My sister works in costuming and is big into fashion. After visiting MoMA, we wandered over to FIT since it’s the museum in New York which is most in-line with her interests. As a design/use junkie, I also enjoy fashion and clothing exhibitions since clothing is one of those universal things. Even if it’s fashion, it’s meant to be worn and reveals a lot about how society views the human body. The two exhibitions on display when we visited—Lingerie and Dance—both explicitly discussed issues about how much of clothing’s intent is to either emphasize or alter the body’s shape and movement.
The lingerie exhibition was more interesting to me—especially as a social history. The main takeaway for me was confirming that demonization of underwear in the late 1960s was indeed misplaced. Underwear gives structure to the silhouette—something which changes with the fashions of the time. Looking at this structure allows us to extrapolate a lot of other things about the fashions of the time, but it also reminds us that the way people look in clothes often has very little to do with how they look out of clothes.
For most of history, structured undergarments allow for clothes to fit “correctly.” And it was understood that the undergarments were doing most of the heavy lifting*—In other words, it wasn’t “cheating” to wear a corset or bustle or crinoline. Comparing this to today where wearing a padded bra or Spanx seems to feel dishonest** because women are supposed to be able to exercise or diet to be able to achieve the desired silhouette in a “natural” fashion and I can’t help but conclude that focusing on the undergarments as “instruments of female torture” may have misdiagnosed the target that should have been protested.
*Or squeezing or padding or tucking.
**Shit, getting surgery to minimize or maximize certain body parts feels dishonest.
It’s not the underwear which is the problem. The problem is the desire to have a specific silhouette—and the fact that what is desirable changes every decade. At least you can change your underwear easier than you can change your body.
That said, looking at the history of lingerie also makes it clear that even before those protests started, underwear—and the clothing being worn over it—was getting less and less complicated and revealing more and more skin anyway. I found it somewhat ironic that the late 1960s through the 1970s in fact had the least restrictive and softest-structured undergarments in the entire show. We’ve swung since then to more structured bras and increased padding and even corsets again. Though a lot of that has become outerwear as well.
The other interesting thing in looking at lingerie was seeing how the technology and materials changed and the number of different ways we’ve tried to accomplish the same sorts of goals. The exhibition goes from whalebone corsets to padded underwire bras and touches on many other kinds of ways to shape the body. It’s amazing to see how much lighter and more efficient everything has become. This is extremely intimate technology intended to be worn for long periods of time up against the skin. It’s kind of a shame that it’s relegated to fashion museums since not only does it concern half of humanity, it’s also just a fascinating design challenge.
The dance show felt a bit forced to me. It’s a great concept but there were too many pieces which felt shoehorned in as possibly dance related. Which is too bad since I was liking the comparison between the dance costumes and the lingerie exhibit—in particular how these costumes were explicit about how they were intended to impact the body’s movement in the same way that lingerie impacts the body’s silhouette. These are two sides of the same coin and both need to be kept in mind when thinking about clothing and how it works.
Dance appears to have two distinct ideas about how fashion and costume should be. One is that nothing should get in the way of the human form and how it moves. The other is that by altering the form and restricting its movement through costume, other interesting things can be revealed. Both views are valid though the second view results in the costumes I find more interesting.
The costumes that stay out of the way end up being more decorative—some fabulously so—but mostly things that we can get a sense of when seeing them on mannequins. The costumes that rely on restricting or hiding movement though need videos so we can see them in action.* I could kind of picture some of them with basic movement. But dance isn’t basic and that intellectual leap was more than I could muster.
*Although, really, more video in general would be nice since this is, after all, a dance exhibition.