Welcome to Now You Know, Eric Wilson’s column that will help you become a fashion know-it-all in one easy read. Each week, he’ll take a look at an endearing fashion influence and why it’s relevant right now. Enjoy!
Kim Kardashian has brought a debate over waist training back into public view following a series of Instagram posts over the last year that have showed her using a corset-like device while doing her daily chores. While her endorsement raises a host of ethical and medical issues, the most fascinating aspect of this display of aesthetic self-mutilation, to me anyway, is how publicly she is going about it.
Women and men have subjected themselves to any number of barbaric devices over the centuries to adapt human anatomy to human nature, which is to seek approval and prestige through socially prized ideals of beauty. Whether you fault Kardashian for promoting a technique that many experts question, she is hardly the first to take such extreme measures to achieve a narrow waist.
Standards of beauty change with the decades, as seen in this series of renderings of popular body types featured in "Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette."
Historically though, at least since the 18th century, those techniques were largely hidden from public view, from elaborately crafted panniers and bustles to modern shape wear items like push-up bras and padded underwear. The history of fashions designed to change the shape is the subject of a new exhibition opening at New York City’s Bard Graduate Center on April 3, called “Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette.” Before the corsets of the 19th century, women wore panniers constructed of linen and whalebone armature, designed to broaden the hips while enforcing upright posture. In the 18th century, the French royal court dictated women should wear “robes à la française,” formal gowns with a conical bodice and a broad rectangular skirt that resembled the opening of curtains on the stage of a theater. (See the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website for an apt description of the dress, pictured below, in contemporary verse.)
Through reconstructions of metal crinolines, retractable panniers, and lobster-tail bustles, the exhibition gives insight into the mechanics of these devices, both in how they enabled women to fit a strict custom silhouette, and also occasionally sit down. Men have been just as vain over the centuries, wearing padded stockings in the 18th century to give the appearance of elegantly curved calves -- and try not to blush when you encounter men’s briefs designed with extra padding in the rear and crotch to suggest enhanced virility. These are only a few years old, by the way, and still widely in use.