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Valerie Steele (Ph.D., Yale University) is Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). She has curated more than 20 exhibitions in the past[…]

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.

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.