Dressing the Body
Nicola Reid visited the permanent exhibition ‘Dressing the Body’ at the Museu Tèxtil i d’Indumentària, which invites visitors to observe the manipulation of our outer appearances and see, from five centuries’ worth of historical examples, the absurdity of being a slave to the body and fashion.
Nowadays, we call them fashion victims. Those people who perhaps pay a little too much attention to what’s on the catwalks. You mean you don’t have a pair of this season’s on-trend platform wedges? Shame on you! However, let’s pay heed to the words of Charles Dickens that are inscribed on the walls of the exhibition ‘Dressing the Body’: “But fashions are like human beings. They come in, nobody knows when, why, or how; and then they go out, nobody knows when, why, or how. Everything is like life, in my opinion, if you look at it in that point of view.”
Indeed, we’re all aware that fashion is forever changing and what are currently on-trend silhouettes will disappear and reappear. Those platform wedges you had your eyes on are simply recreations of the Spanish tapines women wore in the 16th century. See for yourself, as these cork-soled platform shoes made of leather, velvet and silk ribbons are on display at the Museu Tèxtil. Similarly, you’ll realise how contemporary Christian Dior designs mirror the fashionable tightened bust and cinched waist of the 16th to 19th centuries.
‘Dressing the Body’ also draws parallels between the morphology of the human body, socio-cultural events and historical styles. The fashions of different periods had much to do with contemporaneous moral, social and aesthetic codes. The idea is that if you dress in a particular way, you are making a statement about current times. Take the hippies of the Sixties. They were carefree and so, by breaking the conventions of established fashions, they expressed their desire to live a more relaxed, natural and enjoyable life. Interestingly, considering the show’s message about cyclical fashions, the long floating outfits of the era seen covering the mannequins here were inspired by the Romans. Only this time round, floral prints and peace signs adorned the dresses.
The central concept of the exhibition is the way in which people change their body proportions through dress; increasing, reducing, lengthening, defining and revealing certain aspects of their body through the clothes they wear. Today, we’re all asking ourselves, “Does my bum look big in this?” when we try on a pair of jeans, but back in the 16th century, women went to great lengths to widen their figures with hooped petticoats and bustles. At the same time, they were obsessed with tiny waists, cinching them in the most painful way, deforming the body’s natural shape with corsets and bodices. Thus, in order to achieve the most desirable body image, people endured immobility and discomfort. Ever heard the phrase ‘beauty is pain’? I’m sure this is where it comes from. No wonder corsets became illegal in the 18th century! Alas, they were sorely missed and the 19th century welcomed their less-restrictive redesign.
From immobile ‘princes’ (as the exhibition refers to the gentlemen and courtesans of the 16th century) to the less encumbered body of today, then. We opt out of the overly-tight jeans, a dress with scratchy sequins or a coat with too many buttons, in order to be comfortable. But it’s not so simple. While Coco Chanel is undoubtedly one of the most famous international designers of modern times, the pieces she created were based on the simplified image of a thin, androgynous woman, who wore trousers and comfortable clothes made of jersey. And so it was born, the obsession with women being ‘slim’. Cue the gym memberships, cosmetics, plastic surgery and eating disorders.
Finally, we begin to question the clothed body of Western culture. The words of Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto are somewhat disturbing: “When I see how important the body has become, the triumph of cosmetics and plastic surgery, I wonder if clothes are still necessary.” It’s an important question, since now we have the accessibility to sculpt our bodies as we wish rather than relying on clothes to deceive others about our shape.
For now, though, let’s feel fine about ourselves, referring once more to Charles Darwin: “It is certainly not true that there is…any universal standard of beauty with respect to the human body.”
‘Dressing the Body’ is located at Palau de Pedralbes, Avinguda Diagonal 686 and is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 6pm.€3