SMALLS WON­DER

The Weekend Australian - Review - - VISUAL ARTS - Christo­pher Allen

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.

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