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Evening Dress. American or European, 1884–86 (C.I.63.23.3a, b)

Evening Dress. America or Europe, 1884–86. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. J. Randall Creel, 1963 (C.I.63.23.3a, b)


Extreme Beauty

The Body Transformed

December 6, 2001–March 17, 2002

Accompanied by a catalogue

Over time and across cultures, extraordinary manipulations of the body have occurred in a continuing evolution of the concept of beauty. This exhibition offers a unique opportunity to see fashion as the practice of some of the most extreme strategies to conform to shifting concepts of the physical ideal. Various zones of the body—neck, shoulders, bust, waist, hips, and feet—have been constricted, padded, truncated, or extended through subtle visual adjustments of proportion, less subtle prosthesis, and often deliberate physical deformation. Costumes in the exhibition—ranging from a sixteenth-century-style iron corset to Jean Paul Gaultier's notorious "Madonna" bustier—are augmented by anthropological and ethnographic examples and by paintings, prints, and drawings, including caricatures by Cruikshank, Daumier, Rowlandson, and Vernet.

Among the designers represented in the exhibition are Elsa Schiaparelli, Gilbert Adrian, Cristobal Balenciaga, Thierry Mugler, Vivienne Westwood, Norma Kamali, Rei Kawakubo, Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano for Dior Haute Couture, Roger Vivier, Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Haute Couture, Yohji Yamamoto, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Organized thematically in five sections, the exhibition begins with an intriguing presentation on the "Neck and Shoulders." In most cultures, a long neck and defined shoulders are perceived as symbols of grace, strength, and poise. To demonstrate this theory, an array of cultural and fashionable mechanisms such as traditional brass neckrings worn by the Ndebele and Padoung people to elongate the neck or traditional wide-wing kimonos worn by samurai to extend the shoulders are juxtaposed with modern and sometimes radical interpretations by fashion designers John Galliano for Christian Dior, Issey Miyake, and Hussein Chalayan.

The second gallery presents the obvious and subtle methods employed to enhance or diminish the "Chest." From Empire gowns marked with high waist and exposed décolleté to Tom Ford's plastic bustier with piercings for Yves Saint Laurent, art and fashion have presented the chest as alternately suppressed and augmented. Other examples include the flattening Japanese obi, monobosoms, early conical brassieres, and Madonna's infamous pink satin bustier by Jean Paul Gaultier worn during her "Blonde Ambition" Tour.

"Waist," in the third gallery, documents the long history of midriff manipulation, from the waist suppression of sixteenth-century iron corsets, to the cinched drawers of early nineteenth-century dandies. Ethnic examples include bark girdles worn in New Guinea by men and the beaded corsets of Dinka warriors in Africa. Non-waisted effects include the cylindrical form of the Japanese courtesan, flapper styles of the 1920s, and fashions by designer Balenciaga, Helmut Lang, and Viktor and Rolf.

The fourth gallery, "Hips," reveals the hidden constructions and elaborate engineering applied to the hips and buttocks. The impulse to enhance and exaggerate the hip area has resulted in an astounding array of panniers, bustles, hip pads, and crinoline hoops. Highlights include the double-door expanse of eighteenth-century panniered court gowns and the radical "bump" dresses of fashion designer Rei Kawakubo.

The final gallery is devoted to "Feet." Shoes have been one of fashion's most effective tools to adjust the natural anatomy. Examples range from geisha tottering on raised clogs, to the twenty-inch-high chopines of sixteenth-century Venetian women, to the outrageous and multicolored platform sandals of Salvatore Ferragamo.