Sunday, May 17, 2015

What Lies Beneath

The body is a reflection of the society that presided over its creation. - Denis Bruna

In April we attended the opening night preview of Bard Graduate Center Gallery's show: Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the SilhouetteShowing through July 26, the exhibit examines the extraordinary ways in which women - and men - have shaped their bodies into distinctive silhouettes in the name of fashion.

We've divided our post into two parts to cover the show itself and then cover opening night festivities.

Anyone who has thumbed through a Victoria's Secret catalogue can tell you that what lies beneath our clothes is every bit as important as the clothes themselves.  Yet for all the exhibitions of fashion, and even fashion accessories (hats, shoes, fans, jewelry), how many of us can say we've ever seen an exhibition of what are euphemistically but ever so accurately called foundations?  Now is your chance to see just such an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center.

The show comes to New York from the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, where it had a larger space and a broader scope.  So there were bits we didn't get to see (so to speak) here in Manhattan, but the highlights are here, and the exhibition is so informative, engaging, and well thought out that we will be very disappointed if you don't go to see it.  The original French name of the exhibition, La Mecanique des Dessous, or The Mechanics Beneath, is a colorful, cheeky tell-all.

Below, in the first room, is a woman's so-called Spanish doublet on the left (dated app. 1600), with whalebone stays, a mock-up of a conical hooped farthingale from the period, and a painting of a woman of the period wearing both.

This is the small cartoon that appears above, showing women getting ready for a masked ball, also dated around 1600.    This gives some idea of the intricacies involved in dressing the wealthier classes.  The woman on the right is being fitted with a doughnut around her waist (like the two on the floor behind her) that will give extra volume to her dress.  The book that accompanies the exhibition has an entire chapter on ruffs which had to be left out of the exhibition.  We foolishly thought ruffs stood up on their own, but they had foundations too, sometimes in cardboard (covered in satin, of course), sometimes in finely wrought metal.

Whalebone stays came into fashion in the sixteenth century, and in some form or other remained part of fashion into the nineteenth century.  Whalebone had the advantage of being lightweight and sturdy yet somewhat flexible.  It was believed that whalebone stays helped the body remain upright.  In the center front of the stay was often a busk - a slim narrow rod made of any number of materials to help reinforce the straight posture.  In the exhibition is an engraved busk with a poem on it, a gift from the lover to lie near the heart of the beloved.

The exhibition has numerous examples of the structures that fill out the seventeenth century dresses.  Below, from left to right, a reconstruction of an undergarment for a robe a la polonaise, rigged to rise and fall to demonstrate how the folds were achieved; a robe a la polonaise, a formal French dress, and a robe a la francaise.

Here's what's going on beneath a robe a la polonaise:

(Click here for the full screen sized video.)

Children did not escape the wearing of corsets (and infants wore swaddling clothes), since these were believed to help them grow up straight.  According to the book, cradles of the time were narrow for the same reason.  Below, four children's wraps and, far right, mid-eighteenth century whalebone stays with cut-outs for a nursing mother.  The concept of the upright body was interwoven with religious views on morality.

The old regime undergarments are works of art in and of themselves. Can't you just see Beyonce or Rihanna working the red carpet wearing this?

Here, a reconstruction of the above eighteenth century pannier, and left of that, a fashionable woman wearing a pannier under her very wide skirt.  The articulation of the panniers allowed for some freedom of movement and for easier folding for storage.  Panniers could also be designed to allow for pockets.

This reconstructed pannier, mechanically rigged for the exhibition, shows its ingenious and painstaking design.

(Full size here.)

Popular cartoons of the day made fun of the extreme fashions of the times.  Here, this illustration dated 1786 imagines what a woman's body would really have to look like if fashion reflected the real body.

Here too, we see that the cinched waist was a fashion statement.  (Remember the scene in Gone with the Wind where Vivienne Lee as Scarlett O'Hara insists that Butterfly McQueen cinch her laces even tighter?)

On the wall behind the mannequins is a photograph dated around 1860 of a woman being fitted with a tremendous crinoline.  In front, three differently shaped crinolines.  The one on the far left is electronically wired to rise and fall so the viewer can see what it looks like when folded flat.

(Full sized video here.)

After the French Revolution, there was a period of unstructured dress in the early nineteenth century, but eventually hidden structures came back in the form of the bustle.  One, based on its shape, was called "the lobster tail".

Here's a short articulated lobster tail, folding and unfolding.

