Fashion and Physique
Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York
– 5 May 2018
The cultural construct of the fashionable body is, in itself, changeable and stands for the ideals of body shape of a particular era. To an individual in everyday life, these ideals are less changeable, as fixed social expectations they influence one's own perception of one’s body as do the perceptions of others. The complex history of the “ideal body” and its different characteristics since the 18th century are the subject of this exhibition currently running in the museum at FIT.
Throughout the history of the ideal body, it is the female body in particular that has been seen as an object that can be modelled and adapted to the contemporary ideal of beauty through tailoring, corsetry, diet, sports and cosmetic surgery, depending on the era.
Before the 20th century, the ideal woman’s body was mature and curvy with the narrowest possible waist. Women and girls achieved this silhouette by using stiff corsets. It was not until the technological advances of the 19th century that these initially elitist garments reached a larger target group, so that by the end of the century wearing a corset was the social norm. Other body constructions for shaping the skirt silhouette were the crinoline and bustle, which became fashionable in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. The former, a variation on the farthingale, allowed the diameter of the skirt to reach enormous dimensions, creating the illusion of a smaller waist. In contrast to the crinoline, the bustle provided volume on the rear of the skirt, which gave the impression of an enlarged behind.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the prevailing ideal body changed from being “mature and curvy” to “young and slim”. Women were encouraged to exercise, clothes became shorter and looser and stiff corsetry was replaced by elastic undergarments. In the first half of the century, fashions followed in rapid succession – from the short, loosely fitting dresses of the 1920s to the wide skirts of the “New Look” designed by Christian Dior in the 1950s. The fashionable ideal of the following decades was manifested in Twiggy’s figure. Designers created revealing fashions and moved away from restrictive undergarments which then led to the dieting crazes of the 1980s leading to a new culture of fitness from the popularity of the aerobics movement. Hard, muscular bodies were now in vogue, and the designs by Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler were created in response. The ideal of the fit body paved the way for the spindly body of the 1990s, personified by Kate Moss. This ideal continues to resonate in the 21st century, although there are new trends arising in the fashion industry demanding more diversity. At her shows, fashion designer Becca McCharen-Tran and her label Chromat showcase models of all different sizes, ethnicities and gender identities. As a result, she challenges body-negative standards of beauty that have been evident in the fashion industry over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The exhibition is curated by Emma McClendon and supported by the Couture Council. Running in parallel with the exhibition is a free symposium taking place at FIT on 23 February 2018. Its objective is to continue the dialogue about the ideal body.