May 16, 2009

"Seduction" at the Fashion Institute of Technology

Historically, the purpose of fashion has been multi-layered. A means of warmth and protection from the elements, a statement of the wearer's profession or position in society, and a public expression of femininity or, more blatantly, sexuality. The concept of fashion as a means of seduction is the theme of the current show on view at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Colleen Hill, the curator, has assembled 65 looks, surveying 250 years of fashion history, to demonstrate the evolution of flirtation and enticement through the ages. From lingerie, the final frontier to the nude body, to corsets that arch the back and force the breasts forward, to high heeled shoes that carry their own special erotic connotations, this exhibition takes a serious, scholarly look at how and why people dressed as they did in the interest of attracting a mate.

"Fashion is a capricious goddess" and provocative clothing, in various degrees, has played a role in society since women emerged from animal skin covers. The proximity of clothing to the body is intrinsically sexual and the conflict of concealment versus display, modesty versus enticement, has been reflected in clothing styles as societal norms and behaviors have changed over time.

The exhibition looks at a progression of styles from the modest Victorian crinoline that might flirtatiously swing to reveal a delicate foot, to the bustles and corsets of the late 1800's that molded the woman's torso into a highly desirable form. It explores the introduction of the less structured, and subsequently more revealing, tea dresses that were almost like wearing a nightgown in public. Moving into the 20th century and the liberation of women we now find shorter dresses, cut on the bias to cling alluringly to the female figure, sling back shoes that expose the heel in an subtle reference to the lady's derrière, and undergarments that added a charged but still ladylike femininity to the wearer. "Hippie chic" of the 1960's signaled the era of free love while the contrast of hot pants with a maxi coat was both sexy and glamorous. Recently fashions have reflected a more powerful woman with body conscious styles and fabrics that often leave little to the imagination.

Fortunately women are no longer bound by strict rules of dress and we are freer to express our own individuality in what we wear. This look back at the progress of fashion and its power of enticement is an interesting study of an often overlooked area in the annals of women's history. "Seduction" remains on view at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology until June 16 and admission is free.

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