FIT Challenges Designers over Shape, Physique, and Fashion’s Future

Red carpet looks for curvy women: Roberto Cavalli’s ensemble, LaQuan Smith’s see-through for Kim Kardashian, and Christian Siriano’s dress for Leslie Jones

Against the historical context provided by examples of how women (and men) have pushed and pulled their bodies into fashionable silhouettes since the 1750s, The Museum at FIT asks a broader, more contemporary question:  Why don’t designers today create attractive clothes for women who don’t fit into a size 2?

The exhibition, The Body: Fashion and Physique, on display through May 5, begins with a thoughtful video in which young New York designers, including Christian Siriano, call for change in the industry to give plus-size women fashion-forward off-the-rack options that project youth, style, and pizzazz.

As usual, FIT has an excellent website for the show, where you can step through 250 years of fashion history in sequence to see and read about how the concept of the “ideal” body has changed.  For some of our favorite items, see our Flickr album.

1845-1855 corset with metal eyelets and 1865 Scottish dress buoyed by hooped crinoline

The 1800s fashions on display from the FIT archive pair undergarments – like corsets, crinolines, and bustles – to demonstrate how fashion emphasized the importance of tiny waists through most of the 19th century. The swags covering protruding bustles eventually gave way to the no-corset looks of early 20th century artistic women who worshipped the exotic excesses of Paul Poiret.

The curators focus on the roots of fashion-induced body issues back then, too. An iPad shows the proliferation of fashion illustrations that draw women with impossibly tiny waists. Nearby, they show evidence from their collection to bust the myth that all corsets were laced tight enough to achieve an 18-inch waist. Simply not true. The illusion of that “ideal” was created with wide skirts and pouf sleeves.

When powerful structure was in: a 1981 dress by Mugler and 1986 jacket by Donna Karan

From there, the show moves through the next 100 years, providing examples of tube silhouettes of the Twenties, languid body-skimming styles of the Thirties when women used girdles to achieve the “ideal” body, the built-in structure of Dior’s New Look, and through to more recent times.

Although the intricate architectural cut of a Thierry Mugler dress would not normally be paired with a soft-tailored jacket by Donna Karen, the curators note that the “ideal” shape for women in the 1980s was athletic, fit, and toned. The pairing of these two designers shows how the impact of powerfully shaped fashion worked for equally well for Grace Jones or for powerfully shaped women who inhabited the C-suite.

In more recent times, the show makes the point that designers and image-makers increasingly shifted the “ideal” shape to the super-young and super-slim, encouraging completely unrealistic expectations about women’s bodies. Men and women obsesses over diets and fitness to achieve body shapes that are fairly impossible goals.

Two padded looks: a 1996 statement dress by Rei Kawakubo and the 1994 Wonderbra

The show concludes where it started – with a conversation about how designers, fashion fans, and the rise of social media are influencing and showing how real women dress today.

A fantastic red-carpet evening gown that Siriano designed for Leslie Jones after a Tweet storm ensued about designers not offering to dress a larger woman serves as the cornerstone content of the show. One dress says it all – class, elegance, beauty, sass, and bravery all summed up in one statement-creation.

Listen to what Christian and the other passionate young designers have to say about where fashion must go for the good of all:

If you have more time, listen to the conversation between Valerie Steele and Tim Gunn, which led FIT’s all-day seminar on this topic. This conversation digs deeper into lack of industry and designer support for less-than-ideal-sized women and concludes with ideas on what emerging designers can do to bring about change.

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