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Interview with Denis Bruna, Curator of Fashion and Fabrics at French Museum of Decorative Arts

Curated by Denis Bruna, Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette examines the extraordinary ways in which women and men have shaped their bodies into distinctive silhouettes in the name of fashion.

This exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center, running from April 3rd to July 26th 2015, reveals the long history of the ideal male and female form as it has been subjected to the perpetual dictates of fashion and an arsenal of artificial contraptions. What are the hidden mechanisms that have constrained women’s bodies in the name of obtaining tiny waists, that have raised and rounded bosoms to counterbalance exaggerated buttocks, that have widened hips or flattened breasts and bellies? And how have men enhanced their virility by artificially puffing up their chests or adding curves to their calves? All of these structures—whether they be whalebone stays, cane hoopskirts, or horsehair padding, whether they consist of lacing, hinges, straps, springs, or stretch fabric—are concealed beneath clothing, but they are the “mechanics” of fashion (from the Latin mechanica, meaning engines) because they are meant to produce a significant transformation of the human figure.

An in-depth look at the whalebone stays and corsets of various kinds, panniers, crinolines, bustles, stomach belts, girdles, and push-up devices—from the seventeenth century to our present day—opens up an unusual understanding of the ways in which these mechanics have molded the body in the name of fashion.

Dorothée Charles (D.C.): How is this exhibit related to the one in Paris shown at the Museum of Decorative Arts in 2012?

Denis Bruna (D.B.): The theme of the exposition in Paris carries over to the one in New York. That being said, [in New York] I had some constraints, the most notable of which was space. The exhibition spaces at Bard Graduate Center are smaller than those of the Museum, so we had to make choices. For example, I presented six 18th century panniers in Paris; I will be exposing four in New York. The other constraint was the tremendous fragility of the oldest pieces, which could not travel. I therefore decided to start this exhibit at the beginning of the 17th century.

D.C.: How did the exhibit from the Museum of Decorative Arts arrive at Bard?

D.B.: I owe this wonderful adventure to Béatrice Salmon, the former Museum director, who introduced me to Susan Weber and Nina Stritzler. When the two Bard Graduate Center directors were in Paris, the exhibit was being prepared. Therefore, I showed Susan and Nina photos of our most remarkable pieces while insisting that it wasn’t an exhibit about fashion but rather one about the history of the body. They really appreciated that theme. I also am indebted to Olivier Gabet, the new director of the Museum of Decorative Arts, who gave his all so that the (New York) exhibition could materialize.

D.C.: How has the female figure warped through the centuries?

D.B.: It is important to realize that the female body ideal changes little. The mandate of thin waists and “high throat” – as they said in the old days – dates at least back to the 16th century. Consequently, the silhouette featuring a restricted waist, exaggerated hips, and emphasized breasts returned in the 18th century, in the second half of the 19th century, in the 1950s, and after the 1980s. Nonetheless, we musn’t forget that there are also periods where people wanted to erase those forms: between 1795 and 1820, the Roaring Twenties (with their girdles and brassieres) and of course the 1960s. All these corporal modifications to achieve an era’s silhouette were obtained with specific undergarments: corsets, crinolines, bustles, etc.

D.C: How has the male figure changed over time?

D.B.: The male body has gotten less attention than the female body because “the woman must be pretty and the man formidable” according to 16th century beauty norms! Despite this, we note several evolutions in male silhouettes. In the 16th century, it was in good taste to have a visible paunch: men wore a padded doublet, stuffed to give the illusion of a belly. In the 18th century, posture was very straight and the bust thrown forward. The calves, made visible by breeches, had to be nicely rounded: men wore padded stockings or false calves. When concern for thin male waists begins in the 20th century, men dissimulated their bulges with elastic support belts.

D.C.: What are the iconic pieces of this exhibition?

D.B.: The fashion collection at the Museum of Decorative Arts is one of the world’s most prestigious. For the Bard exhibition, the Museum consented to present a selection of its most handsome old costumes, rare pieces from 1600 to the Revolution, but also important pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries: a Spanish doublet from between 1590 and 1610, rare articulated panniers and magnificent gowns from the 18th century, some male costumes from the 1790s and elegant bustles from the 1870s. I also made a selection of pieces from American collections: I’m thinking of a somptuous court gown from the 18th century loaned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was a gown for a grand occasion, with its very large pannier; it is cut from a beautiful silk, and adorned with lace woven from silver thread. It’s a remarkable piece.

D.C.: What are new body-morphing tools of men and women today?

D.B.: Since 1990, female fashion is generously bustier; consequently “amplifying” and “push-up” bras have a strong following. Since 2012, we have seen a surprising return to the girdle to flatten midsection curves. The word “girdle” seems dated; it evokes 1920-1950 whereas today’s girdle is called “shapewear”. For men, there is a lucrative market for boxers and briefs with foam padding or ornamented with a rounded shell to accentuate, by illusion, the virility of the wearer.

D.C.: How will the ideal body evolve in the next years?

D.B.: That’s difficult to say because I am a historian, and not a fortuneteller! Nonetheless, in the history of styles and fashion, a trend comes to chase out another, such is the fickleness of fashion. Mini silhouettes will sooner or later be chased out by maxi shapes. Inconsistency is indeed visible throughout the  history of the silhouette. Today, fashion dictates for women to have a round and ample bosom; I think we will return to muted chests, minimized by discrete bras, like in the 1960s, but I don’t know when!

D.C.: Is there a catalogue for the exhibition? What are the themes of this undertaking?

D.B.: The catalogue was translated to English and published by the Yale University Press. For that I am very happy because the French edition was sold out before the end of the Paris exhibition. The book covers all the undergarments, the tools, and the mechanisms employed throughout the centuries to modify the bodies of women, men, children. There are many books on corsets, crinolines, and undergarments of the 20th century, but Fashioning The Body is the first book to study all body devices . Several introductions have been written by important specialists in the history of fashion and of the body. I am also very happy to have published texts from young researchers who are my fashion history students the Ecole du Louvre where I am a Professor and Director of Research. As a teacher, I am very aware of transmission to the next generation.


Denis Bruna is a doctor in history from the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne. He joined the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, in 2011 as curator of textile and fashion collections before the nineteenth century. He is also a professor and director of research in the history of fashion, costume, and textiles at the École du Louvre.

His research focuses on the history and iconography of the costume, dress, and customs of the body. He has published several books and was the curator of the 2012 exhibition Fashioning Fashion: Two Centuries of European Fashion 1700–1915 and in 2013 La Mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette held at Musée des Arts Décoratifs.