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DRESSED —The Body: Fashion & Physique | How Stuff Works Podcast (Transcript)

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DRESSED — The Body: Fashion & Physique | How Stuff Works Podcast (Transcript)
Length: 51 mins

Speakers:
CZ
 — Cassidy Zachary
AC
 — April Calahan

AC: With over 7 billion people in the world, we all have one thing in common; everyday, we all get dressed.

CZ: Welcome to Dressed: The History of Fashion, a podcast where we explore the who, what, when of why we wear.

AC: We’re are your hosts and fashion historians, April Calahan…

CZ: And Cassidy Zachary.

AC: We’re going to talk about something very cool and also very timely today, a very hot topic. We’re going to talk about how people’s perception of the ideal body type shifts over time and, to do so, we’re going to have a conversation with the very amazing and very smart Emma McClendon, who is the curator of a current exhibition on this very subject.

CZ: But before we get to that, we’re going to share a little poem that provides some insight into the extreme measures women have historically taken to craft and mold their physical forms into the shape considered the most desired during their own era.

AC: Yes, ladies, struggle with body image are nothing new.

CZ: No, they are not and, in fact, April, this poem was first published in The London Magazine in 1777 and directed towards prospective husbands. Just as a frame of reference, this is the height of popularity of Marie Antoinette and her English counterpart, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. I’m sure many of our listeners have either read or seen one of the many books or movies about these women, who are considered fashion icons of the 18th century.

AC: There are so many books and so many movies we can’t even list them all here.

CZ: No, we cannot.

AC: And I do want you all to know, our listeners, that this poem is from nearly 250 years ago, so the language is a little bit stilted to us now, but this is how it reads. It says: Let her gown be tuck’d up to the hips on each side Shoes too high for to walk or to jump And to deck the sweet creature complete for a bride Let the cork-cutter cut her a rump. Thus finished in taste, while on Chloe you gaze You may take dear charmer for life but never undress her — for, out of her stays, You’ll find you have lost half of your wife.

CZ: This little ditty may seem a little bit bizarre to us now, but at the time of its publication, it would have been immediately received a hilarious commentary on popular fashion. This was, arguably, the apex of the artifice of fashion and, at the upper echelons of 18th-century fashion, everything was exaggerated to the ultimate extreme. Hairstyles could reach the height of three or four feet, women’s waists were tightly cinched by corsets or stays, as the poem references, and this tiny waist was only further emphasized by skirts which were supported by wild under structures. The supremely wide hipped skirts that our popular imagination readily identifies with Marie Antoinette were supported by hoops, usually made of cane, that were known as panniers.

AC: Slightly less formal, however, would have been the style that the poem teases, a cork rump. And, yes, it’s exactly what you think it is. Some women actually strapped giant pieces of cork around their waist to support the desired pouf at the rear of the skirt.

CZ: Today, we are happy to welcome the aforementioned Emma McClendon to the show. She is the associate curator of Costume at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Her exhibition, The Body: Fashion and Physique, is the fire that sparked this week’s episode. For those of you that are able to visit, this show is open until May 5, 2018, so run, don’t walk. You have just enough time to catch this really, really fascinating exhibition.

AC: Emma, I want to thank you so much for joining us today on Dressed. Thank you for being here.

EM Yeah, thank you for having me.

AC: I actually haven’t told you this yet, but this exhibition opened at the tail end of my fall 2017 semester at MIT and this is the exact moment when I was wrapping up one of my fashion history classes and I brought my students to see the exhibit right before their final exam. At that time, I also gave them an option to write an extra credit review of your show. This was entirely optional and I think it’s really important to tell you that your show kind of rocked some of their worlds. Some of them wrote really poignantly about your exhibition and said that it changed the way they view the relationship of clothing to the body, so I wanted you to know that.

EM: That’s amazing. I’m so flattered or glad that it could have that impact. With putting the show together, I wondered sort of how much people would be able to take away from it because it’s so much more than a history of silhouettes. There’s so much more supplemental kind of information and things to get out of it, so I’m so happy to hear that your students could get in there and understand some of the really complex stuff going on.

AC: Yeah, and I think there’s already of them are design students, so I think there’s a take away that they’re all going to have a little bit of a lasting effect of, that’s going to carry over into their own work.

EM: That’s, I think, one of the key goals I think that I had was that, because it’s at the Fashion Institute of Technology, because the Museum is there, first and foremost, for the college, that I wanted to, hopefully, touch some of this latest group of professionals entering industries to maybe help them rethink or challenge them to address some of these issues in their work when they get out into the field.

AC: Before we go any further, I’m going to tell our listeners a little bit more details about the exhibition. Basically, Emma has curated a selection of more than 60 objects from the Museum and FIT’s permanent collection and they range in date from the 18th century up until today. Your exhibition demonstrates that our perceptions of the human body are mutable. Not only changing but also manipulated throughout time by forces of fashion and technology and capitalism even, one could argue. We’re all born with what we’ve got and, somehow, the majority of us have been indoctrinated with this idea that what we have is not enough. Can you tell us, what exactly are we talking about when we use this term, “The ideal body”?

Read the full transcript here.