From Corsets to Spanx, a History of Underwear

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris goes over the top and behind the seams in a provocative new exhibit, An Indiscreet Look at the Mechanics of Fashion. The retrospective examines a smorgasbord of contraptions that nipped waists, lifted busts and accentuate rears since the 14th century, 200 pieces in all.

The brainchild of curator Constance Guisset, who amassed these undergarments from public and private collections, the presentation explores how body image has changed through the ages — and the whale-bone corsetry, hinging, belting, and elastic that has made it possible, from derriere-emphasizing Victorian bustles to modern-day Spanx.

Image-conscious men, too, had their body-altering undies. The exhibit showcases enough codpieces and calf pads to make even the most stoic visitor giggle. And for the fashion enthusiast, these well-constructed underthings demonstrate how the elaborate gowns of yesteryear were supported. It took more than just silk and a prayer to make one of those dresses stand out.

But not all of the lingerie is from a bygone era. The exhibition also documents the sociological changes that freed women from their corsets in the twenties and re instituted the girdle in the late forties. Indeed, some of the more mind-boggling undergarments are those constructed in the last couple of decades. The houses of Louis Vuitton, Dolce and Gabbana and Thierry Mugler have engineered their own apparatuses to support a woman’s desired shape. There are even replications of corsets, panniers and crinolines available to try on for those who want to experience the history of lingerie firsthand.

La Mécanique des Dessous, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, July 5 – November 24, 2013

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