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"Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed"
2001-12-06 until 2002-03-17
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY, USA

Over time and across cultures, extraordinary manipulations of the body have occurred as concepts of beauty have continued to evolve. Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed – an exhibition opened December 6 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art – will offer a unique opportunity to see fashion as the practice of some of the most extreme methods to conform to shifting concepts of the physical ideal. Various zones of the body – neck, shoulders, bust, waist, hips, and feet – have been constricted, padded, truncated, or extended through a variety of techniques.

The more than 100 costumes and accessories in the exhibition – ranging from a 16th-century iron corset to Thierry Mugler's notorious Motorcycle bustier – will be augmented by anthropological and ethnographic examples and by paintings, prints, and drawings, including caricatures by Gilray, Cruikshank, Daumier and Vernet.

Extreme Beauty will seek to argue that an undeniable, if uncanny, beauty abides in the often mannered transformations of the body's natural form, commented Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute. A refashioning of nature to submit to a sublime standard of beauty has been accomplished by the subtle visual adjustment of proportion in the cut of clothing, the less subtle introduction of temporary prosthesis, or, in rarer instances, the permanent and deliberate physical deformation of the body. What Extreme Beauty reveals is that the quest for beauty through fashion has repeatedly been attended by an impulse to exaggeration.

Organized thematically in five sections, the exhibition will begin with Neck and Shoulders. Examples will range from traditional brass neckrings worn by the Masai and Burmese people; to neck extending styles of the Second Empire and Edwardian eras; beautifully structured kimonos; and modern creations by fashion designers John Galliano for Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.

The second gallery will present the various methods employed to enhance or diminish the Bust. Among the works on display will be Empire gowns, the flattening Japanese obi, monobosoms, early conical brassières, Madonna's infamous pink satin bustier by Jean-Paul Gaultier worn during her Blonde Ambition Tour, and Tom Ford's plastic poitrine for Yves Saint Laurent.

Waist, in the third gallery, will document the long history of midriff manipulation, from the waist suppression of a 16th-century iron corset, to the cinched drawers of early-19th-century dandies. Ethnic examples will include bark girdles worn in New Guinea by men and the cylindrical form of the Japanese courtesan. Non-waisted effects will include the flapper styles of the 1920s, and fashions by designer Balenciaga, Helmut Lang, and Victor and Rolf.

The fourth gallery, Hips, will reveal the hidden constructions and elaborate engineering applied to the hips and buttocks. The impulse to enhance and exaggerate the hip area has resulted in an astounding array of panniers, bustles, hip pads, and crinoline hoops. Highlights will include the double-door expanse of 18th-century panniered court gowns and the radical bump dresses of fashion designer Rei Kawakubo.

The final gallery will be devoted to the legs and feet. Examples will range from geisha tottering on raised clogs, to the 20-inch-high chopines of 17th-century Venetian women, to the outrageous and multicolored platforms of Salvatore Ferragamo.

Among the designers represented in the exhibition will be Pierre Cardin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cristobal Balenciaga, Thierry Mugler, Vivienne Westwood, Norma Kamali, Jean-Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Roger Vivier, Pauline Trigère, Alexander McQueen, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue written by Harold Koda. This publication will be published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.

The exhibition is organized by Harold Koda. Exhibition design is by Daniel Kershaw, Exhibition Designer, with graphics by Sue Koch, Senior Designer, and lighting by Zack Zanolli, Lighting Designer. All are in the Metropolitan Museum's Design Department.


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