In olden days a glimpse of stocking was thought as something
shocking, now, heaven knows, anything goes.
Cole Porter In the 1930s, J. C. Flugel wrote in "The Psychology of Clothes" that the fashion engine runs because the eye is exhausted with one vista and needs another view to stimulate sexual response.
"Bare Witness," a fashion exhibit that runs through Aug. 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, focuses on those shifting erogenous vistas of breast, back and derriere, ankle and leg, and midriff.
How we cover and uncover these body areas -- how clothing has both concealed and revealed the female form -- has changed, depending on what we define as erotic.
What may seem scandalous in one era may elicit yawns in another. Take decolletage. Rudi Gernreich's Pop-Art topless bathing suit made its debut in 1964, the same year as Cole of California's Scandal Suit with plunging mesh cleavage. Gernreich said he was inspired by women going topless on European beaches.
It seems each generation has to rediscover what is sexy. In 1831, French painter Eugene Delacroix depicted "Liberty Leading the People" as a bare-breasted mythical apparition in disheveled clothing. In real life, the Empire style, with waist moved up under the breast, called attention to cleavage.
From 1910 through World War I, the silhouette softened, showing a loosely slung neckline to a deep V in an unsupported bust with a corresponding plunge at the back.
In the 1940s and 1950s, strapless dresses with revealing necklines continued, with built-in corseting and a wire brassiere.
The bra-less look returned in the 1970s as Halston's plunging necklines and bare halters tookdramatic drops to the navel.
As recently as this year's Academy Awards, we saw Elisabeth Shue in a cantilevered, shimmery dress that showed off her bust, while Nicole Kidman made her own impressions with a classic Empire dress.
If the bust is the sun, the back is the moon -- a canvas for more mysterious and subtle sexual signals. It is quite easy to catch someone's eye wandering over your breasts, but if they are taking in your back, you may be unaware of their attentions. The back avoids eye contact and confrontation, but it may invite the surreptitious gaze. In the 19th century, dresses exposed the nape of the neck and the upper back, a rather chaste look today but considered romantic then.
In 1935, a Valentina evening gown in pale gray silk bared the shoulders and dropped to mid-back, exposing the spine. It signaled that the lady in question was not wearing a bra or corset; the curves she was showing were her own. In 1991, designer Isaac Mizrahi went even farther, showing "posterior cleavage" in his beaded silk chiffon dress, which dropped to mid-buttocks.
That "glimpse of stocking" in Cole Porter's song appeared in the last quarter of the 18th century when skirt lengths rose above the ankle to permit women to exercise by walking, as espoused by Jean Jacques Rousseau.
But the rise and fall of hems continued as each generation savored its fashion moment. Skirt lengths dropped again at the time of the Directoire (1795), a transitional time in fashion between the Louis XVI and Empire periods. This concealment allowed swains a limited opportunity to see ladies' ankles -- so they became an object of erotic stimulation.
Skirt lengths rose again, but dropped quickly by the end of the 1800s in the Victorian era. But what goes down must go up, and by World War I, hems were cut just above the ankle. In the 1920s, they were cut at the knee, and dances such as the tango and Charleston required briefer cuts.
By 1969, James Brady wrote: "Within a few years skirts had gone as high as they could architecturally go -- any higher and they would cease to be skirts and become blouses."
The next trend? The maxi-skirt -- a long skirt with slits. Since then, fashion designers have learned not to dictate a length. They suggest a trend, but all still offer lengths of various degree.
Wrappings of the Far and Near East and Africa conceal the majority of a woman's body, yet allow glimpses of the midriff. The stomach was exposed in Western dress in the 1930s by fashion designers Madeleine Vionnet and Alix Gres.
Fashion historian Robert Riley wrote that as a young man in Paris in the 1930s, he saw fashionable women wear dresses so clingy that he could make out the navel through the dress.
In the early 1960s and 1970s and in the mid-1990s, shrunken tight clothing often exposed the belly button. And Western fashion often mimics fashion of Africa and India with veiling fabrics that allow a glimpse of the midsection.
The new exhibit reminds us that human beings are fascinated with people-watching. Fashion, by its nature, is ever changing because humans do the same. And the changing interpretation of what is sexy and what is not forces designers to respond, and sometimes to push us to new forms of dress.
Pub Date: 5/16/96