Exhibition Review: The Body: Fashion and Physique
FIT Fashion & Textile History Gallery (New York), December 5, 2017 – May 5, 2018
I was taking the metro downtown to The Museum at FIT when it drew to a sudden halt (a common occurrence on New York City transit, I later found out). I was swept up into a wave of bodies as we jostled and swayed our way towards the light. As we pooled out onto the street, I was provided with a timely moment to observe the diverse array of bodies around me. They varied in size, shape and color, and the clothes they wore simultaneously concealed and revealed their shifting proportions. Each body was entirely unique; one couldn’t have been more different from the next. Despite the obviousness of my observation, it nevertheless had me questioning why these body types face such limited representation in the mainstream fashion industry. How has fashion avoided total responsibility of providing for and acknowledging the majority of body types?
The Museum at FIT addresses the complex, ever-changing relationship between fashion and the body in its latest exhibition, The Body: Fashion and Physique. Associate curator of costume, Emma McClendon, brings together a variety of historic and contemporary garments to highlight how fashion has treated, manipulated and typecast particularly the female body. Broadly, McClendon’s exhibition looks at the evolution of the “ideal” fashion body from the eighteenth century to the present, and considers the connection between fashion and body politics Although the show is by no means comprehensive it is highly novel in its ambitions to lend a historical perspective to current discussion around inclusivity and body diversity. Diversity feels like a relatively new concept within fashion and, unfortunately, is one the industry continues to marginalize. As The Museum at FIT functions primarily to educate emerging fashion designers, I was interested to see what kind of dialogue it would generate around body diversity, albeit long overdue.
The exhibition begins with Martin Margiela’s linen tunic (1997) — its ridged form a nod to the artificial nature of the fashioned body. Wire dress forms flank the tunic on either side and cast austere shadows on the walls, perhaps signifying the severity of construction the female body has long been subject to. A video projection led me further into the space, which played a collection of interviews with eight industry professionals, including sociologist Joanne Entwistle, fashion educators Lauren Downing Peters and Kim Jenkins, designer Christian Siriano, and model and fashion activist Sara Ziff, among others. They proceeded to elaborate on numerous cultural factors that have contributed to the fashioning of the body, and interrogate issues including size division, plus-sized merchandising and the insufficient amount of clothing available for alternative body types. Other perpetrators within the industry, such as fashion media, are indirectly called-out for their problematic contributions to fashioning normative body ideals. Although the video’s main purpose seemed to be to provoke future designers to think more broadly about the body, I couldn’t help but feel like I was hearing rehashed insights and information. I wanted to hear more progressive, definitive plans of action from the professionals themselves; I wanted to feel a more palpable sense of urgency for industry change. After navigating the remainder of The Body, this impression also came to represent my feelings towards some other aspects of the exhibition.
Moving on from the introductory space, I walked through the middle of three main sections that display an array of garments from the eighteenth century to now. Positioned atop elevated platforms, the items are illuminated under spotlights throughout the otherwise dimly lit rooms. The garments are shown on dress forms opposed to mannequins, effectively drawing attention to the harsh, and at times absurd, proportions such garments restricted the body to obey. Didactic plaques deliver informative extracts of information on their corresponding garments. Contrasting illustrations, screens, and interactive iPads show additional imagery from the popular press relevant to the development and rise of specific body types. The atmosphere feels serious and introspective — a world away from the spectacular fashion exhibits that have become so commonplace at other institutions. While this approach poses limited distractions to reconsider the relationship between garments and theory, it felt, at times, monotonous. The layout choices indeed provided me with a clearly narrated viewing path, yet I wondered if more imaginative, unconventional modes of display would’ve facilitated a more stimulating viewing experience.
Walking through the main space, the left side of the room displays a variety of stays, corsets, and crinolines, as well as elaborate nineteenth century gowns, augmented by swollen bustles. Amidst these items appears a nineteenth century corset designed for a pregnant woman, and another for a small girl, proving no female was exempt from the strictures of taming and supporting ones supposedly “weak” figure. The opposite side of the room shows modern interpretations of the fashioned body, including a black velvet Thierry Mugler mini dress (1981) and a Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcon dress from the "Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body" collection (Spring/Summer, 1997). Contemporary silhouettes also enter the dialogue, most interestingly, Grace Jun’s Jacket (2017), designed to track the range of motion in breast cancer survivor’s post-mastectomy treatment, and Lucy Jones Shirt (2017), designed for wheelchair users and people with diverse disabilities who sit for extended hours at a time. To me, these two garments in particular exemplified the kind of inclusive design the exhibition’s introductory video aspires to stimulate. Entering the back room, garments such as a cocoon-like Charles James evening gown (1954) sit across from high-cut 1980s aerobics wear — a dramatic contrast between shifting ideals of fashionable decorum. Without disregarding the limitations that come with forming an exhibition, or the conscious effort to include both abled and disabled bodies, I found the discourse surrounding the body profoundly white. I was disappointed to find that Christian Siriano’s red silk dress, designed for actress Leslie Jones, was the only garment physically representing bodies of colour. Perhaps considering the physique through a more culturally diverse lens overall would’ve expanded an otherwise fairly predictable glimpse into the evolution of the fashioned body.
Overall, the exhibition showed that the ideal fashioned body has endured a constant state of flux. Despite my critiques, I truly believe The Body is an important contribution to the beginning of more informed discussions concerning body diversity. Through examining the backbones of fashion history, The Body positions body diversity as a significant issue of our time. It’s clear that change is in motion; body positivity has infiltrated the fashion system and continues to spread its reach online through social media channels. Above all, I believe the show aims to motivate emerging fashion designers to challenge and reimagine what the fashioned body can be, and how fashion will be manufactured and sold. Whether the exhibition executes this message in the best possible way, I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that change is inevitable. If institutions continue to call out the industry in exhibitions such as this, empowering body ideals might just be within our reach.