Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Shaping the Body - and bonus shoes

Last week I went to York for a few days. It's a lovely city, which deserves a post of its own. So for now I'll stick to what took me up there in the first place; the new long-term exhibition at the Castle Museum, Shaping the Body.

As the poster suggests, the exhibition uses items from the museum's collection to look at how body shape has been affected by the clothes people wore, the food they ate, and their changing lifestyles (for example, comparing the job of a modern supermarket checkout operator to an assistant in an Edwardian grocery shop). The main gallery looks at changing fashions from the 1600s to the present, and naturally this was the part which most interested me.

Exhibition entrance

Introductory display

Each section has information on the fashions of the period, for both men and women, plus fashion tips, and an explanation of some of the terms used.

One of the main information panels

One of the supplementary panels

As the exhibition is about body shaping, there is a range of support garments on display.

Linen stays, 1760-80

Cotton corset 1815-30, and horn busk 1780-1830

Corset, 1860-75

Cotton twill spoon busk corset, 1880-90

Anti-corset, 1880-90

'S-bend' Edwardian corset

Brassiere 1950-59, corset 1935-50, and Liberty bodice early to mid 20th century

Naturally there is also plenty of clothing.

The Age of Luxury, 1700-1800

The Racy Regency, 1800-1820

Wearing it Large! 1840-1870

Mourning dress belonging to Queen Victoria, 1896

1970s fashions

There are plenty of accessories and amusing oddities as well.

Brocaded silk shoes, 1730-50

Kid leather shoes, 1795-1800

Bargello embroidered shoes, 1720-30

Children's shoes commemorating Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887

Child's ear straighteners (to prevent sticking-out ears), 1901-30

Moustache cup (to protect a waxed 'tache from hot tea), 1895-1901

Following on from my recent post about zero waste fashion, and proving that there really is nothing new under the sun, I was interested to see that both the bodice and skirt of this Georgian silk dress had clearly been pieced together.

Joins clearly visible in the bodice, and just visible in the skirt

Throughout history, those at the cutting edge of elegant dress have always had to suffer the cruel jibes of less, erm, fashion-forward individuals, and the exhibition has plenty of examples of satire through the ages.

The exhibition's own website brings this trend right up to date, with a photograph of one of the adult-size costumes available to try on.

Remind you of anything? Image © Anthony Chappel-Ross for York Museums Trust

The darker side fashion is also covered: this display of fashion dangers includes a collar made from spontaneously-combusting cellulose, a dress dyed with a substance containing arsenic, and a fire-hazard crinoline.

Dangerous Fashion

The exhibition ends with a number of short films on how various people have chosen their 'look' and what it means to them, plus an interactive questionnaire. I felt that the result I got was a fair assessment.

Proud to be a 40% fashion failure!

Then as if all this wasn't enough costume goodness for one visit, at the nearby Fairfax House I found this.

Sadly there was no photography allowed (I did ask, OK plead), so you'll just have to believe me when I say that it was wonderful. Fairfax House had brought together shoes, clogs and pattens from museums up and down the country to form an astonishing exhibition. These images are from the exhibition website, and are all copyright Fairfax House.

A Century of Shoes: The Rise & Fall of the Georgian Heel is on until 26 June. Shaping the Body is a long-term display, and currently has no closing date.


  1. This looks like a great exhibition, I think the way the silhouette changed over the centuries is fascinating. I'm looking forward to going to the V&A's Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear towards the end of the year.

    1. I'm hoping to get to the V&A when I next go to London; it will be interesting to see how the two exhibitions compare.