Bound to Impress: Corsets from the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection
July 22, 2014-November 1, 2014
“Bound to Impress”—a narrowly focused exhibit pulled from the extensive Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection—features corsets and associated dresses from 1740-1830. Curators Christine Johnson and Kevin Jones defy the expected, dodging the commonplace Victorian hourglass silhouette in favor of preceding shapes. By presenting less familiar fare, the exhibit encourages visitors to take a more complicated approach to corsets and their relationships to individual women, female communities, and social perceptions of both.
Upon entering the close display space, one is immediately confronted by six pairings. Each corset, floating on an invisible mount, is faced by a related mannequin in full historical dress. Through the pairings, visitors gain the opportunity to see, on one hand, the undergarment on public display and, on the other hand, the multiple layers of clothing that would have both kept it hidden on the female body and assisted it in shaping that female body for public display. The unnatural shape of the female figures makes the corsets’ presence known at all times, and the corset becomes visible through the female figure that it transforms to meet a specific aesthetic ideal. Associated but distinct, each corset and female figure are linked by the dates on their respective tags and by the eyeless gaze of the mannequin. Just as the mannequins observe the corsets as one might study a sculpture, so too we look upon the corset-clad mannequins as objects of design.
In organizing the collection for a small space, the curators chose not to arrange figures chronologically. Aware that each article is immediately visible from the room’s entrance, the curators wanted the collection to function “together at once as a visual experience” for visitors, rather than as discrete items in a progression.
The disruption of historical teleology in this exhibit has critical benefits—in particular, eschewing a reading of corsets and female dress as a reflection of the masculine economic and political systems of the times. Instead, the exhibit pushes attention toward the mutually constitutive relationships between clothing and bodies within feminine spaces. The intimacy of the exhibit space, its soft lighting and warm wall colors, parody the intimacy of a woman’s bedroom or dressing room in any of these periods. Historically, such a space would be private and public: a chamber where an elite woman would be (un)dressed by female attendants, all of whom witness the quality and detail of her garments as well as the (un)natural states of her body. Within the museum space, spotlights placed on the corsets similarly force the critical viewer to experience the pieces qua display. But the gaze of the attendant and the museum goer are notably different. Unlike the attendants who would have assessed and examined the corsets in a previous time, judging fabric quality, construction, or embroidered embellishments while actively engaging in physical service to a mistress’s body, museum attendees become voyeurs to a dumb tableau. This mute staging further points to the absence of that lower class of women who may or may not have corseted themselves, and whose aesthetic roles as social and sexual objects differed from the bound elites represented now.
Viewers unaware of the curators’ rationale might be confused about the placement of pairings, especially if they opt to walk a traditional left to right path and encounter an 1800s corset and cotton day dress, then a 1740s corset and Robe Volante, followed by a 1760s corset and Robe á la Français. However, more observant viewers might note that one corset (c. 1690) is set alone with no associated mannequin, and it stands directly across from the door. It serves as a starting point, with the other pairings radiating outward to each side and demanding a higher level of energy and attention from visitors.
Certainly the exhibit dissuades visitors from physical or intellectual laziness. Walking from piece to piece, visitors have double the amount of tags to read than one would expect—and in reviewing those tags, guests are encouraged to make connections among the individual corset’s, woman’s, and dress’s respective shapes, as well as to make comparisons across each set. Any comparison requires movement, so that if someone notes subtle similarities between the 1740s Robe Volante on the one side and the 1780s Robe á l’ Anglaise on the other, (s)he can only confirm their historical proximity by crossing the room and doing the research for him/herself.
In all, this exhibit provides sumptuous visuals for casual and critical visitors. “Bound to Impress” successfully whets the appetite for further viewing of the Helen Larson collection, making this exhibit an important step in FIDM’s securing sufficient donations to purchase the historic archive for its own permanent collection.
For further information on this and other exhibits, please visit: http://fidmmuseum.org