Are you happy with your body?
Some people are not - if not yours, somebody's - and have tried
to disguise it, hide, reshape it, transform it, and remake it
into a cultural object.
This exhibition, and its accompanying catalogue of the same name
written by the show's curator, Harold Koda, at The Costume Institute
of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a rather stunning, albeit
cursory, historical survey of such alterations.
It is filled with a great many stunning costumes and some quite
stupefying ones. It is divided into anatomical sections and while
such a thematic approach is sensible each one should probably
have been given its own, fuller show as the result here is more
of "best hits" sampler rather than a definitive study.
Understandably, of course, the museum's approach probable makes
more sense for the general public that perhaps may not want to
wallow through closets of tight shoes. The show festishizes on
neck and shoulders, chest, waist, hips, and feet, leaving heads
and hair, arms and hands, presumably for future investigation.
While much of the show is given to contemporary fashion, historical
and anthropological and ethnic examples are interspersed throughout.
The text of the catalogue is very interesting, filled with incisive
observations about ideal form, beauty and the concepts of fashion.
Throughout the exhibition, exaggeration is in abundance and traditional
conservative taste is supplanted by the flamboyant and warped
and clearly much of the fashion is definitely not prèt
à porter for the person on the street.
Bizarreness is the keyword rather than beauty, but then beauty
is no longer necessarily a positive notion and "ugly"
has been "in" for quite a while, at least with many
magazine art designers and advertisers. The tyranny of fashion
has perhaps never better illustrated than in this show, which
certainly is not tiresome and one wonders how many Park Avenue
matrons "would die for" these often tortuous accoutrements.
"Fashion's great seduction is its mutability. Through the
artifice of apparel, the less than perfect can camouflage perceived
deficiencies and in some instances project an appeal beyond those
gifted with characteristics accepted as ideal in their culture
and time," Mr. Koda asserts in the introduction to the exhibition's
"In the first decade of the 1900s, mannequins were rendered
with fleshy shoulders and arms, not too different from an Ingres
odalisque. Unlike Ingres' painted nudes, however, mannequins were
severely pinched in at the waist, and the bust, while ample, betrayed
no cleavage and hung low on the ribcage. The hipline flared at
the sides in an hourglass shape that was shifted off its vertical
axis, with the chest pushed forward and the hips pulled back.
While the fine-de-siècle standards of beauty persisted
into the first two decades of the twentieth century, they were
attended by an emerging cult of slenderness. The new narrowed
line of the female form was still softly modeled, but an overall
slimness abided. By the 1920s, the body's curves were renounced
and a cult of thinness was in such dramatic ascendance that it
alarmed even Paul Poiret, who had ostensibly introduced it. Commenting
on the paradigm shift, the designer declared, 'Formerly women
were architectural, like the prows of ships, and very beautiful.
Now they resemble little under-nourished telegraph clerks.' But
even in the 1920s, when the planarity of the flapper look predominated,
display mannequins and fashion models, though somewhat more attenuated
in proportion than in the past, continued to project a rounded
softness. It was not until the 1930s that mannequins began to
convey a less fleshy aspect, and it is at this point that an overall
thinness distinguished from any other historical period prevailed.
The shoulders were squared and the clavicle was decisively articulated
for the first time. While the mannequins of the 1920s suggested
a body unconstrained by foundation garments, the new ectomorphic
mannequins of the 1930s, particularly by the end of the decade,
were sculpted with a defined waist and hipline alluding to a renewed
practice of corsetry and girdling. Mannequins of the World War
II years and the period immediately following have high conical
breasts, a small waist, and a suppressed hipline. In this period,
it was the hipline that was most altered from its predecessor.
With the introduction of historicist styles by Christian Dior
in 1947, the ideal form was endowed with a greater pulchritrude
at the bust and hips, and the waist was indented more emphatically.
