, rejecting ‘straight’ and ‘plus’ divisions.
The garment that surprised me the most was a red Christian Siriano Dress. The reason I was shocked was because Siriano had designed the dress for actress Leslie Jones to wear to a film premiere. Before this dress was designed, Jones stated that no fashion designer was willing to dress her for the red carpet because of her physique! Brands, in my opinion, really need to be more accepting of more sizes than size 4, 6 or 8. Also there was a short video on one of the walls that showed a body evolution of a model before and after. This video shows a photograph of a woman being manipulated in drastic ways; the model is unrecognisable at the end of the photoshopping. This definitely promotes a disclaimer to not always trust an image online or in a magazine.
One of the designers that I particularly liked was Comme des Garçons where Red kawakubo distorted the wearer’s body with soft padding. The collection challenges the typical idealistic female physique, promoting greater acceptance.
I loved the overall message from the exhibition: designers now need to set an example for the industry with the goal of showcasing that all bodies are beautiful and deserve to be included in fashion.