August 20 2014

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Fashion’s Figures: Then And Now


What determines the feminine ideal? Mannequin—Le corps de la mode (“Model: The Body of Fashion”), the latest of Paris’ Musée Galliera’s off-site exhibitions, aims to find an answer. The show, which runs from February 16 through May 19, examines why trends like wasp waists, swan necks, or 5′ 11″ frames (à la Karlie Kloss) have driven women’s aesthetic aspirations since the first models replaced store mannequins in late-nineteenth-century Paris.

Curator Sylvie Lécallier sifted through fashion magazine illustrations, photographs, and videos to chart the jump from one fashionable body type to the next: the twenties knock-kneed flappers, the sixties childlike Courrèges girls “sans hips, waists, or breasts,” the eighties power women who were captured in Helmut Newton’s “Big Nudes,” and beyond. The show includes photos of the earliest It girls, like a series of Nelly Martyl, a star of Paris’ Opéra Comique in the 1910s. She was one of the first stars to be featured as a model in the era’s top fashion magazines. Also on display are iconic images like Corinne Day’s 1990 shot of a topless Kate Moss, Juergen Teller’s 1996 photo of a nude Kristen McMenamy (she has “Versace” painted on her chest inside a red heart), dark surreal works by Guy Bourdin, and more.

“If Photoshop has made perfection banal today, we have to remember that manual retouching has been common practice since the late nineteenth century. It was used to correct imperfections and whittle the waist,” Lécallier told, reminding us that fabricated perfection is nothing new. However, if the exhibition’s documentation of ever-evolving figure fads teaches us anything, it’s that the definition of “perfection” can change in a heartbeat. Or in a season, anyway.

Models’ Bodies—The Crux of Fashion is open from February 16 through May 19 at 34 Quai d’Austerlitz, Paris.

Photo: Above—Henry Clarke, 1951; Below— Corinne Day, 1990. Courtesy of Musée Galliera

Dept. of Culture