The concept of “body positivity” is a relatively recent invention. But so is mass-produced clothing. And bodies have always come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, many of them outside the predominant norms of the time—which have never been entirely stable.
That snarl of tensions is beautifully illustrated by The Body: Fashion and Physique, an exhibit ongoing at the museum of New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology which “explores the complex history of the ‘ideal’ fashion body and the variety of body shapes that have been considered fashionable from the eighteenth century to the present.” It’s a thought-provoking tour through two and a half centuries of the history of dress, ranging from shifting silhouettes to “stoutwear” from the early 20th century to modern plus-size fashion with the inclusion of Christian Siriano’s custom Oscar gown for Leslie Jones.
Jezebel spoke to the exhibit’s curator, Emma McClendon, about body positivity, her aims for the exhibition, and the history of clothing for “plus size” bodies. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
JEZEBEL: What’s your goal for this exhibit?
Emma McClendon: The exhibition is in a particular gallery at the museum. The goal of that space is for every exhibition we put in there is to show the history of fashion through a new theme, a new focal lens. It’s also where we show our permanent collections. We don’t have a permanent display where you can go and see the same dress hanging on the same mannequin in the same spot for decades on end. Clothes are far too fragile. What we do is use this as an opportunity to explore fashion history through a number of different perspectives and also bring out pieces that maybe have never been on view before or acquire new pieces on the occasion of an exhibition for the permanent collection. That’s a central element in planning any show for that space.
For this show, what I would hope visitors can take away from it or what it can do on a broader scale is add a historical perspective to the discussions going on right now about inclusivity and body diversity in the fashion industry. The body positivity movement was definitely percolating and growing when I first started planning this exhibition, but that was about two years ago. It’s been amazing to see and very fortuitous for the occasion of the exhibition to see how it’s really blossomed and grown to touch so many people and to reach such a broad global audience. I do hope that this show will be able to contribute in a way to that, and maybe show how some elements of the current conversation are very new and exciting—and we’re seeing the fashion industry open up in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before—but there are also aspects that have been around.
Plus-size clothing, or “stoutwear” as it was called in the early 20th century—however problematic the terms might be—has been a part of the industry that has had retail interest and major fashion magazine interest at different points throughout the 20th century, but unfortunately dropped off after a number of years. By showing this history, I’d like people to understand maybe how the fashion system has evolved and been set up over the last 250 years so that we can really make sure that the current discussion doesn’t peter off. That the movements that we’re seeing now can affect more permanent change.
Sometimes you look at fashion history stuff, and it seems like bcause of survival bias and other factors, the idealized silhouettes are what you end up seeing in the record. And it was interesting to see, even though the satirical cartoons—on the one hand it’s depressing to see that people have always been doing cartoons about how ugly fat women are. But it’s also interesting to see the evidence of their presence.
Absolutely. And that was another kind of goal for the show was to bring out pieces throughout the chronology that are maybe different sizes or emphasizing different body types whether it’s children’s corsets or maternity corsets or a maternity robe or early stoutwear or pieces from the 19th century or the early 20th century that are different sizes. I think that there is a misconception that’s presented to us a lot of the time in exhibitions or film or magazines that makes us feel as if all women in the past were a certain size. Were small. Were the idealized body type. That can make us feel like there’s something wrong with us in the present. Not only does it perpetuate the idea of there being an ideal and everybody that doesn’t fit into that ideal is either invisible, marginalized, or stigmatized, but it also makes us kind of question our own diversity in a way that’s not helpful. Because the fact is, body diversity has been around for as long as people have been around. No two people have the same body. No two people have the same shape. And it’s not just an issue of size. It’s also an issue of age, race, abilities, gender identities.
The majority of what’s in the exhibition is dealing with this issue of size, but hopefully what came through in some of the cartoons and the pieces is that fashion—it’s not only designing for one specific body shape but it also has perpetually been designing for a particular moment in a person’s physical life. Or a particular type of person, where they’re a young, 20-year-old thin white woman, and it’s not thinking about how our bodies might change, how they might age, how our abilities and our mobility might be affected throughout these processes. I was very happy that we could collaborate with Grace Jun of Open Style Lab to really highlight some of their projects and what they’re doing there, as well as the designer Lucy Jones, who I think are really trying to not only rethink the body and how to design clothing for the body at all its different stages for diverse abilities but also educating students and industry professionals to begin to rethink the type of bodies that fashion is designing for.
