August 20 2014

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A History of Underwear


A corset from La Mécanique des Dessous

Have you ever wondered what the fourteenth-century fashion set’s unmentionables looked like? We hadn’t, either, but thanks to the latest exhibit at Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs, La Mécanique des Dessous, we’re now very well informed. The show examines the body-altering world of men’s and women’s undergarments from the 1300s onward. Showcasing everything from elasticized cummerbunds to iron-turned-whalebone corsets, the exhibition aims to convey both the technical underside of fashion’s evolution and the societal cues woven into underthings (for example, seventeenth-century codpieces and doublets straightened the upper posture—a sign of an aristocratic upbringing).

As one might expect, oddities abound—look no further than clunky brassieres with breast-feeding flaps (allegedly a marvelous feat of engineering at the time) and gentlemen’s padded socks (fattened calves expressed virility in the later 1800s) for proof. Luckily for neophytes, the expo tracks modern underdressing as well: Wonderbras, Kangaroo briefs, and Jean Paul Gaultier’s famous cone-shaped bustiers are all included. La Mécanique also boasts a “fitting” room, in which visitors may try on replicas of panniers and bustles. As Suzy Menkes noted in her New York Times article, a costume gallery owner named Guillaume François Roger Molé once said (perhaps ahead of his time in 1797): “It is important to understand the inside pieces: Often they are what make fashion prestigious.”

La Mécanique des Dessous at Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs is on display until November 24, 2013.

Dept. of Culture