There’s a scene in the film adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada in which Miranda Priestly, a terrifying but brilliant fashion magazine editor, chastises her young assistant for snickering during a meeting. “You think this has nothing to do with you,” she says, before delivering a dressing-down on how fashion has everything to do with her.
It’s true: whether we want to admit it or not, fashion affects us all, especially women, who have been subjected to some wildly erratic clothing trends throughout history. They form the backdrop of the North Carolina Museum of History’s current exhibit, The Shape of Fashion, which runs through May next year.
Tucked in the back corner of the museum’s first floor, the small exhibit is a light overview of the various forces that have literally shaped women’s fashion, explaining both the mechanics of the pieces as well as the historical circumstances surrounding them.
The oldest piece on display is a “column” dress from the early-to-mid-1820s; few garments survive from before that time. The most current piece is a Jackie O-looking dress from the seventies, with a placard explaining that, in subsequent decades, clothing shapes would lose their uniformity, in part because of the rise of mass manufacture.
There are plenty of intriguing little aha moments that illuminate the larger forces, particularly war and technology, that influence fashion.
For example, the favored column shape in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries stemmed from a general American interest in Greco-Roman aesthetics, thanks to a post-revolution attraction to Greek and Roman democratic ideals.
In the following decades, skirts bloomed in size, but they required bulky petticoats to lend them their shape. In 1856, however, R.C. Millet patented the steel-hooped cage crinoline, which kicked the door open for the billowingand, paradoxically, much lighterhoop skirts that we now associate with the Civil War.
Fabric rationing during World War II dictated the shorter hemlines of the 1940s, while the invention of metal S-hooks replaced corsets’ complicated laces.
One particularly striking display outlines silhouettes from the mid-1700s through the mid-1900s, presenting the changes in women’s fashion over the years in sharp relief. Waistlines rise and drop, skirts balloon and deflate, bustles appear and disappear, and hemlines mostly just rise and rise. It will, at the very least, make you grateful that the patriarchal obsession with minuscule wasp-waists has diminished.
There’s also a section devoted solely to underwear. Our foremothers, bless their hearts, wore a lot of it. A handful of interactive touchscreens walk visitors through each layer, and again, you’ll feel gratefulno longer are we tied up and weighed down by whalebone corsets or multiple layers of petticoats, nor do we have to wear split-crotch undies in order to accommodate bodily functions under it all.
Ultimately, in showing us the shape of where we’ve been, The Shape of Fashion illuminates where we are.