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 Christian Dior.
"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.
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 by Armani.
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 Steele.