The relative naturalism of the body that characterized the period
from the 1920s until the war was renounced. The stomach and buttocks
were flattened, but the outline of the hips was emphasized and
enhanced by padding or small paniers. Unlike the corseted posture
of the past, which was vertical or S curved, the New Look stance
was characterized by a long rounded backwith the buttocks tucked
under and the pelvis jutted forward. In the mid-1950s, Christobal
Balenciaga re-introduced the chemise silhouette with his "Sack"
dress, providing an alternative to the body-defining style of
the post-war period. It was not until the 1960s, however, that
a new ideal of the body was established. The transcendent body
type of the 1960s was characterized by an adolescent androgyny
and angularity. Arms and legs were thinner and elongated. Significantly,
the gestures and postures of fashion models of the period, and
consequently of display mannequins as well, were more expressive
and less static than they had been in the past. The cocked hip,
legs, and arms-akimbo stances favored in the period underscored
the relatively unencumbered nature of the body. By the end of
the 1960s, the mannequin sculptor's acknowledgement of the sea
change occurring in the aesthetics of the fashionable body could
be observed in the depiction of the bust as if unsupported by
a brassiere. Mannequins in the 1970s were invariably represented
with breasts somewhat pendant and asymmetrical in profile. In
addition, an innovation within the fashion world from the 1960s,
the incorporation of a heterogeneous culturally inclusive concept
of beauty was securely established. African, Asian, and Southern
European models had broken through the exclusionary barriers of
a homogeneous Northern European standard. With individual characteristics
taken from life, often of fashion models, display mannequins began
to support the notion of an eclectic range of physical types that
might be considered beautiful. Despite this apparent expanding
of criteria for the beautiful form, certain prejudices continued.
The ideal was still obdurately one of youth and thinness. With
the cultural relaxation of rules of appropriate body exposure,
a universal standard of beauty became increasingly problematic,
no matter how inclusive it was in relation to the past. The refuge
of wearing foundation garments to re-form the body was obsolete,
and the greater tyranny emerged of an ideal of beauty with the
impossibility of recourse to artifice. In no other century has
the ideal form of the body been in such flux. And at no other
time since the fourteenth century have the fashionably dressed
had to transform their bodies to the rigorous standards of the
nude without apparel's assist. The past twenty years have witnessed
an extraordinary diverse production of designs that have coincided
with general trends in the arts, with post-modern, feminist, structuralist
and deconstructivist approaches predominating. At the same time
that the fashion world has accommodated increasingly conceptual
designs, the arts have seen a compatible assimilation of some
of the most fundamental issues addressed by fashion: the body,
gender, personal narratives, and the mechanism of commerce and
Mr. Koda noted that more than 50 years ago, in the "Are Clothes
Modern?" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that he curated
architect and social critic Bernard Rudofsky "sought to purge
fashion of its irrational aspectshis prime argument was the perceived
unhealthiness of many of fashion's conventions.Basic to Rudofsky's
approach is the notion that the body has an ideal natural form.
With the modernist's conviction, he presumed that beauty resided
in all things natural and therefore that naturalness was to be
preserved even in dress. But, for Rudofsky, the natural body conformed
to an ideal that originated in classical antiquity."
Mr. Koda noted that Salomon Reinach had developed indices mammaire
in the early part of the twentieth century to date statues from
antiquity based on the proportions of the breasts and their positioning
on the torso, adding that geometric formulations of beauty also
were used by Leonardo da Vinci whose "Vitruvian Man"
conforms to "Vitruvius' incomplete description of the lost
More recently, the American Museum of Natural History held an
exhibition in 1999 on "Body Art: Marks of Identity,"
that Mr. Koda maintained "documented a variety of techniques
of body manipulation and used anthropological and ethnographic
methodologies to contextualize rather than critique the various
practices," and earlier in 2002 Walter van Beirendonck had
an exhibition entitled "Mutilate."
If fashion is not always aggressive, it can be competitive. "The
notion of a fashionable ideal that becomes more mannered over
time due to one-upmanship is appealing in its simplicity: fashion
as extreme sport," Mr. Koda wrote, adding, however, that
"a review of historical fashion trends cannot sustain this
argument as the sole motivation for fashion's elaboration of its
own sometimes perplexing forms." "Many instances exist,"
he continued, "in which an inconvenient or simply purely
ornamental form persists relatively unchanged for generations.
In the case of Chinese foot-binding, the practice is thought to
have endured for almost a millennium."
The Extreme Beauty exhibition, Mr. Koda argued, "concentrates
on the way differing times and cultures achieve variations from
the ostensibly normative condition of the naked body, with clothing
as the mechanism for the reformation of the body rather than cosmetics,
body scarification, hair treatements, and other mechanisms of
alteration that are not clearly apparel."
In recent years, some designers have adopted a very conceptual
approach to fashion.
"Many of the more provocative designs have come from Japan,
Great Britain and Belgium. In the 1970s, Issey Miyake introduced
a conceptual approach to fashion informed by contemporary art
issues rather than by clothing trends. He established that the
making of clothing could have the intellectual and aesthetic resonance
of the other arts. Often described as a kind of origami, Miyake's
designs, though highly engineered, projected a process of intuitive
draping rather than tailoring. Miyake, who has often used the
body as an armature without a conventional disclosure of the body's
form, is the first of the international designers to propose a
silhouette at variance with all that had preceded it."