Did you acquire any new pieces for your collection? One of the interesting things about “stoutwear” to me is how rarely you see it in museum exhibits. Is that difficult to find? Did you have to go looking for it?
No, the early stoutwear we had in our collection. But you’re right, these pieces can tend to be more rare. Just generally, readymade clothing can tend to be more rare the further back in time you go. More everyday clothing, no matter what size you’re talking about, is harder to find earlier.
The majority of the pieces on view in the exhibition we already had. Where I did the most of my new acquisitions was in the contemporary section, because I really wanted to bring in pieces from up-and-coming designers and brands that are really putting forth an example of how to rethink the body, how to formulate their entire brand and entire companies around a more inclusive view of the body, from the way they make their clothing, to the way they sell their clothing, to the way that they show it on the runway or market it. They’re really just changing the game. So I wanted to end the exhibition on a more positive, encouraging note. I think there’s a lot in the show that can feel very sad and familiar and heavy, but I want at the end of the chronology for people, and particularly for students—we are at the Fashion Institute of Technology and we do have a lot of student engagement and students coming through the show. I wanted to give them examples of people who are already rethinking this. Give inspiration for how we can move forward.
Part of the story of the exhibit is you see these big sea changes partly around technological advancements. Like, the corset was much more widely adopted because it becomes possible to make them using machines and so it becomes possible to sell them at a lower price point, and there’s this late 19th century golden age of corset-wearing. Looking over this 250 years, say, when you see the rise of the modern fashion industry—I know this is a very complex relationship—but do you think it’s more the industry shaping our idealized bodies or are our cultural notions of idealized bodies shaping what the industry provides?
I wish that there was one clear answer to that. I think it’s actually much more nuanced and interconnected. I think fashion is not a reflection of culture. It’s not a mirror reflecting our body ideas back at us. It is very much an agent of change within culture that has a significant role in the formulation and dissemination of our ideals. Now, that being said, I don’t think that necessarily there are not broader changes and trends going on in other aspects of culture that impact what ends up happening in fashion. But I think they’re so complexly connected and have been connected throughout history, it’s really very tricky to pull them apart.
A lot of the ideas and the themes in the show and the overarching narrative in many ways is something that’s difficult to show in physical garments. That’s why the video’s there at the beginning, and there’s all the supplementary material, the cartoons and the video clips and things like that. But there’s a deep psychological element to this whole topic. Clothing is an embodied practice. We all get dressed every day, we all go and shop in some form, try on clothes, etc. Whatever their personal relationship with clothing, everyone’s had that experience of going into a store or ordering something online in a size that they typically are or think that they are and then trying it on and it just doesn’t fit. And in that moment feeling like there’s something wrong with their bodies and the clothes are right. And really a takeaway here should be that there’s always been body diversity, your bodies are right, it’s the clothes that are wrong. It’s the fashion system. It’s the its the way clothes are made, it’s the way that they’re sold, it’s the way that the whole system’s been set up that is wrong. We need to try to pick that apart.
This exhibition is by no means offering all the answers. What I would hope is that it sparks a conversation so that we can begin to think about how we can start to change the system. Because until we acknowledge that the fashion system is flawed in its approach to the body, we can’t ever fix it. And one of those elements comes down to standardized sizing. Standardized sizing is a double-edged sword. This was hugely beneficial for democratizing fashion, for mass-manufacturing clothing, making them cheaper, making them more affordable. It opened up the whole fashion system. We’ve seen that increasingly over the last 150 years—the opening up of the fashion system so that people can engage in fashion in ways they never could before. But at the same time, by creating standardized sizing, you are projecting an idea of standardized bodies, where you have people trying to fit their bodies into the clothes rather than the clothes fitting to their bodies. And this has an intense psychological impact on how we treat our bodies, how we think about our bodies, and how we view and think about the bodies of other people.
It’s hard to show with physical objects, but this notion of the fallibility and the malleability of the fashion system and how it treats the body and how that’s changed in a lot of ways but how it’s also in many ways stuck in the past—that’s what I hope comes through in the show, as well.
