What better way to spend a rainy afternoon than at a museum? This weekend, as New Yorkers prepare for yet more days of gray skies and galoshes, they should consider seeking shelter from the storm at The Museum at FIT, where “Seduction” should promise to heat things up. The exhibit, which closes next week, comprises 65 looks tracing the history of alluring Western dress and highlights the holdings of the FIT permanent collection of fashion, accessories, and textiles, as well as the FIT Library’s Special Collection of fashion plates and other print materials.
The exhibition highlights the inherent sensuality in all clothing–even sometimes the most covered-up of garments, like a well-tailored suit–particularly that of the undermost layer, that last barrier to the naked body. It also traces the changing standards of gender, identity, beauty, morality, and social norms that redefine the relationship between sexuality and dress over time.
The curator, Colleen Hill, has made sure to incorporate men’s fashion in the exhibition. The inclusion of it in the latter part of the exhibition does, however, draw attention to the lack of it in the garments and objects from the 19th and first half of the 20th century. The accompanying essay to the exhibition, found in the brochure and throughout the exhibit’s walls, does touch on the seductive roles of men. Even without exhibiting the clothing of the Rebel and the Macho, the exhibition does show how designers have borrowed from menswear to accentuate the seductive qualities of women, from a playboy bunny’s bow tie to a re-purposed leather jacket.
Contradictions and dichotomies inherent in the seductive dress seem to lurk throughout the exhibition; sometimes these are pointed out, but other times they remain unsaid. The inclusion of a patch box from the 17th century was particularly interesting. Patches made of various materials in decorative shapes were often worn to conceal small pox scars; they also brought attention to the heavily powdered and exaggerated fashionable face of the era. Yet the connection of these patches to the deadly small pox virus is left out of the exhibition.
Another facet of seduction is that it is often in eras when women’s fashion is considered boyish or youthful that some of the most revealing and progressive leaps occur, such as the uncorseted figure in the sheer white cotton column dresses of the early 19th century; the bobbed hair of the 1920s, which resulted in close-fitting hats and revealed necks; or the A-line dresses of the ’60s, from which designers such as Rudi Gernrich and Pierre Cardin cut out fabric in playful and provocative ways.
It is often the places between being fully dressed and fully nude that are the most enticing. What is seductive to Western culture has ebbed and flowed over time–and is often different for subcultures within the larger group. But with 400 years of seduction under our belt, women and men are now free to use fashion to express sensuality, desire, and identity even more than ever before.Halston Evening dress Light blue silk jersey 1972-73, USA. The Museum at FIT. Gift of Lauren Bacall.
Image from the Online Exhibition of Seduction