"Beginning with Vivienne Westwood, a number of British designers
have enlivened the fashion world with their paradoxical combination
of historical affinities and seditionist impulse. Like Westwood,
John Galliano and Alexander McQueen refer to historical periods
but combine them in ironic Postmodern constructions. What distinguishes
the work of these designers is their insistence on the recognizability
of each reference in juxtaposition rather than the blurring of
sources through synthesis." Mr. Koda observed.
Mr. Koda cites the work of the Antwerp Six and other Belgian designers
as interesting for their use of mundane but often unexpected materials
and great technical abilities: "The work of such designers
as Walter van Beirendonck and Martin Margiela and the design teams
of A. F. Vandervorst and Viktor and Rolf have contributed a Dada-like
sensibility to contemporary design."
While Mr. Koda admits that "much of the more recent work
is only rarely seen on the street," he notes that "when
pharmacological programs and cosmetic surgery are acceptable alternatives,
and the possibility of genetic manipulation is rapidly approaching,
the historical vanities and dramatic physical transformations
embraced by other people in other times and cultures may no longer
be seen as deformations and barbarisms." "Fashion is
the evidence," he continued, "of the human impulse to
bring the body closer to an elusive transient ideal, and Extreme
Beauty manifests both its most extreme aspirations and opportunities."
"The preference for a long neck is perhaps the only corporeal
aesthetic that is universally shared," the catalogue noted.
"In all cultures," it continued, "the head held
high is associated with dignity, authority and well-being."
Some African women have worn many collars to accentuate the appearance
of a long neck and over the centuries various subtle apparel treatments
have sought ways to give similar impressions by pulling the arms
back or narrowing the back or lowering the shoulders: "In
the nineteenth century, the shoulder seam remained more-or-less
in place, but it was canted more obliquely, and the armhole was
shifted forward. As a result, the shoulders were so decisively
angled that the back-seaming of a tailored nineteenth-century
garment took on a diamond-shaped configuration.The high collar
that emerged out of the fashion of the lower band collar reasserted
the cylindrical form of the neck as a separate pattern piece.a
lowered bosom stance later introduced a proportion that visually
enhanced the length of the gorge."
In the twentieth century, broad shoulders were emphasized for
the first time in 1937 when Elsa Schiaparelli introduced a slightly
padded shoulder whereas in the past the effect had been produced
primarily by burgeoning sleeves or expanding collars.
"the stronger shoulder suggested the increasing professional
authority of the wearer, but it was also a perfect tailoring device.
Because the wider shoulder introduced more fabric, it simplified
the fiting and shaping to the body, especially over the bust.
The shoulder established a smoother fall of the garment and accommodated
the balancing of the grainlines of the fabric essential to the
proper fit and finish of a tailored garment.There are only a few
major instances in fashion that directly address the nape of the
neck. Various designers have attempted to camouflage the massing
of flesh that occurs there. Called the `Dowager's Hump,' this
condition is associated with the increasing curvature of the spine
and the compaction of the vertebrae that attends forms of osteoporosis
and normal advanced aging. The great mid-twentieth-century Spanish
couturier Cristobal Balenciaga came up with a solution. Rather
than raise the neckline at the back, which only made the head
appear to bend further into the shoulders, Balenciaga curved the
collar away from the body and exposed the neck. For him, the ostensible
disfigurement was thus transformed into a long gracefully padded
curve. The Japanese have focused on the nape of the neck as an
important point of a woman's beauty.By shifting much of the visual
interest to the posterior, the eye is necessarily drawn to look
at the body from that perspective. This strategy is a reversal
of the exposure of the neck, shoulders, and upper chest used in
most Western fashion."
origin of the ruff is attributable to the wearing of white linen
undergarments and shirts to protect the richer, more fragile outer
fabrics of dress from both the perspiring body and the friction
of the skin against the neckline and wrists. As witnessed in even
the very early depictions of this practice, the visible boundaries
of undershirts and chemises were quickly ornamented by laces and
embroideries. These embellishments were not only decorative but
also functioned as reinforcing elements of the undergarment. Amazingly,
what began as the outlining of the neckline with ornamental edgings
or small collars quickly evolved into a framing of the face. The
ruff's discrete beginnings do not anticipate its accelerated inflation
to shoulder-wide dimension. This broadening obliterated any exposure
of the neck and consequently visually detached the head from the
body. Additionally, the canting of the neckpiece created an optical
illusion: the extended plane of white suggested a larger distance
between the head and torso. The expense and ostentation of the
ruff made it a compelling object of moral censure.the stiffly
starched collars typical of seventeenth-century black-suited burghers
today evoke the probity and sobriety of bourgeois traditionalism.
