Before Shapewear: Six Centuries of How to Look Good

Articulated French pannier made of iron, leather, and fabric tape, 1770. Source: Les Arts Décoratifs. Photo: Patricia Canino.

Whalebone corset (1740-1760) above 1770 articulated French pannier that collapsed. Source: Les Arts Décoratifs. Photo: Patricia Canino

If you’ve ever successfully poured yourself into a pair of tight jeans, pay a visit to the Bard Graduate Center Gallery’s townhouse through July 26 to see Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette, a three-story exhibition of how women – and men — pushed, pulled, and shaped their bodies into the “hot” silhouette of the day.

The show originated in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 2013 tells the story of how fashion divas and dandies utilized undergarments to stiffen, enhance, pad, and pouf themselves to create the iconic shapes we admire in paintings, photos, magazines, and other pre-digital media.

Painted yellow silk taffeta American robe a la Polonaise, 1780-1785 Installation views of “China: Through the Looking Glass” May 7 - August 16, 2015 Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, New York

American robe a la Polonaise held up by wire, 1780-1785. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, “China” exhibition.

Corsets (some iron!), farthingales, whalebone stays, panniers, crinolines, bustles, and girdles from the 15th century until today are all on display. You’ll see exactly how those whalebone stays stiffened corsets worn by nearly every woman from the 1500s to 1800s, and be amazed to learn that little children were also strapped into kids’ corsets to help shape “unformed” bodies right up through the 1950s in Western Europe.

Mr. James would approve of all the engineering that the curators reveal for us. Who knew that those wide panniers under 18th century French court skirts had elaborate mechanisms that could collapse to let their wearers squeeze through narrow carriage doors or tight household doorways? Automated models demonstrate just how neatly these ingenious apparatus operated to create the illusion of width just below super-tiny corseted waists.

How were those elaborate poufs created at the back of 1770s court gowns in the “Polonaise style”? Ladies could manipulate wires through eyelets in the voluminous triple-part skirts to create just the right amount of volume, drape, and flash.

Uber-dandy Beau Brummel. Source: NYPL’s digitized George Arents Collection.

Uber-dandy Beau Brummel. Source: NYPL’s digitized George Arents Collection.

And the men! Under the sparkle jackets of 1770s court dress (subject of our previous post), the guys consciously padded chests, calves, and other body parts to give the appearance of a more muscular physique even if they hadn’t been working out. Shapely men’s calves were all the more important since high-end men’s footwear at the time consisted of elevated Louis heels.

For dandies of the 1800s, it was all clothes, all the time, so an even wider array of sartorial artifice came into being—tight men’s corsets, stomach belts, padding, and (more) fake calves. Striking a pose meant everything,

The in-gallery app provides lots of insightful commentary on the items and apparatus. On the second floor, Bard has a line of mannequins that illustrate the changes in female silhouettes. Here’s a walk –through of that part of the installation:

Watch this companion video to see some the collapsible pannier, corsets, and girdles in the show – direct predecessors to the shapewear of today:

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