Fashion has long seen the female body as a malleable entity, something to be moulded according to the dictates of complex social codes or the fickle whims of the fashion industry. By analysing the changing fashionable silhouette from the 18th Century to the present day, a new exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (FIT) argues that the fashionable body has always been a cultural construct and one that needs to be challenged if we are to reach a greater acceptance of body diversity.
In the 18th Century the notion of a fashionable body was of concern primarily to the elite. The wearing of stays (laced underbodice) was considered essential, but as curator Emma McClendon points out, this was not simply to make the wearer appear more slender. Their widespread use was, she explains, “much more complex and related to cultural notions of propriety, class and a woman’s physicality.”
Being ensconced in stays created a uniquely rigid carriage. By mastering an elegant gait whilst constrained in such an uncomfortable garment was a sign of breeding. “There was also a prevailing belief during the period that women’s bodies were inherently weak and in need of support,” says McClendon. These ideas were challenged by some of the leading writers and thinkers of the day, with the philosopher and writer Rousseau seeing stays as a particularly apt metaphor for the social institutions constraining the individual – but his views had little impact.

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