Tight or fluid. Plain or loaded with artifice. Structured or loose. Throughout the centuries, the looks and shapes of our clothes changed dramatically, modifying our silhouette according to the customs and perceptions of the times.
This is the theme of “Dressing the body. 1550-2015” exhibition at Barcelona’s design museum that I want to share with you today. I found the emphasis on silhouette to be original and to make a great point: the history of fashion is not only about how the clothes changed, but about how society felt about the human body itself. And about how the changes in moral and aesthetic codes influenced the increase in dresses volumes, or the elongation of the silhouette, or the use of transparent fabrics.
In the 16th century, for instance, men would wear high heels to look taller, while in the 19th century they’d rather opt for a top hat, Uncle Sam’s style. Women, instead, would experience more nuanced and, many times, difficult to wear or painful challenges throughout the passage of time.
Having the human body as protagonist, the Design museum displays some 180 outfits that illustrate five centuries of history, plus a series of mannequins which point out exactly which part – the waistline, the back, the chest – was being paid more attention.
The Renaissance, for instance, perceived the body as a frame for displaying richly decorated fabrics, lace, embroidery and accessories. Men showed their legs while women wore long dresses, with interior structures designed to enlarge the figure below the waistline.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish fashion of wearing black and adopting a hierarchic pose was followed by most other European courts, while the 18th century saw a shift to the French style, which sought a theatrical effect.
The French revolution set the body free, as Napoleon supressed by decree the symbols of the aristocracy: corsets, paniers, breeched and heeled shoes. For both women and men, the silhouette became rectiliear, following the model of the Greek statues. This didn’t last long, though, as in 1828 the corset was introduced.
The tighter the corset was, the thinner the waistline, but the more difficult the breathing. Nevertheless, even men would wear them.
Moving fast forward, in the 1920’s, for the first time in history, women showed their legs. Further on, revealing the body has been, and maybe still is, one of the most fascinating aspects of fashion.
There are plenty of interesting details to find out, such as when clothing stores started using models, when was the wasp waist in fashion, or even how the underwear evolved from Renaissance til our times…
Besides historical outfits (most of them from Catalunya, as well as from other parts of Spain and France), there are plenty of 20th century creations, designed by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Agatha Ruiz de la Prada or Krizia Robustella, to see here as well.
Overall, it seems that fashion is indeed “the most immense modification experienced by the social being, it weights on the whole existence, it dominates opinions, it determines them, it reigns!” as Balzac put it in his Traité de la vie elegante, in 1830.
Ending this fashion jouney in style, there’s a comment which drew my attention, with the title “The modelled body: from the physical corset to the mental corset” and stating that “our constantly changing ideas of beauty commit us to an unending effort to control our bodies” sometimes taking it to the extreme in order to follow “the model of the young”. And thinking about it, maybe the mental corset is just as powerful and painful as the real one used to be…