But at this height of florid fashionableness, the ruff conveyed
the impression of an impulse to luxury and a submission to ludricious
vanity. The designer Walter van Beirendonck is noted for his conceptually
dense, visually provocative designs. In various collections, he
has alluded to ethnic traditions, the murky perimeters of sexual
fetish, and various subcultural expressions expressions of youthful
street fashions. The materials and technologies employed in his
man's ensemble.are without doubt contemporary. Yet the cumulative
effect of his layering is atavistic and tribal. His neck ring
[shown above] has both the flaccid drape of a Polynesian warrior's
feather lei and the deflated droop of a punctured inner tube.
In any case, it is removed from the starched and structured propriety
of a linen ruff. However, even in this enervated form, the ring
continues to mediate the zone between the shoulders and the jaw
in a similar way."
Directoire period after the French Revolution, the Incroyables,
the dandies of the period, and their female counterparts, the
Merveilleuses, took fashion to mannered extremes.the silhouette
of the day was extremely narrowed, with collars for men and ruffs
for women raised to chin-obscuring heights. [In his "Dante
Collection" of the fall-winter 1996, shown above, Alexander]
McQueen took the height of the Incroyables' rolled collar
and pulled it upright. The jawline is covered, and even the tops
of the ears are barely visible. The wing-like lapels part at the
center front to create a neckline that plunges to below the breasts.
By submerging the wearer's head in the collar, McQueen introduced
a sense of elongation, eliminating the conventional reference
points of head to neck to shoulders."
Junya Watanabe created a wild version of Masai neck coils for
a pleated top and in the fall-winter of 1989 John Galliano designed
for Christian Dior Haute Couture a very bizarre raincoat that
employed the broken frame of a collapsible umbrella that was sutured
into the raincoat to form an asymmetrical high collar, as shown
The catalogue reproduces X-rays that show the dramatic effects
of Burmese neck oils on the skeletons of the Padaung women who
are fitted with metal coils about the neck from the age of six.
The heavy coils alter the shape of the collarbone.
explores the various ways in which upper arms were visually enlarged
with sleeves often puffed up by pillows and wires and one of the
more stunning outfits is a black dress by Viktor and Rolf from
their "The Black Hole" collection of the fall-winter
2001, shown above.
"Pagoda" shoulders are a traditional Thai costume and
some designers such as Pierre Cardin, Alexander McQueen, Thierry
Mugler and Yves Saint Laurent have experimented with the style.
Japanese costumes have had a big influence.
his career, Issey Miyake, a master of complex origami-like constructions,
hasexplored the making of body covers with unconventional materials
and techniques.Miyake draped pleated and glazed garments over
a lacquered bamboo framework in an extraordinary series of samurai-inspired
ensembles. The cage can be seen as an extrapulation of the kamishimo
[a jumper with wide wings]. The designer has sought techniques
in both artisanal trades and advanced technologies. In this case,
he worked with the maker of lacquered bamboo implements for the
chano-yu, or tea ceremony. Despite the traditional source
for its form and making, the final effect, as in all Miyake's
work, is so insistently avant-gardist that it warranted the cover
"The history of the chest is as much about its suprression
as it is about its augmentation," starts the catalogue's
chapter on the chest.
Dramatic "denial" of the bust's natural contours was
widespread in the sixteenth century when boned bodices "transformed
the torso of a woman of style into an inverted cone shape,"
the catalogue observed, but by the mid-seventeenth century fuller,
more robust figures appear and "deep cleavage was presented
as an attractive attribute for the first time." "Before
this, large, full, and pendant breasts were associated with the
lower social classes. They elicited such undesirable associations
as old age, coarseness, vulgarity, moral turpitude, and even witchcraft,"
The voluptuousness of the women painted by Rubens, of course,
did not pass unnoticed.
"From the end of the eighteenth to the beginning of the twentieth
century, the bosom was enhanced by corsetry rather than pressed
to the sides and obscured. Still, the reigning mode was to have
the exposed décolleté appear more softly undulating
than ample with creased cleavage. The bust was expressed but not
exaggerated to an artificial well-endowed dimension," the
catalogue noted, adding that the brassiere was apparently invented
in 1914 by Caresse Crosby, an American socialite, who "received
a patent for a halter for the bust originally created out of ribbon
and two handkerchiefs." The catalogue notes, however, "this
technical innovation had little opportunity to evolve, at least
for another decade" as the 1920s "were dominated by
the straight-as-a-board silhouette that was a signature of the
garçonne, or flapper."
Mr. Koda takes note of Madonna's corsets and outfits and also
of the fad for monobosoms, which could cover up "a full-torso
inflatable form" at the beginning of the twentieth century.
