When you think of representations of full-figured women throughout history, works by Rubens or Botero may immediately come to mind. Discussions of body image, however, tend to center around the portrayal of the nude. An exhibition currently at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery asks visitors to consider ideas of female beauty in relation to the sartorial, as depicted in images from the 18th century onward. Beyond Measure: Fashion and the Plus-Size*, organized by students in NYU Steinhardt’s MA Costume Studies program, explores attitudes toward women as reflected in fashion over the past four centuries through material including paintings, clothing, and videos. In addition to occupying a section of the gallery, the exhibition also exists online in the form of a web app that allows visitors to explore each object along with audio clips from curators and additional images and videos.
“While the subject of plus-size is prevalent in social media, blogs, and online media today, it is rarely treated within the academia and museums,” co-curator Ya’ara Keydar told Hyperallergic. “With this exhibition, we wanted to provide the plus-size woman in history the space that she seldom receives, and by doing so, start a conversation on this important subject.”
Those with sharp eyes may have noticed the asterisk tacked to the end of the exhibition’s title — it represents the debate the curators had as they organized the show, during which they realized no one term used to describe body image will ever satisfy everyone. The term “plus-size” itself actually garnered backlash last year during the #DropThePlus campaign, but curators decided to shape the exhibition around it after researching the historical and contemporary meanings of other terms, from “curvy” to “plump” to “Rubenesque.” A note at the bottom of the exhibition’s wall text thus reads:
* “Plus-size” is only one of many terms used to describe the non-thin body; after careful consideration, it was chosen by the curators for its association with the fashion industry.
Organized chronologically, Beyond Measure examines in particular the fashion industry, with its curators acknowledging it as the most powerful entity that defines our perceptions of plus-size women today. Objects on view point to various trends throughout history that highlight shifts in ideals of physical beauty. Some works, from an early-20th-century photograph of a “Nettie the Fat Girl” sideshow to a page of a 1960s clothing pattern “designed for chubbies,” nod to negative notions of heavier set women. The former highlights Nettie’s reputation as a freak or as a subject for spectacle, the latter reminds of the role of manufacturers in reinforcing labels many would consider demeaning.
Still, other images illustrate how the fashion world is not always ignorant of or hostile to those with fuller figures. The oldest work nods to the fact that even “240 years ago, the plus-size woman was not antithetical to fashion but seamlessly melding with it,” as Keydar said. Represented in the gallery by a facsimile (the original hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), a 1776 portrait painted by Joseph Siffred Duplessis shows a woman wearing a fashionable, laced stomacher. Although the accessory reminds of corsets that literally sculpted bodies into forms considered beautiful for being dainty, it also suggests that plus-size women could still fit in with the heralded trends of the time even if their physiques differed from the cultural ideal.
Similarly, a 1930s dress designed posthumously in honor of Marie Dressler celebrated the actress and comedienne’s larger-than-average figure, advertised to women of similar sizes as “sheer, cool, fresh, perfect fitting.” Beyond Measure also features more contemporary examples to show the increasingly welcoming attitudes of our time toward plus-size women even as stick-thin models continue to dominate the fashion industry. A 1992 photograph taken by Jean Paul Gaultier of Stella Ellis marks the successful entrance of plus-size women into the world of high fashion, while a video streams the winner of Project Runway‘s most recent season, who sent a collection for plus-size women down the catwalk for her final collection.
Occupying 80 WSE’s project space, the exhibition is small but significant, exploring a topic that, although not new, remains relevant and worthy of a proper public platform.
“We all wanted to start a conversation on a subject that is definitely deserving the spotlight of the museological space,” Keydar said. “We hope to see more plus-size historical garments on display, for example, and the plus-size fashion more often researched within the academic and scholarly environment.”