(Or click here to see the full sized screen version.)

Here is a close up view of one of the exhibition's beautifully crafted lobster tail panniers designed to accentuate the buttocks. Anyone wishing to imitate Kim Kardashian's famous rear-view shot on Paper Magazine's cover (that supposedly crashed the internet) should take note. Click here to view the infamous cover photo.

Approaching the turn of the century, the monobosom or pigeon breast became all the rage, and undergarments changed again to reflect that.  Tellingly, the poster behind the mannequin reads "Unbreakable Whalebone Corsets", so we know that breakage was a problem in corset production at the time.  (All the more reason to stand straight and still!)

This display of body shapes showed how fashionable silhouettes changed over the decades.  Notice the wild fluctuations in the first three.  The first is dated 1700 - 1800, the second is dated 1800, and the third is dated 1800 - 1900.  After that silhouettes change rapidly, reflecting the rise of commercially available fashions for the masses.

The original exhibition gave substantial attention to the male silhouette.  That had to be abbreviated here, although we were very interested to see that, while women were exaggerating their bosoms and hips, men were exaggerating their girth and their musculature.  Below, the upstanding leg is wearing padded calves.  Since men wore breeches in those days, it just would not do to show flaccid calf muscles.  (The equivalent today would be the so-called six pack underscored by the tight tee shirt.)

In the spirit of full disclosure, we have to give you some idea of what you missed from the men's exhibition.  We missed it too, of course, but here's a glimpse at what's in the book (which we also highly recommend).  Want the book?  Click here.  There is an entire chapter devoted to codpieces, entitled "Falsity and Pretense": Stuffed Codpieces, written by exhibition curator Denis Bruna.  For the ne plus ultra in the peekaboo look for codpieces, look no further than these breeches worn by Svante Sture of Sweden around 1567.

To close the exhibition portion of the post, let us show you this 1565 portrait of Antonio Navagero, with which Mr. Bruna opens the chapter in his book.  Yes, possibly "falsity and pretense" are words well suited to the chapter, and to Mr. Navagero's upward pointing bright red accessory. Readers, is it true that clothes make the man?  Was Mr. Navagero a man of few words?  Really, would he need to say anything?

Opening Night Exhibition and Reception

Shortly after our arrival, we had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Bruna, the exhibition's curator, pictured here with Beth Allen, Bard's Major Gifts Officer. Dr. Bruna is also Curator, Fashion and Textile Design, Musee des Arts Decoratifs, and a professor at the Ecole du Louvre.

After viewing the show, which encompasses three stories of the gallery, we walked down the block to the reception held at Bard's other space on West 86th Street. Just inside the lobby, we met another young woman from Bard wearing an antique whalebone crinoline. She and Valerie came face to face or hoop to hoop, so to speak. How could we pass up this priceless photo op?

Both of us admired the intricately quilted Chinese-inspired jacked worn by Hollis Barnhart, Bard's Communications Manager.

For future reference:  Wearing a metal appendage around one's waist does automatically demand space. While it may be a drawback in both intimate and crowded social gatherings, it might actually be a great advantage and personal-space protector in a jammed subway car.

(White eye is weirder than red eye, isn't it?  Sorry about the pics!)

Kathryn Hausman (left),  President Emeritus of the Art Deco Society of New York and founder of Medusa's Heirlooms, was also at the event with Designer Patricia Fox.  As we previously mentioned, the show is up until July 26th so if you're planning to to visit New York this summer, take advantage of this terrifically entertaining educational opportunity in one of the most beautiful and intimate exhibition spaces.

Some of you might be asking "What's that thing Valerie's got on around her waist?"  The answer is it's a Chromat cage in red enameled metal, made several years ago for a special promotional event.  The red block on one side of the front hides a battery pack (not attached that evening).  The underside is lined with LED lights, so even if all the light in the city went out, Valerie could walk home in the dark, followed by a gazillion fireflies.  If the battery pack was attached.  And charged.  The hat was made by Elizabeth Dean and designed based on Beijing's Bird Cage, where the 2008 Olympics were held.


  1. A very interesting and impressive travel through time..... and only in the Western part. ...Japanese women's feet, Ndébélés women's necklaces and so many more. How questioning is this universal need to modify what we were born with for aesthetical reasons...

  2. Thanks for posting about this for those of us that can't get there to see it. I wonder what the women of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would say if they saw the kind of undergarments women wear today?