Stays, silk brocade (1750–1760) (England, museum purchase, photo courtesy the Museum at FIT)

At the entrance of an exhibit at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) is a dress entirely made of plastic tape measures. What might, at first glance, look like a creative exercise is actually a work by artist Kate Chow, who intends to highlight society’s obsession with clothing sizes and idealized body shapes. And, in one form or another, this obsession has remained constant throughout the 250 years of fashion history surveyed in the exhibition The Body: Fashion and Physique.

Upon first glance, The Body, which features 60 items from the museum’s permanent collection, might seem like a condensed timeline of fashions, detailing the ideal silhouettes and trends from the late 1700s to our time. However, as visually striking as the selection of dresses might be — from a brick-pink brocade dress from the late 1800s that sports an 18-inch waist offset by a 31-inch bust, to an emerald-green sculptural ballgown by Charles JamesThe Body is more than a chronological display of pretty silks, laces, and sequins. Rather, the exhibit stresses how, throughout the centuries, women in Western culture have been forced, even physically constricted, into molding to bodily ideals.

Long, flared evening slip dress and corset in silk crepe de chine printed with signature design of gilt baroque frames and red string instruments in shades of turquoise, brown and gold with metallic “glitter” details

The oldest item in the exhibit is a “stay” (the predecessor of the corset), entirely made of silk and brocade, from the 1760s. By the 1850s, corsets came with a metal busk down the center, complete with hook and eye closures, which allowed the wearer to put it on on her own. The exhibition also displays a disturbing corset from the second half of the 19th century, which was designed to be worn underneath a maternity dress. The constrictive corset had a last hurrah in the early 1900s, with the so-called S-Bend models, which thrust the chest visibly forward to create an illusion of a fuller bust.

But women’s bodies thereafter were far from liberated. The 1930s saw the rise of “girdles”: rubber-made contraptions that were designed to massage the flesh in order to melt inches off. “You do nothing, take no drugs, eat all you wish, yet with every move the marvelous Perfolastic girdle gently massages away the surplus fat,” reads a peppy ad from 1934 taken from a US magazine.

In the 1960s undergarments were ditched in favor of more revelatory dresses, which meant more dieting and more exercising. The Body points to mini-dresses with transparent panels and revelatory jumpsuits as examples; while these items didn’t allow for complex undergarments, they were designed for a lithe figure.

Chromat, ensemble, spandex and plastic boning (spring 2015, USA, museum purchase, photo courtesy the Museum at FIT)

From 2010 onward, The Body stresses body positivity and inclusiveness, though this angle isn’t entirely convincing. While there are notable sections like wheelchair-friendly fashion, the new “ideal” seems to be Kim Kardashian and her “naked dress.” A one-piece bodysuit, designed by Becca McCharen’s label Chromat, features a plastic contraption whose outer structure references the boning of a corset; however, with wit and visual mastery, McCharen shaped the armor-like structure like a curvaceous lower body. While it clearly celebrates a more shapely figure than the one that has been in fashion until 10 years ago, it almost seems to imply that women might want to wear external corsets that will make them look like Kim Kardashian.  

Martin Margiela, tunic (1997), linen (Belgium, museum purchase, photo courtesy the Museum at FIT)

The Body does have a number of garments by designers who, through a more conceptual approach to fashion, question and reflect (with the right amount of irreverence) on the industry trends. A 1997 tunic by Martin Margiela is meant to recreate the dress form; however, in doing so, the Belgian designer emphasizes how artificial the idea of an ideal body in fashion actually is. In the same year, the Comme-des-Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo presented the collection “Dress Meets body, Body Meets Dress,” where body-hugging pieces were deformed through the use of bulbous paddings. In the case of the gingham dress featured in The Body, the padding sits around the hipbone and on the opposite shoulder. “It’s our job to question convention,” Kawakubo told Vogue in 1997. “If we don’t take risks, then who will?”

While the fact that women’s bodies have been constricted into fitting predetermined standards is not exactly a revolutionary thesis, it’s worth seeing how fashion has played out in a timeline-like manner, including all the ways sleeves, bustles, and lacework have been used to achieve the illusion of a small waist. Indeed, despite the exhibit’s obvious takeaway, visitors to The Body will nonetheless find themselves amazed at the many ways fashion has tried to inch closer to bodily ideals.

The Body: Fashion and Physique continues at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (227 West 27th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 5.

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Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer, editor, and translator living in Brooklyn. Originally from Milan, she writes about the arts, culture, food, and fashion.