NEW YORK, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Extend the bosom! Diminish the waist! Widen the hips and derriere!
Those have been the major dictates of the art of fashion in its effort to transform the bodies of women -- and men -- over the centuries and are the subject of this year's Costume Institute spectacular that traditionally welcomes the New Year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, remaining on display through March 17.
The exhibition marks the return to the institute of Harold Koda as chief curator and keeper of the flame lit by the legendary Diana Vreeland when she began creating thematic fashion exhibits for the Metropolitan as a special consultant in the 1970s. These shows have become one of the museum's most popular attractions, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors of all ages.
"My dream is to save women from nature," Christian Dior confessed when he ruled the 20th century fashion world and recreated some of the design artifices and manipulations that had been popular in the 18th century and even earlier. He would have approved of the descriptive title of the show at the Metropolitan, "Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed."
More than 100 garments, truly costumes in a theatrical sense, are on display along with accessories that document the strategies used to alter the human silhouette to conform to shifting concepts of beauty from the 16th century onward. These are densely arranged and awkwardly labeled in the Costume Institute's claustrophobic exhibition space and require a certain amount of concentration on the part of the viewer.
Some fashion conceits stand out even more than others in attention-getting construction. These include side-panniered skirts that made it difficult to get through doorways, hoop skirts supported by wired cages or crinolines, bustles that rode atop stiffened waist attachments, bosom-lifting, waist-cinching corsets and bustiers (for both men and women) designed as under-garments or as outer wear, and inflated and puffed sleeves.
Shoes lifted the feet on stiletto heels and platforms of amazing variety and height, and
silk brocade slippers emphasized the tiny size of "lotus" feet disfigured by infant binding popular in China. Necks were stretched to swan length by brass coils in tribal Burma. Men's reproductive organs were emphasized by encasing them in gourds in New Guinea and in metal and cloth pouches in 16th century Europe.
There seems to be no end to the extremes of vanity, especially in the fashions created by contemporary designers such as Thierry Mugler, Alexander McQueen, Junya Watanabe, Walter Van Beirendonck, Jean Paul Gaultier, Viktor and Rolf, Issey Miyaki, Junko Koshino, Christian Lacroix, Rei Kawakubo, and John Galliano, all of whom are well represented in the show.
Many of their most eye-popping creations are designed solely attract the attention of fashion critics and writers to a designer's runway shows and for subsequent publicity purposes. They are not designed for actual wear in the real world, whereas most of the vintage costumes on display were designed for everyday wear and were worn by a sizable segment of the population. This is a distinction the show fails to make and is its one serious flaw.
Koda has divided the exhibit into five sections focusing on fetishized zones of the body -- neck and shoulders, bust, waist, hips, and feet. Garment display is augmented by paintings, examples of hand-colored fashion books popular in the 19th century, and prints caricaturing ridiculous upper-class costuming by Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank, and Honore Daumier, wonderful artists who unfortunately have no counterparts in our own time.
These caricaturists would have had a field day with the exhibit's entrance display consisting of a 1997 mermaid gown by Mugler of iridescent plastic scales adorned with beads, feathers, and rhinestones which has long strands of horsehair at the wrists and hem and a green ostrich feather short dress from McQueen's current collection worn under a multicolored cotton coat.
They vie with Watanabe's gray velvet dress worn under a gargantuan ruff of waist-length dimension in beige chiffon. Nearby are displayed starched linen ruffs of the 16th and 17th century, familiar from the portraits of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. Nothing designed before or after has ever framed the face more eloquently than these elaborately crimped concoctions edged in lace that must have been the devil to wash and iron.
French hooped gowns of the mid-1800s, said to have their origins in gowns designed to disguise Empress Eugenie's pregnancy, are displayed next to Galliano's 1998 vast hooped gowns with ruffled skirts, almost a parody of the style. Japanese wicker vests that emphasize the shoulders are shown next to Dior's wing-like metal forms designed as a shoulder extensions in the samurai style.
Brassieres of the early 19th century Empire period and corsets with bra tops are exhibited alongside bustiers that began to surface in fashion in the 1990s. Examples of bust enhancement taken to the extreme are Gaultier's outrageous velvet corset dress with exaggerated cone bosoms designed for Madonna's "Blonde Ambition" tour and advertisements for inflatable bras.
One of the oddest bosom silhouettes was the pigeon-breasted look that originated in Edwardian England and was worn by American Gibson Girls and the late Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth II's grandmother, throughout her long life. The popularity of a wide expanse of bosom is reflected in the pouch-shape chest enclosures designed by Viktor and Rolf for their recent collections.
The de-emphasized bust and padded waist, best exemplified by Japanese kimonos on display, is echoed in a yellow sheath designed by Helmut Lang in 1996. This is quite a contrast to the emphasized waists preferred by Dior, who used flared waist peplums in many of his 1950s designs, and Bill Blass who returned to the bustle style with a multicolored tulle pouf just below the rear waistline of a strapless party dress.
Summing up all this design madness, but still looking extremely chic, is a 50-year old evening gown by Charles James, whose talent as a fashion architect has never been matched. This highly constructed ivory silk gown has a black velvet swirl in the shape of a four-leaf clover on a skirt supported by nylon mesh, feather boning, buckram, and horsehair braid.
It brings to mind another of Dior's dictums: "Without foundations, there is no fashion."
A gorgeously illustrated book by Koda, "Exteme Beauty," has been published as an accompaniment to the exhibit (Yale University Press, 168 pages, $40, softcover $25).