Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, until July 12 A Fine Possession: Jewellery and Identity Powerhouse Museum, until September 20
Human beings, for thousands of years and in all known cultures, have taken pleasure in shaping and adorning the body. The range of practices is extensive, from athletics and dance — training the body to a harmonious and healthy form in the best cases — to mutilations, scarifications, distortions of features and disfigurement of various kinds in cultures oppressed by fear and superstition.
Some of these practices survive in contemporary culture, betraying alienation and anxiety: from the abuse of gymnastic training to produce not harmonious form but hypertrophied and useless musculature, to the piercings and tattoos that for some are part of an extreme, even self-mortifying way of life, and for others are merely a superficial affectation.
Two exhibitions at the Powerhouse in Sydney deal with less dramatic but no less interesting cases of shaping and adornment: one with the evolution of modern underwear, in an exhibition from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; the other with the history of jewellery, which includes works from antiquity and from cultures all over the world as well as contemporary design.
Perhaps most interesting of all is a display produced by the Powerhouse to accompany the V&A exhibition and devoted to Australian fashion company Berlei, which was in the vanguard of producing foundation garments, as they were known, for a mass market.
In 1926, Berlei — the name was a suitably continental version of the founder’s real but conspicuously unfeminine surname, Burley — undertook a study of the shape of the female body in partnership with the University of Sydney. Six thousand women were measured in this “National Census of Women’s Measurements” and, from the resulting data, five body shapes were defined.
On either side of the proportions defined as “average” were four other types labelled “sway back”, “hip”, “abdomen” and “short below waist”, representing the various ways in which the female body was liable to diverge from a statistically average morphology. These findings helped the company to develop a calculating device, the Berlei Type Indicator, by which any woman could be allocated to her appropriate type based on her bust, waist and hip meas- urements. The whole undertaking is interesting from several points of view, most obviously as an example of the way that individuals are processed into statistics in a mass society and for the purposes of mass marketing. We are all too familiar with a media and advertising environment that encourages in women a constant anxiety about the proportions of their figures.
At the same time, the Berlei taxonomy clearly is intended to be objective, identifying a woman’s body type to find the most flattering way to dress her. The implicit conclusion that corporeal beauty lies in the average is consistent with classical theory and is significantly unlike the confected images of contemporary media that emphasise freakish proportions and body shapes to which average women can never aspire. So Berlei’s marketing between the world wars was probably less likely to foster neurosis and anxiety than the more recent advertising campaigns of the past three or four decades. But a video version of one of its cinema advertisements from around 1930 shows that it certainly appealed to snobbery and associations of wealth and glamour.
This was before the age of television, and filmed advertisements were made to screen in cinemas, before or after the shorts that preceded the main feature film. They could therefore be much longer and more leisurely than today’s television advertisements, and this one is deliberately presented as a short narrative film, slightly more than five minutes in duration. It is shot with self-conscious style, from the carefully composed opening shot onwards, intended to resonate with art deco chic.
The subject is a rich, spoiled young woman who sullenly complains that her expensive new dress doesn’t fit her. Her older and more experienced friend tells her she needs a foundation garment, and much is made of the fact this is not the same as an old-fashioned corset. It is based on the new, scientific Berlei system; not onesize-fits-all but adapted to her particular shape. Needless to say, the rich young woman ends up delighted with the result and vows never to go without a foundation garment again.
What is unspoken in the ad is clearly that the young woman wants her body to have the same firm, definite formal qualities as the art deco ornaments and furniture all around her. She is intending to wear a loose, informal modern dress, but there cannot be anything loose, informal or unpredictably mobile about the body beneath it.
The control and structuring of the female body was one of the principal purposes of undergarments throughout the centuries covered by the main exhibition, even if hygiene and warmth also have been important considerations. And clearly the shape of the waist has been consistently regarded as of paramount importance in defining the femininity of the figure.
We have seen the fetishisation of the waist reach new heights in recent years with the compulsion to bare the midriff, the most unforgiving part of the body to display, since it generally can be shown off only by very young women and those who have not borne children. In earlier centuries such a display of naked flesh would have been unthinkable, but corsets were used to create waistlines slimmer than any natural figure, in some cases so absurdly small as to distort the shape of the rib cage.
But the waistline created by the use of a corset was not, like the bare midriff, simply evidence of extreme slimness, for in reality it was meant to set off the feminine curves of the bust and the hips. If the waist was made smaller, the other two were often made bigger. This was the purpose of various designs of modern brassieres, but within the exhibition it is particularly the bustles and whale bone armatures meant to enhance the natural expansion of the hips that are striking, since they conceal the real shape of belly and hips while alluding playfully to alluring femininity.
There have been some changes through the centuries, from more to less extreme corseting and, in the 1920s, to foundation garments that for the first time perhaps tried to minimise the bust and hips to create a boyish figure. From the 60s, a more natural shape was preferred, without foundation garments or at least without visible ones, and the contemporary fashion for exercise arose to achieve a trim and shapely figure by natural means.
That generally has been the assumption in the case of the male body, which is why male underwear, though represented, is of relatively little interest. The exception is a splendid male girdle of the Victorian era, designed to help some general or ambassador look dignified in formal dress despite his excessive corpulence.
Jewellery, the subject of the other exhibition, also has been disproportionately the preserve of women, particularly in the West and in recent centuries. The exhibition, however, covers a far wider chronological and geographic range, from ancient times and across civilisations and cultures around the world.