Fashion trends have long been viewed as a social barometer: reflections of a society’s values and priorities. But the garments designed to be worn underneath will often have just as much to say. Two current exhibitions are taking a closer look at how our underthings have changed to reflect the outer world.
“La mécanique du dessous,” currently showing at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, reviews the concept of historical shapewear – the Spanx and Wonderbras of the 1300s onwards. Focusing on changes in silhouette, the exhibit takes a “behind the scenes” angle to fashion history. A survey of the artificial means used to achieve the physical beauty ideals of the time covers corsets, panniers, crinolines, girdles, and even their male equivalents (waist-cinching belts and calf and fly padding). Shapes from the wide hips and wasp waists of the 1700s to avant-garde creations like Comme des Garçons’s notorious “Bump” dresses are analyzed in sociological terms: what did they mean, and why did we want to look like this?
A second exhibition poses the same questions of a particularly French specialty: lingerie. Eleven of the country’s most prominent manufacturers have contributed archival designs to create an overview of lingerie from the late 19th century to the present. Over 210 pieces, from ancient corsets and the first patented bra to today’s most futuristic prototypes, trace the ways in which lingerie has reflected changing attitudes about body image, morals, and sexuality. A life-size, holographic “trans-historical striptease” visualizes the evolution of styling and silhouette decade by decade. The exhibition touches down in New York’s Chelsea Market for a week after touring in Paris, London, Shanghai, Dubai, and Berlin this the past year. Dress code: it’s what’s inside that matters.
“La mécanique du dessous” runs until November 24 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. “Lingerie Française” runs through August 6 at Chelsea Market.
Photos by Patricia Canino for the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.