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Extreme Beauty

The Body Transformed

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

December 6, 2001 to March 3, 2002

Trying to Fool Mother Nature, or Vitruvius,


The Transgression of Camouflage

Cover of exhibition catalogue with dress with neck ruff by Junya Watanabe

Cover of Exhibition catalogue shows dress with neck ruff designed by Junya Watanabe from his "Techno Couture" collection, fall-winter 2000, photograph:

By Carter B. Horsley

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 catalogue.

"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 production."

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 Polykeitan canon."

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."

Neck and Shoulders

"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."

Man's ensemble with neck ring by Walter van Beireindonck

Man's ensemble by Walter van Beireindonck, "Dissections" collection, spring-summer 2000, photograph:

"The 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."

Evening ensemble with high collar by Alexander McQueen

Evening ensemble with high collar, Alexander McQueen, "Dante Collection," fall-winter 1996, photograph:

During the 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."

Raincoat with broken collapsible umbrella as high collar by John Galliano

Raincoat with broken collapsible umbrella as high collar, designed by John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture in fall-winter 1989, photograph: GAP JAPAN

In 1998, 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 above.

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.

Dress with puffed sleeves by Viktor and Rolf

Black dress with puffed sleeves, Viktor and Rolf, "The Black Hole" collection, fall-winter 2001, photograph:

The exhibition 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.

Cover of ArtForum magazine with rattan top ensemble by Issey Miyake

Evening ensemble with rattan top, Issey Miyake, spring-summer 1982, photograph © ArtForum, February 1982

"Throughout 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 of ArtForum.


"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," it continued.

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.


Cossack ensemble by Alexander McQueen with silver wire top by Shaun Leane

Cossack ensemble with silver wire top by Shaun Leane, Alexander McQueen, "The Overlook" collection, fall-winter 1999, photograph:

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.

Front and back of Botte Secrète evening gown by Jean Paul Gaultier

Botte Secrète evening gown, back view, Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture, "Des Robes qui se Dérobent" collection, spring-summer 2001, photograph:

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 and wonderful!

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 legs.

Le Chou Noir evening cape by Balenciaga, left, and cape ensemble by Olivier Theyskens, right

Le Chou Noir evening cape, Cristobal Balenciaga, fall-winter 1967, photograph: Hiro Studio, left; cape ensemble, Olivier Theyskens, fall-winter 1999, photograph:

"Of 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.


"Screw" costume for Triadic Ballet by Oskar Schlemmer

Spiral Figurine, Black Series, "Screw" costume from The Triadic Ballet, Oskar Schlemmer, 1922, reconstructed 1991, photograph: Archive C. Raman Schlemmer

The exhibition 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 above.

Evening gown by Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture

Evening gown, designed by Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture, spring-summer 2000, photograph: Bruno Pellerin

"Recently, 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 tail.

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.

The lavishly 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.

Click here to order the 168-page catalogue, which was published by the museum and the Yale University Press and has 225 color photographs

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is available at and

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