How Fashion Creates The False Idea of a “Perfect” Body

Curator Emma McClendon talks her new FIT exhibit, diversity, and how to question our clothes 

Our bodies are fashion. It is hard to wrap one’s head around that, but much like the beauty industry, which proposes a specific way of looking that’s in vogue, the body types we find attractive are also ever evolving—and clothing is central to this. Naturally with something as personal as the human body, it’s complicated. We wear clothes to change our shape, while simultaneously working to fit in to certain sizes. But our ideas of what kinds of bodies are beautiful are largely influenced by the fashion industry—something Emma McClendon, Associate Curator of Costume at the Museum at FIT is hoping to bring to light with her new exhibit, The Body: Fashion and Physique, which opened yesterday.

Covering the changes in fashionable silhouettes from the 18th century to today, Fashion and Physique showcases how we’ve used clothing to emphasize certain parts of the body over time, and how fashionable ideals (such as the toned Amazons of the 1980s or the “heroin chic” waifs of the ’90s) have shifted.

“At every point in our history there has been some way of controlling the body that has been promoted,” she said, noting how the widespread use of corsets gave way to girdles, which were eventually replaced with a focus on diet and exercise. “Now with these conversations that are going on, with this idea of becoming more inclusive, the opening up of the fashion industry, and social medial, and the digital world, I do think that we’re starting to see a breakdown of this idea that only one particular style of body can be fashionable.”

The exhibit could not be more timely. In the past few seasons, the runway has seen a major spike in diversity in size, race, and age. Luxury conglomerates Kering and LVMH teamed up to ban size-zero models from their runways and print advertising. Models like Ashley Graham and Candice Huffine have found mainstream success, while activists like Clémentine Desseaux and Charli Howard, who founded the All Woman Project, have led the charge in celebrating all forms of beauty.

“We start planning [our exhibitions] years in advance. I would love to say that I knew this would be exploding in the way that it has in the public discourse when I pitched this almost two years ago,” said McClendon. “But I’m very happy that it has coincided, because I think it will just add to the conversation going on, and hopefully get the message out even further.”

Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done. While there has been a rise in diversity on the runway (especially in New York), the catwalk still predominantly features incredibly thin, young, white girls—an ideal that is not only unhealthy, but unsustainable.

“There needs to be a drastic re-examination of what we’re doing in the fashion industry, and how fashion has been set up. The whole process of making clothes, merchandising clothes, selling clothes—it really does not cater to the majority of women,” she said. “It’s not reflective of who we are as a society, as a culture. We need to take a hard look at whom we’re selling to, who the actual people are that might be buying these clothes.”

There are, of course, designers who are focused on inclusion. Christian Siriano, Prabal Gurung, and Becca McCharen-Tran are among those featured in the exhibit and show a more positive side to the industry. But as a whole, McClendon hopes that the show will help audiences understand that our ideals are a construction of the fashion industry, and that they are subject to change. There has never been a consistent “perfect” body.

“A key problem is that people think that sizing of clothing and fashion sizing is some kind of infallible truth. There’s a tendency, because of the way that the system is set up, to think that the clothes are right and your body is wrong, and if you don’t fit into something, you’re at fault instead of the clothes,” she said, pointing out that the sizing system was created a long time ago, and has never been truly questioned or considered. With this show, she hopes we can start to break free of the hold that body images issues have on our collective psyche, and find ways of further opening up and expanding our beauty ideals. 

The Body: Fashion and Physique is open now at the Museum at FIT, and runs through May 5, 2018

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