Home / Undressing History: The Louvre Looks At The Mechanics Of Fashionable Shapes
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Articulated pannier and whalebone corset, circa 1740-60

The pursuit of a perfect figure — however culture and custom defined it — has transfixed humanity for centuries. And a new exhibition opening in Paris today reveals that this most unapologetic expression of vanity isn’t confined to women alone.

The history of mechanical manipulations of human anatomy through undergarments is given a thorough and very serious examination in Behind The Seams: An Indiscreet Look At The Mechanics of Fashion, which runs until Nov. 24 at the Museum of Decorative Arts in The Louvre. (Yes, leave it to the French to put their undies on display — in the Louvre, no less!)

The exhibition explores the various devices used in ‘mechanical clothes’ since the 14th Century to create an artificial, but flattering, silhouette.

And in doing so, it dispels a couple of persistent myths: first, that architectural undergarments first became popular in the 19th Century; and second, that they were utilized by women only.

The exhibition also turns its attention to men and the fashion tricks they’ve used throughout history to present a physical silhouette that conveys manliness. That covers everything from medieval padded doublets to bulge-boosting Renaissance codpieces and even the use of padded breastplate armor (the first push-up bras, perhaps?) to create a warrior-like physique on the battlefield.

Behind The Seams includes nearly 200 exhibits culled from private and museum collections (including more than 30 pieces from the renowned personal trove of Vancouver corset-maker Melanie Talkington).

Hoop and cage skirts, farthingales, girdles, stomach belts, crinolines, corsets, bustles and bodices — if it was employed to alter the body to create a flattering effect, you’ll find it here.

Many of the pieces on display are engineering marvels — often with cringe-inducing purpose. Undergarment mechanisms were used throughout history to flatten stomachs, broaden hips, arch spines, extend necks and shoulders, amplify calves and, of course, accentuate female breasts.

A visitor viewing Behind The Seams will have no trouble connecting the historic dots between the painful contraptions that produced the 19th Century ‘wasp waist’, for example, and the shoulder pads, collar stays, plunge bras, chicken cutlets and constrictive shapewear used to transform women’s figures today.

And for contemporary fashion lovers, Behind The Seams offers a wonderful assortment of pieces from couture design houses that are still very much in the business of manipulating perceptions of the female shape. Thus, look for otherworldly pieces from Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, Dolce and Gabbana, Vivienne Westwood and more.

If it’s press materials are to be believed, Behind The Seams appears to take a mostly academic, non-judgmental view of the sometimes-indefensible business of squishing humans into new molds (although it notes that children were also put in corsets as far back as the 17th Century).

The exhibition does make a clear distinction, though, between ‘natural’ and artificial fashion silhouettes throughout history, illustrating how changing style tastes alternated between those extremes.

In that context, it illuminates this juicy point: in the Middle Ages, when awareness of fashion silhouettes began to emerge, it was considered an offense against God to change the human shape through fashion contrivances. The body was considered a mirror of the Creator, and so any embellishment or alteration was deemed blasphemous because it suggested that one’s given shape was anything less than perfect to begin with.

Something to think about the next time you buy a push-up bra.

Below we have an extraordinary collection of images from the catalogue of Behind The Seams: An Indiscreet Look At The Mechanics of Fashion. Enjoy!

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Strap-on bustle, 1887
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Braided rattan bustle, 1880
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Double-pocket pannier, 1775-80
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‘The Bride’, Jean Paul Gaultier, 2008-9 ‘Cages’ collection
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‘Irresistible’ skirted lace bustier, Lejaby, 1951-2
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Bustier, 1950
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‘Papillon’ cage bustle, circa 1872
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Dress, Thierry Mugler, 1992
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Corset, circa 1860-70
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Man’s waist cincher, early 20th Century
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Whalebone body, circa 1770-80
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Dress, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons, 2012
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Corselet, circa 1900
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Bustier, Dolce & Gabbana, 2007
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Bump Dress, Comme des Garcons, 1997
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One Response to “Undressing History: The Louvre Looks At The Mechanics Of Fashionable Shapes”

  1. Miss Perfect says:

    Oh, i´m so inspired to go to Paris! Thank you for this post! I have to book a weekend in paris asap!
    <3

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