This summer, I had shared teasing videos from La Mécanique des Dessous: Une Histoire Indiscrète de la Silhouette (Underwear Mechanism: An Indiscreet History of the Silhouette), an exhibition proposed by Les Arts Décoratifs and that I have finally got the chance to visit. The display aims to explore the devices used by women and men from the 14th century to nowadays, to redraw their silhouette. It is therefore not a story of lingerie but clearly the story of, deliberately hidden, imaginative pieces of clothing that enable to construct the body’s appearance. About 200 silhouettes presenting panniers, crinolines, corsets, push-ups and other intriguing artefacts illustrate the relationship fashion has developed with the body from the Middle Ages.
The exhibition is organised within a chronological organisation with its underwear and a few complete clothing ensembles that enable to observe the impact on the silhouette of these dissimulated structures. Besides these artefacts are installed mannequins wearing animated replicas (this is what you can see on the videos I shared) that highlight the mechanism of the constructions.
A playful space also enables visitors to try on examples of corsets, crinolines and panniers for a pedagogic approach and comprehension of the mechanical structures and their impact on the body and its gestures.
From the medieval times, clothing transforms the body, creates a new body. A different conscience of the silhouette is delivered, a conscience that clothes make the body. Men are obsessed with virility and use padded doublets and prominent flies during the Renaissance. Women adjust their waist and raise their breasts. During the 18th century, bone corsets and panniers construct the silhouette but also give to the feminine body, a different walk and bearing crucial to the society’s stakes. Higher classes play with the singular distinction their rigorous underwear confer. Men wear padded jackets that arch their torsos and provide an impression of superiority and confidence. These pieces of clothing reinforced with various mechanisms and wirings, enabled an uprightness desired by the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, searching for an ideal of supremacy.
The display dedicates an important chapter to the 19th century: during the period, underwear has never been as important and hidden. The tyrannical corset and the excessive crinolines create tiny waists before the 1870’s bustles that give women this curious sinuous profile. Men continue to accentuate their masculinity with calf amplifiers but hide, with a certain sense of coquetry, their large bellies and bottoms under stomach belts and underpants-girdles.
Therefore, even though forms and techniques have changed, the mechanical piece of clothing’s aim remains: erase the belly, dig the waist, enhance the breast and widen the hips. Appearances won over comfort.
It is only at the beginning of the 20th century that a radical change will occur in the underwear’s mechanism. Couturiers such as Paul Poiret or Madeleine Vionnet privilege a more natural, linear silhouette. The corset disappears and bras and girdles take over. Women’s bodies are gradually freed and answer their new role in the modern society as active participants.
During the 1920s, the garçonne aims to erase her feminine features for an androgynous silhouette, helped by girdles. At the end of the 1940s, Christian Dior’s New Look celebrates the return to corsetry and bras are wired to resemble their torturous ancestors. The 1960s-70s, see the comeback of the androgynous silhouette and the underwear gains in discretion; in 1959, Lycra enables to erase enables to erase the boarder between underwear and clothes.
The exhibition also proposes contemporary fashion examples that illustrate a category of designers’ affection for past forms and body distortions. From the 1980s, a certain idea of true femininity is associated to drawn waists and generous breasts assisted by padded bras and push-ups while men’s virility is accentuated by sexy underpants.
Some couturiers also play with historical forms and the underwear becomes outerwear while a group of designers such as Rei Kawabuko use experimental artefacts to shape a new unnatural silhouette.
Today, we still shape our silhouettes but more with the help of diets, sports and cosmetic surgery than with clothing. An invisible corset has replaced the physical corset: we are urged to have thin, athletic yet feminine bodies. The mechanical construction is now psychic!
A pedagogic and original exhibition that looks at fashion history and underwear with a new approach. It arises many questions about the relationship we have with our bodies: how society and taste has shaped our silhouettes? How women have been (still are?) the victims of ideal aesthetics? How physical torture has gone from clothing artefacts to psychological diktats?
A must-see exhibition on until the 24th November 2013.
The exhibition’s catalogue: Bruna, Denis. La Mécanique des Dessous: Une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette. Paris: Les Arts Décoratifs, 2013.
Folli, Anna. Lingerie. Novara: White Star, 2010.
Lynn, Eleri. Underwear: Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publishing, 2010.
Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.