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Sunday, April 4, 2010

The mode of seduction: the Museum at the Fashion Institute ofTechnology has staged an exhibition on fashion as seduction thatexcites the intelligence just as much as the senses.

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To seduce is to entice, to attract, to lure away. The etymology of this sonorous word is to be found in the Latin seducere--to lead apart--but seduction itself is as old as mankind. In representations of 'The Temptation of Adam', Eve's offering of an apple was an act of seduction whose consequence was loss of innocence, whereby a fig leaf performed the momentous shift from nudity to nakedness. The nude is a form of art invented in classical Greece but nakedness is the natural state of the imperfect human body. Clothing Mills the dual function of concealing and revealing: concealing what is imperfect, revealing what is sexually attractive.


This is precisely where we can also locate the distinction between costume and fashion. In A Concise History of Costume (1969) James Laver links costume to the 'Utility Principle' protection and modesty--whilst fashion, he argued, first emerged during the second half of the 14th century, as part of a 'Seduction Principle'. Thus the figure-enhancing doublet replaced the functional gipon.



This exhibition focuses on that relationship between clothing and seduction, here regarded as a vehicle for the understanding of the morals, mores and sexual practices of a society. It fulfils also a secondary purpose, namely to showcase the impressive collection of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which includes some 50,000 costumes and 30,000 accessories, from the 18th century to the present day.

Like the Costume Museum at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musee de la Mode et du Textile, Paris, but unlike the Dress Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum at FIT takes the view that conservation requires that the collection should be exhibited only on a rotating basis, in exhibitions--it has no permanent displays.



In spite of the explosive potential of the subject of the exhibition, curated by Colleen Hill, the overall tenor is subdued, elegant and scholarly. It features some 70 'looks' and 40 accessories starting with a corset of silk brocade reinforced with whalebone made about 1750. Corsets were for centuries garments of erotic allure for the straitlaced woman. In his book Fashion and Fetishism--Corsets, Tight-Lacing and other Forms of Body Sculpture (2006) David Kunzle argues that constriction of a part of the body, whether the torso or, as in China, feet constitutes fetishism, whereby the erotic instinct fastens onto a part of the body (or clothing). In fetishism, the relationship of the part to the whole becomes metonymic: the sexually attractive arm, ankle or decolletage stands in for the entire body. Several of the exhibits make this plain. We may gasp at Christian Louboufin's 2008 platform stiletto shoes made of blush metallic leather with metal studs and rhinestones as the ultimate statement in fetishism--but almost 100 years before, J.J. Slater's satin ribbon-laced 'tango' boots--named for their association with the outrageous Argentinian dance that took Paris by storm--were just as 'wicked'.


The bulk of the exhibition consists of lingerie and women's dresses, but it includes also, for example, a tightly fitted male World War 1 military uniform--the erotic appeal of which is heightened by its proximity to so much lingerie and languorous materials.

We start with the corset. Its effectiveness in changing the natural shape of a woman's figure is evident in Victorian attire, dominated by first the crinoline and then the bustle. Colleen Hill argues that the bustle, 'created a tension that distinctly outlined the shape of the wearer's legs', whilst employing new corsetry techniques that 'moulded a woman's body from the bust through to the hips, highlighting the sexually dimorphic curves of the female torso'.

Yielding to the historical changes that determined the aesthetics of the female body, the corset is gradually replaced by the slip and bra, panties, the bustier--all of which are on display, until we reach the 1960s, where the sexual revolution exemplified by Rudi Gernreich's mini-dresses is seen by Colleen Hill as a 'radical new exposure of the body', and concludes with contemporary developments, when the corset reappears, morphed into an item of outside clothing. Given pride of place at the entrance of the exhibition, and displayed in bold juxtaposition with historical underwear are Vivienne Westwood's silver corsets made of leather and metal, silk and white chiffon and Jean Paul Gaultier's corset dress of peach cotton/nylon blend and peach satin, of around 1988.

The way that the corset's reappearance exemplifies the repetition and recreation of certain motifs in a consistent history of using fashion to create sexual allure is reiterated in the impressive array of dresses on display, such as a recently acquired 19th-century crimson crinoline whose 18-inch waist is one of the smallest in the FIT collection. Despite the myths that such outfits have given rise to about the lengths to which Victorian women went to achieve such a narrow waist, they were almost certainly made for prepubescent girls.

Charming flapper evening dresses embroidered with crystal beads are followed in the exhibition by the fashions of the 1930s and the 1940s, when the 'Utility Principle' reigned once more. The post World War n age is ushered in by Christian Dior's 'New Look' of 1947, including a magnificent cocktail dress of black lace and silk crepe, belted with a fuchsia satin ribbon.

The exhibition concludes with recent designers such as Olivier Theyskens and Ennio Capasa--a black cotton man's suit, dated 2004--and, most recently, a frothy 'Goddess' evening dress of light pink silk and chiffon of 2008 by the Czech designer Sarka Siskova (Fig. 1). Could anything be more different from Giorgio Armani's ubiquitous black leather bomber jacket with metal hardware of 1982? Yet this sharp contrast is in itself pure seduction.

'Seduction,' The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 9 December-2008-16 June (+I 212 217 4560).

Sanda Miller is senior lecturer in fashion history at Southampton Solent University.

Source Citation
Miller, Sanda. "The mode of seduction: the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology has staged an exhibition on fashion as seduction that excites the intelligence just as much as the senses." Apollo May 2009: 87+. Academic OneFile. Web. 4 Apr. 2010.
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