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The Corset: Fashioning the Body

View the online exhibition on Google Arts & Culture.

The corset was one of the sexiest items of clothing in the history of fashion -- and one of the most controversial. Like the high-heeled shoe, it is viewed as both an icon of erotic femininity and an instrument of women's oppression. The Museum at FIT examined the social and cultural significance of the corset throughout fashion history in the exhibition The Corset: Fashioning the Body, which was on view January 25 through April 22, 2000.

Curated by Valerie Steele, chief curator at The Museum at FIT, the exhibition included approximately 100 corsets and corset-inspired fashions, as well as archival photographs, posters, books, caricatures, and advertisements that document the evolution of corsetry. More than the typical display of "historic costume," this exhibition explored the social-psychology of clothing. By showing how corsets have fashioned the ideal body and by presenting a wide variety of different kinds of corsets, the exhibition brilliantly demonstrated how the meaning of clothing is constantly being redefined.

The exhibition began with the history of corsetry. The earliest object on display was a rare iron corset from the 16th century that was probably intended as an orthopedic device to correct spinal deformities. Also on view were 18th-century boned stays as well as a wide range of 19th-centmy Victorian corsets, including a maternity corset, a child's corset, and a man's corset.

The exhibition challenged viewers by asking many provocative questions. How tightly did the average Victorian woman lace her corset? Are the medical horror stories about corsets true? Did corsets really deform ribs and cut livers in half? Featured in the exhibition was an x-ray showing a woman's ribs after years of wearing tight corsets. Modem women no longer wear corsets, but have they simply internalized the corset through diet, exercise, and surgery?

The second section of the exhibition explored the corset's impact on 20th­ century fashion. Couturiers such as Charles James had created corset-inspired fashions as early as the 1930s, but the real explosion began in the 1980s when the Punks transformed underwear into outerwear. On view were contemporary corset fashions ranging from the feminine to the fierce, including fantasy and fetish styles. Feminine corset-inspired fashion, emphasizing "the female form divine," included evening gowns by Christian Lacroix, Gianfranco Ferré , Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, John Galliano at Dior, Josie Natori, Yves Saint Laurent, and Vivienne Westwood. Inspiration drawn from the Belle Epoch and the 18th century was seen in many of these pieces. Fierce corsets -- equally sexy but designed in the style of the femme fatale -- were represented by Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Versace.

The Corset: Fashioning the Body was made possible by the generous support of DuPont LYCRA® and LYCRA SOFT®. Additional generous support was provided by Warnaco Inc. and The Natori Company. 

A panel discussion was held on Tuesday, March 7, 2000 at 6:00 pm. The discussion was moderated by Valerie Steele, chief curator of The Museum at FIT and curator of the exhibition. Panelists included Alden O'Brien of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum in Washington, DC, who spoke on historic corsets, Dr. Lynn Kutsche, who focused on the medical aspects of corsets, Josie Natori, lingerie designer, and Dean Sonnenberg, a corsetier working in New York.

The Corset: Fashioning the Body was also featured in Google's Arts & Culture "We Wear Culture" project, a collaboration with The Museum at FIT and over 180 renowned cultural institutions from New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, São Paulo, and around the world. View the exhibit below and through the Google Arts & Culture app on iOS and Android devices.