Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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13 / The Body

Portrait of Woman Wearing Corset
Portrait of Woman Wearing Corset
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, United States
Region: North America
Date ca. 1899
Material Photographic print
Location Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Credit Courtesy of the Library of Congress

expert perspective

Andrew BoltonAssociate Curator, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Portrait of Woman Wearing Corset

» Unknown artist, United States

expert perspective

Andrew Bolton Andrew Bolton Associate Curator, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Throughout history, clothing, the idea of practical utility isn’t the paramount driving force of fashion. The corset is a great example. The style changed throughout the centuries since the Renaissance onwards. In the eighteenth century, where women had to literally bend from their hips in a way, the bottom of the waist didn’t actually get any movement. And it was reinforced by what you call a busk, which kept you more rigid. And there was no practicality in that. That was really about trying to achieve an ideal form of beauty. The corset and the pannier are very much about trying to evoke an ideal form of beauty that was very much fashionable in the eighteenth century—less about practicality and more about idealism. So the idea of the sort of the corseted body was a fettered body, it was a body that had a particular way of moving the body. And in the eighteenth century, there are actual manuals that were published about how a woman of leisure or an aristocratic woman would actually walk or behave or function in not just undergarments, but the dressed body itself. So the idea that in the eighteenth century manuals existed to actually teach women how to walk, present themselves, sit, very much talks about the idea, or alludes to the idea, of fashion being a more wider part of culture which is about defining aristocratic ideals, and not just about the idea of an ideal beauty, it’s about aristocratic ideals or elite ideals.

Ideals of beauty change throughout history, and in the twentieth century, for example, you have Paul Poiret who abandoned the corset and looked much more towards a classical ideal of beauty, which was an unfettered body, a body that was free from any undergarments, and women, at the time, very much missed or bemoaned the corset because it meant that you had to achieve an ideal form of beauty, or an ideal body, through exercise or dieting. A corset was quite democratic in a way in that fact that you could achieve an ideal form through just donning a corset. When you think about Chanel in the 1920s and the idea that the garçon silhouette, which is all about a flat chest, a very boyish sort of silhouette, which was the ideal of the 1920s, which very much suited the flapper fashions of the period. And again, in the fifties, you see the return of the corset, the very hourglass new look that Dior promoted in ’47 and the fifties.

So the corset is strange, because it has this image of being this sort of anti-democratic sort of structure, which from one point, it is of course. But the other side, women did miss it when they no longer had it, because it meant more of an effort, in terms of their own sort of physical appearance.” 


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