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Beneath the petticoats

“Fashioning the Body” exhibit explores history’s most outrageous undergarments

By Brigit Katz and Jennifer Perry on April 15, 2015

In a dimly lit corner of the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan, a black mannequin stands strapped to a looming pannier—the side hoops worn under the dresses of women in the 17th and 18th century to extend the widths of their skirts by several feet. Made of interlocking iron segments, the pannier was collapsible, allowing the wearer to pull it upwards so she could fit through doors and climb into carriages. We can all recognize the pannier’s effect (think Marie Antoinette in all her glory), but to see the contraption stripped of silk and lace is to fully understand just how obtrusive—and uncomfortable—it must have been.

The iron pannier is just one of many undergarments on display at Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette, a new exhibit curated by Denis Bruna. Fashioning the Body peeks beneath dresses and petticoats to show how understructures have been used throughout history to shape the human form. But it might be more accurate to say that the exhibit is preoccupied with deformities.

The gallery, which spans three floors, is lined with corsets, bustles, panniers, girdles, bras, and other sartorial items that have distorted bodies—primarily, though not exclusively, female bodies—into silhouettes that would be grotesque if they were not so familiar. Depending on the century, those silhouettes might include cinched waists, careening hips, protruding rears, voluminous breasts, billowing shoulders, or some combination of the above.

What Fashioning the Body makes clear is that regardless of the silhouette, the human form in Western society is rarely free of an understructure that contorts it. The so-called “liberated body” of the 1920s was actually shaped by a girdle. Contemporary viewers might look at the corset and cringe, but most of us manipulate our bodies in some way, be it with bras, or Spanx, or Kardashian-approved waist trainers. Accordingly, a Wonder Bra and shape-wear by Victoria’s Secret are also on display.

The exhibition originally ran two years ago at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, under a title that roughly translates into “The Mechanics of Underwear.” Using mechanized replications that show how obsolete undergarments like the pannier and the crinoline collapsed and expanded, Fashioning the Body does indeed highlight just how technical understructures have been over time. But the exhibit takes care to demonstrate not only how these items functioned, but also why they came into being.

“The curator’s vision of this exhibition is really to show visitors that there was a cultural body,” explains Ann Margeurite Tartsinis, an assistant curator at the Bard Graduate Center who worked as the project manager of Fashioning the Body. “These silhouettes were really shaped by social constraints at the time, or social events that brought together the need for a specific type of silhouette.”

Throughout much of history, those needs were aristocratic. Fashioning the Body begins in the late 16th century with the stiff Spanish farthingale, and then moves to a gallery of whalebone stays, a pre-cursor to the corset. Lavishly decorated and rigidly structured, the stays cinched in the waist and forced the body into an erect posture.

Whalebone stays. Italy (?), ca.1740–60. Jean Tholance/Bard Graduate Center
Whalebone stays. Italy (?), ca.1740–60. Jean Tholance/Bard Graduate Center

“It was very important for aristocrats during this period to present themselves in an upright manner,” Tartsinis says. “It’s a sign, it’s a symbol of your status, and the fact that you’re part of the elite.”

Concerns of comfort and practicality were subsumed by aesthetics. Bone busks that ran down the middle of stays made sitting impossible, and panniers made movement cumbersome. If versions of these undergarments eventually trickled down to the general populace, they began as the purview of women who could afford to be ornamental.

“These exaggerated forms were all about showing status and wealth, [to demonstrate that] you could afford to have enough of this beautiful silk to cover a pannier,” Tartsinis explains.

The imposition of the “cultural body” could begin very early in life. One of the more fascinating components of the gallery is a display of tiny infant’s corsets—made of cotton and stiff board—that date to the 19th century. “Generally the culture saw the infant as a soft body that needed training and protection,” Tartsinis says. “It was a way to train the child to grow up with a good posture and appropriate carriage.”

Stomach band for a young child. France, late nineteenth century. Jean Tholance/Bard Graduate Center
Stomach band for a young child. France, late nineteenth century. Jean Tholance/Bard Graduate Center

Fashioning the Body also strives to show that the notion of the ideal body has shifted—sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically— over the past 150 years. A row of black mannequins with varying proportions represents the silhouettes that have been in vogue over the decades, from the wide, protruding bosom of the early 20th century (termed the “mono-bosom”), to the columnar look of the 1920s, to the controlled shape of the current day.

Tartsinis points out that historians can, on occasion, identify specific causes for these trends. After the French Revolution, delicate bodices (very briefly) replaced the corset to create a flat chest and a soft waist; just as the country was liberated, so too were women’s bodies. Similarly, in the 1920s, reform movement dressers reacted against the cinched waists that were in style at the turn of the century by touting flat chests and drop-waists. But for the most part, the forces that inspire fashions are nebulous and vast.

Though it focuses primarily on trends of the past, Fashioning the Body gives context to modern sensibilities. Liposuction and breast implants might seem like uniquely modern manipulations of the human form, but going to extremes in pursuit of the ideal body is hardly a new phenomenon.