Fashion & Textile History Gallery
December 9, 2008 – June 16, 2009
Seduction is traditionally defined as an act of temptation and enticement, often sexual
in nature. Throughout history, men and women have utilized seductive clothing to enhance
physical attractiveness, as well as to convey a sense of power and social status.
Seduction was the first chronological survey to explore 250 years of sexuality in fashion.
Featuring at least seventy looks and forty accessories, Seduction examined the complex relationship between seduction and clothing, presenting a visual
history of sexuality, moral standards, and social norms all observed through the prism
of fashion. Examples included a black satin Belle Époque corset, red satin Manolo
Blahnik stilettos, and a skintight black leather evening gown by John Galliano for
Cristóbal Balenciaga, cocktail dress, black lace, black silk, fuchsia silk, circa
1958, France, gift of The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, from
the Estate of Ann E. Woodward, 87.158.2
Vivienne Westwood, evening dress, silver leather, silver metallic silk, white chiffon,
1988, England, museum purchase, P89.60.1
Srka Siskov, evening dress, light pink silk chiffon, 2008, Czech Republic, gift of
Sarka Siskova, 2008.76.3
"The proximity of clothing to the body is inherently sensual, conveyed through the
strategic interplay of exposure and concealment," said Colleen Hill, curator of Seduction. The exhibition showed an early example of this with a gown from circa 1785, in which
an open-front bodice lends an air of undress without actually revealing the body.
Menswear from this period emphasizes the equally important role of seduction in male
dress, as seen in a lavishly embroidered waistcoat.
The nineteenth century, particularly the Victorian era, introduced changing ideals
of beauty and the increased distinction between male and female dress. Dresses from
this outwardly modest era indicate subtle displays of sexuality. The flirtatious swing
of a crinoline, for example, offered tantalizing glimpses of a woman's ankle. A sheer,
white cotton lingerie dress by Jeanne Paquin, circa 1900, provided an early example
of outerwear inspired by intimate apparel.
The first half of the twentieth century saw increasingly daring forms of seductive
dress, best exemplified by shockingly spare flapper dresses. A satin and velvet evening
gown by Christian Dior, circa 1955, defines the ladylike yet highly sexualized fashions
of the post-war era, while Cristobal Balenciaga's subtly revealing, feminine cocktail
dress of the late 1950s embodies the allure of black lace.
By the 1980s and 1990s, attitudes toward the display of women's bodies had shifted
dramatically, and female sexuality was increasingly considered a sign of strength.
Designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, and Azzedine Alaïa took the
concept of underwear-as-outerwear to daring new extremes that are still being furthered
and refined today.
Costume National, men's suit, black cotton, blue/black polyester, 2004, Italy, gift
of Costume National, 2008.49.1
Manolo Blahnik evening sandals, red silk satin, circa 1988, England, gift of Carolyne
Roehm, Inc., 91.186.14
Christian Dior Boutique (John Galliano), evening dress, black lambskin leather, black
silk, 2000, France, museum purchase, 2001.45.1
Contemporary fashion is quite varied in its display of sexuality. Feminine, romantic
styles by designers such as Olivier Theyskens (formerly of Rochas) prevailed, focusing
on beautiful fabrics and sensuousness rather than on exposure of skin. Menswear has
also renewed its place in seductive fashion, as was seen in an edgy, body-revealing
version of the traditional men's suit by Costume National. Shoes and lingerie were
prominently featured from designers such as Christian Louboutin and Jean Yu. One of
the museum's recent acquisitions was on display—a gown designed by Giorgio Armani
featuring the diamond leaf crystal, a Swarovski crystal especially designed and named
Seduction was organized by Colleen Hill, with support from Harumi Hotta and Lynn Weidner (textiles),
as well as Fred Dennis and Ann Coppinger. Special thanks to Julian Clark and Valerie