David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
from the world's big
Start Learning

Is Fashion a Dirty Word?

Topic: The evolution of the corset

Valerie Steele: The corset – what made me go into fashion history actually, I had gone to Yale to do Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History. And one of my classmates gave a presentation about two scholarly articles in a feminist journal arguing about the meaning of the Victorian corset. Was it oppressive to women, or was it liberating? And it was like a light bulb went on and I realized fashion is part of culture. I can do fashion history. It was really a wide open field. And I was drawn to the corset because I think it’s the single most controversial garment in the entire history of fashion. I think most people look at it as being something which was deeply oppressive to women and that somehow a patriarchal society forced women to wear it. But if you look at the history more carefully, and it did last 400 years, you see how it’s more complicated than that. Women had a number of reasons why they choose to wear corsets often in the face of mail opposition. I mean, male doctors more or less would say don’t wear corsets, they are unhealthy, they’re bad for you, and they’re bad for your unborn child. But corsets were associated with upper class status because upper class wore them first. They were associated with physical beauty, because that whole hourglass figure, and particularly the waist/hip differential are associated with female sexual beauty and being at childbearing age.

And they were also respectable that if you went out without a corset it was like in the 50’s going out without a bra. I mean, you were bouncing around. It was sort of embarrassing. What kind of a woman would do that? So, if it made you look more upper class, more beautiful, more respectable, etc. and your mother and your grandmother were pushing you, oh, you have to wear a corset. A man can’t dance with you if you are not wearing a corset; he would touch all this flesh – sort of soft flesh. There was a lot of pressure. Often pressure put on by other women for women to keep on wearing corsets.

And when corsets began to go out of fashion, it was in large part because new ideals of beauty came in. So, for example, one of the fashion magazines that I was looking at around 1900, when women still wore corsets, they would ask these actresses, who is your favorite couturier? Who’s your favorite milliner, who’s your favorite corsetiere? And a lot of these actresses would say, I don’t need to wear a corset. And you’d look at the photograph and you’d go, Babe, you are so wearing a corset. But it had already begun to seem that the corset ought to be only necessary if you were old, or fat, or sagging, that somehow you ought to be naturally that beautiful shape. And so people started to internalize the corset through diet, exercise, and now, of course, plastic surgery. So, in a way, it’s not that we gave up wearing corsets, rather as our clothes started showing off more of our bodies, we couldn’t hide behind the corset to just push the fat around anymore. We had to actually do something about the fat.

Question: Will skinny models ever go out of style?

Valerie Steele: Well, it’s true that 100 years ago, people like a woman with a big butt, and big thighs, but they also like women with a small waist and tiny hands. And the fashion ideal changes, the beauty ideal changes, but it changes less than some people think. It’s still very much, the same waist/hip differential that Marilyn Monroe had and Twiggy had, and Elle McPherson had, all of them had a 0.7 waist/hip differential. The breast size may change, but that waist/hip is the same. And that’s kind of what the corset was creating.

There’s been a lot of study on what defines beauty and it’s pretty clear that it’s, cross-culturally, there are a lot of things which are the same, good skin, so no skin diseases, good teeth, and symmetry of features, so you don’t have a lopsided face which might indicate that there was something genetically wrong. And youth. I mean, too bad for us who are getting old, but in fact, universally young people are thought of as more attractive than older people.

Topic: Europe versus America

Valerie Steele: America is a country that has a really strong Puritan heritage and that means a really strong anti-fashion heritage. So, for centuries there’s been the sense-- very widespread in American culture-- that if you think too much about fashion, you’re vain and frivolous and it’s a waste of money. And a lot of women enjoy fashion, but they also feel somewhat guilt or ambivalent about it. At least in France and Italy, there’s much more of a sense that fashion for men and women alike is part of putting your best foot forward and that, of course, you want to look attractive and so on.

Whereas, in America there’s a little bit of that sense that it’s a false mask you’re trying to look richer and sexier and younger than you really are. So, you see a lot of criticism of fashion within our culture. The degree of interest in the latest fashion is only moderate within American society as a whole. People want a little bit of a trend fix, but most of them are not going to go whole-heartedly into a new look every season. Whereas, where you look at France, for example, they might go into a really new look and wear it to death, every day, and then at the end of the season be willing to say, “No, that’s it. It’s over, now we’re on to a new look.” I think a lot of Americans like to think they would want to carry on something that was more of a personal style that they would bring into the future with them.

Topic: Fashion as a dirty word

Valerie Steele: I think that fashion is never really a dirty word for young people. And I think there’s a lot of real enthusiasm for fashion, which we’ve seen come out with the enthusiasm for Michelle Obama’s fashion sensibility as though a lot of American women said, “See, there’s someone who is intelligent and educated and accomplished and she enjoys fashion.” That kind of authorized a lot of women to say, “I enjoy fashion too.” It’s something that is a personal pleasure. I’m not just a fashion victim being exploited by the industry.

Topic: Politics and fashion

Valerie Steele: The museum at FIT is a specialized fashion museum. So, we usually have four shows a year; two special exhibitions and then two in our Fashion History Gallery. A special exhibition this year happened to be on Isabelle Toledo, who we had chosen and given an award to months before Michelle Obama wore her clothes on Inauguration Day. We were able to borrow that outfit from the White House, from Michelle Obama’s closet and put it on display. So, that was the special exhibition. And we traced Isabelle’s entire career.

Meanwhile, in the Fashion History Gallery, every six months, we have a new show that traces 200 years of fashion history with a theme; it could be luxury, exoticism, and color. And I had some of my younger curators and they wanted to have a show that talked about messages in fashion. But that was a really vague topic. What kind of messages? One of the messages they mentioned was politics. And I said, “Look, that’s such a great topic, especially this year. Why don’t you try and do a whole show about fashion and politics? But think of politics in broad terms. Not just what candidates wear, or what their supporters wear, but think of the politics of class, race, gender, sexuality, and then trace this.” So, 19th century denim for example, which talked about class and how working class people wore different things. And then in the end we also had, of course, more specific political things. Paper dresses that supporters of Richard Nixon wore, or a dress that Mrs. Reagan had worn. And then also designs that were created or worn either by Michelle Obama, or by Obama’s supporters. So, all of that was in the show.

Valerie Steele, the author of "In the Corset: A Cultural History," dissects the relationship between women and fashion through the ages. Plus, how Michelle Obama might be changing everything.

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?

  • From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
  • "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
  • Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.

COVID-19 brain study to explore long-term effects of the virus

A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.

  • The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
  • The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
  • Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
Keep reading Show less

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
Keep reading Show less

Better reskilling can future-proof jobs in the age of automation. Enter SkillUp's new coalition.

Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.

Image: metamorworks / Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Outplacement is an underperforming $5 billion dollar industry. A new non-profit coalition by SkillUp intends to disrupt it.
  • More and more Americans will be laid off in years to come due to automation. Those people need to reorient their career paths and reskill in a way that protects their long-term livelihood.
  • SkillUp brings together technology and service providers, education and training providers, hiring employers, worker outreach, and philanthropies to help people land in-demand jobs in high-growth industries.
Keep reading Show less