Extreme Historical Silhouettes and the Peculiar Undergarments that Produced Them

The extreme means in which women — and men — have shaped their bodies through undergarments in the last four centuries are examined at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. The exhibition, which began at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, showcases the many curious intimate devices used to achieve seemingly impossible silhouettes, from the 17th century onward. Think panniers, corsets, bustles, stomach belts, girdles, and modern bras. One takeaway: Spanx, while popular, is certainly not a new idea.

Spread across three floors, the exhibit opens with the 17th-century silhouette, exemplified by a reinforced women’s vest. Garments of the 18th century, with their structured armatures and other mechanisms, went further in imposing an erect posture. The bustle and particularly the corset ruled undergarments of the 19th century, accentuated by abundant crinoline below the waist. The exhibition continues with the 20th-century bra and girdle, including those worn by men, as well as the push-up bras of today, reflecting a silhouette based more on diets and surgery than clothing.

In addition to complete outfits, the exhibition also features mechanized reconstructions of panniers, crinolines, and bustles, to show how involved they were. Visitors can also try on replicas of many items.

Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette, April 3 – July 26, 2015, Bard Graduate Center Gallery, 18 West 86th Street, NYC

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