Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
Mechanical Bodies
Exhibition view. Copyright Thomai Serdari.

Exhibition view. Copyright Thomai Serdari.

Aristocracy comes with the privileges of leisure and luxury, and with gratifications as diverse as the colors of the rainbow. Nonetheless, the common belief that associates aristocracy with an inherent entitlement to freedom is mistaken. This is what one learns from “La mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette,” the spectacular exhibit currently on view at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (July 5, 2013-November 24, 2013) that examines the history of undergarments for men and women from the 16th century to the present.

Organized by Denis Bruna, art historian and curator at Les Arts Décoratifs, the exhibit is an exemplar of sophistication and approachability, a combination rarely achieved in fashion exhibits. The extensive material, mostly drawn from the museum’s collections but also borrowed from British and German institutions, is complemented with beautifully written bilingual text (French/English) and supplementary audiovisuals that pertain to the evolution of undergarments in the twentieth century.

The lack of elastics implied a heavy use of whalebone as well as metal that held the human body in place and occasionally distorted it: the higher the rank of the individual the greater the distortion and the puffier the dress the stiffer its support. Gender did not make things easier neither did age. Men had to wear all sorts of contraptions to showcase their virility and health (even if illusional) and small infants were forced into garments that acted as exterior skeletons, despite the severe repercussions such constriction implied.

The exhibit occupies two floors and includes a selection of undergarments for the public to try on, video projection of someone dressing and undressing, and clips from famous films that showcase particular attention to corsets, crinolines, and all sorts of undergarments, as a means to advancing their storyline.  Having looked at every type of gadget that radically alters one’s appearance, at the end of the show, the viewer is content to realize that freedom comes in all shapes and forms. “La mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette” imparts the conviction that when liberated from social schemas, one may enjoy freedom from body-image obsessions. This is certainly worth considering  today, in times of plastic surgery obsession.

© Thomaï Serdari