You were talking about trying to inspire students who will go on to work in the fashion industry. I was wondering, to what extent to do you think it’s possible to make the fashion industry—as opposed to fashion design as an art—truly body positive?
I mean, there’s a lot of things they could start with. They could start by selling clothes for all sizes together. They could start by having brands generally go up to size 26 and down to size 0 and not have categories dividing these that will then be split up in stores. Having more editors at magazines, having more representation in the pages of magazines and having that be something that is about clothing and about style and not just about a naked curvy woman.
There are a lot of things that can be done now at a very basic level, and then I’m hoping that with all the leaps and bounds and changes in technology that have been happening and all the changes that we’ve seen to so many other industries that people are able to really focus on and attack these issues in the fashion industry and rethink the way that we size clothing, that we make clothing. Come up with innovations the same way they did in the Industrial Revolution to change the approach and open it up and make it more inclusive.
It seems like there’s often this idea of, oh, what you don’t understand is that we can’t do that. So what’s interesting about the exhibit is that it makes clear that what is often treated as the iron laws of nature is something that was invented 120 years ago. You know? That’s not that long ago.
Exactly, and that’s the point. Our bodies are natural and clothing is something that is fabricated. It’s something that’s manufactured. There are ways to change a manufacturing process. This is something that we can figure out how to innovate. And I think that with all the other conversations and innovations and discussions and debates that are going on in culture and society right now, fashion needs to catch up. Fashion needs to engage with truly inclusively minded conversations that are going on right now. And if it doesn’t, it risks being left behind and seeming out of touch.
I think that something’s that’s really important to highlight, also, is that the reason that I actually wanted to end with contemporary designers who can offer inspiration and who are doing what they can to change the status quo is because I think fashion is based on a system. And I don’t think it’s worth finger pointing at people who are doing it wrong because the whole system has been set up to be the way that it is over centuries. What I think is far more important is to celebrate and highlight and hold up those people who are showing that it can be done in a different way and to use them as a positive and encouraging example, as opposed to calling out everybody else who’s doing it wrong. Because it really is the rest of the industry is just going through the motions of the status quo.
It seems like there’s this push right now for a broader rethink, but I think my concern as a shopper who would like more places to buy clothing is sometimes we see a really shallow engagement with these concepts. Like you said, it’s the curvy naked woman in the shape issue. And it’s like, come on. That’s not really radical.
Right, it’s just playing into visual tropes that have been handed down for centuries. We’re used to seeing and we are comfortable seeing the “larger woman” or “curvy woman” or “fleshy woman” or whatever euphemisms you want to use—we’re used to seeing those bodies as Rubenesque nudes and understanding their beauty and their aesthetic value in that way. Every time you see the nude plus-size model, it is just playing into that again. It would be much more inclusive and progressive and encouraging to show these woman in editorials. To not single them out and put their bodies completely on display but to have them just seamlessly placed within editorials the same way you would any other model.
And to also highlight clothing. With these divisions in the industry between the straight sizes and the plus-sizes, it also means that no or very few plus labels are included in high fashion conversations at all, and so there’s a notion of not only a plus size body not being fashionable but the plus size clothing that a plus size body can wear also not being truly fashionable.
At the end of the day, and this is something that I hope really came through in the video, it is a marketing opportunity. So many of the speakers in our video, including Christian Siriano, he very bluntly says, you know, everybody’s going bankrupt, this is why you’re going bankrupt. Because all of these designers are not creating clothing for the majority of the population. And that’s just crazy from a business standpoint. Another reporter asked about this issue of figure flattery and all these other conversations that go on with how to dress different sized and shaped bodies, asking about what true freedom and inclusiveness looks like in the industry. I really think that true freedom and inclusiveness in the industry looks like everybody having the same options and the same access to the same styles, aesthetics, and clothing. Clothing is increasingly about fashioning yourself and your identity, and so until we give every person—no matter how old they are, no matter what size they are, no matter what their abilities are, no matter what gender identity or race they are, that they can engage in the same styles and looks and purchase them and find places to purchase them—until that happens the fashion industry is operating on a system of exclusivity and marginalization.
The Body: Fashion and Physique runs through May 5 at the Museum at FIT in New York City.