One of the
exhibit's more artistic items is a metal corset with a 15-inch
waist, thought to be from the nineteenth century in the style
of the sixteenth century. A ravishing, enlarged and modern variation
of a metal corset was created by Alexander McQueen in his Cossack
ensemble with silver wire top by Shaun Leane, shown above, that
was part of his "the Overlook" collection, fall-winter
1999. McQueen and his collaborator, a jeweler, "created a
tightly fitted carapace to which the torso is forced to conform,"
the catalogue noted. "Like the prosthetic metal corsets of
the sixteenth century, the McQueen piece controls more than the
flesh; because of its high neck, short 'sleeves,' and extension
to the upper hipline, it also circumscribes the body's movements.
While the designer calls the piece his Cossack top, it has less
to do with loose full-sleeved asymmetrical overblouses than it
does with the stiff hieratic imagery in Russian Orthodox icons."
In any event, surely most Medieval knights would have been most
impressed with this coat of mail.
In his Botte
Secrète evening gown from his "Des Robes qui se Dérobent"
collection in the spring-summer of 2001, shown above, Jean Paul
Gaultier has corseted not only the torso but also the arms. "On
the runway, the gown was worn by Sophie Dahl, a model famed for
her rounded pulchritude, an exception to the prevailing angularity
of fashion mannequins. Gaultier is known for his sensational and
slightly scandalous runway presentations, and he certainly caused
a shock as this model retreated. The back of the gown is comprised
only of the corset's lacings. They are pulled taut until the knees
and then open in loose loops to form a train of streamers,"
the catalogue noted. Shocking for some, but unquestionably sensational
One of the more exotic designs in the exhibition is a dress in
the spring-summer 2000 collection of Hussein Chalayan who sculpted
tulle into a pink pestle-shaped topiary that completely engulfed
the wearer into an abstract shape except for her head, arms and
all the designers of the mid-twentieth century, Cristobal Balenciaga
was preeminent at achieving architectural effects with a minimum
of technical or structural elaboration. Balenciaga's designs were
so cleverly constructed that they weighed nothing. Frequently,
they were so voluminous that they obscured the body's actual outlines.
Illustrated above left is Balenciaga's cabbage-rose cape. It is
constructed of a long panel of silk gazar sewn into a bias tube.
The material gathers around the torso, masking all but the head.
Intermittent tacking-stitches form its petal-like folds. As shown
above right, Olivier Theyskens recently took an obi and looped
it to obliterate not only the waist but the whole of the torso.
The result is an homage of Balenciaga," wrote Mr. Koda. The
result was also a marvelously mysterious and elegant abstraction.
has its shares of farthingales, bustles, panniers, hoops and crinolettes,
devices used to deaccentuate the hip by flaring apparel outward
from the hips.
While enormous side panels were de rigeur with the ladies of the
royal set at Versailles in the eighteenth century, one of the
most novel designs was Oskar Schlemmer's 1992 "screw"
costume for "The Triadic Ballet," in which a metal blade
rotates around the bottom from waist to hem, as shown in the photograph
Alexander McQueen attempted to return to the lighter effects of
the Second Empire to inflate his silhouettes.McQueen employed
a spun-sugar-like shell reinforced by plastic to engineer the
gown's awesome expanse," the catalogue noted, referring to
the beautiful gown shown in the above photograph.
Some of the more outrageous designs in the exhibition are in this
section such as the Sylvia ensemble designed by John Galliano
for the Christian Dior Haute Couture fall-winter 2000 collection
which has a bustle in the form of a riding saddle with a horse's
One of the more interesting designs is Hussein Chalayan's dress
with bustle from the spring-summer 2000 collection in which he
"devised furniture pieces that could be transformed into
apparel" including garments conceived of as containers. "Chalayan,"
Koda noted, "articulated his molded forms like the flaps
of a jet plane's cargo hold. When open, they take on a pannier-like
width and bustle-form extension."
The Chinese practice of foot-binding is well documented in the
exhibition section on Feet as are the tall shoes worn by Venetian
courtesans that endowed them "with a greater public stature"
and "imposed a slow ceremonial gait that allowed the crowds
to study the courtesan's beauty and fashions more closely,"
Mr. Koda wrote.
illustrated catalogue may not be the definitive, encyclopedic
book on fashion, but it is extremely fascinating, intelligent,
surprising and is likely to seriously alter the way one looks
at people with apparel, regardless of their appeal. With its heavy
dose of contemporary design, it is also very encouraging that
the art of fashion is far from moribund, cr in extremis, but quite
lively and exciting, albeit not on the person in the street level
were scruffiness and bad taste still are generally rampant.