Reflections on Costume

Joanne Savage considers how 'body fascism keeps women worrying' after a visit to the Ulster Museum

Reflections on Costume (1730-2013) at the Ulster Museum cleverly juxtaposes period designs against more contemporary offerings by Vivienne Westwood, Moschino, Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent, Phillip Lim, Thierry Mugler and others to highlight the cyclical nature or endless return of certain fashion trends.

Here we are given an excellent glimpse of just how much design du jour references past sartorial moods: the sequinned drop-waist dresses of the jazz 1920s, for example, have been energetically reworked for today's runways. So too retro sweetheart necklines and patterned bias-cut frocks from the prim 50s.

The unique prints and patterns bequeathed by art deco, devore velvet, layered chiffon, brocade, 80s-style flounces and the trend for embellishment have all been rescued from past fashion moments to inform contemporary design. Retro lines, patterns, palettes and fabrics have perhaps never enjoyed more cachet, but there are some items, like crinoline and corsets, which thankfully, for the most part, remain relegated to the historical scrap heap.

Seeing a selection of them arranged here – formidable mantua dresses from the 18th and 19th centuries – one can only be delighted that the violence done to the female form by such hideous whalebone structured silk and brocade numbers with crinoline cages for underskirts remain mere fashion curiosities and relics of female oppression.

Reflections on Costume


The most striking revolution in women’s dress was undeniably the abandonment of the wretched corset and seeing these, to my mind, hideous, prison-like mantuas set beside gorgeous understated elegance and slinky evening gowns by Alexander McQueen and the like, makes you feel anew just how joyous it is that women ripped off such restrictive garb.

This exhibition charts how women's gradual socio-political liberation has been mirrored by the loosening of waistlines, reminding us of how fashions tell a story about social conventions and gender relations.

Clothes can be charged with all kinds of social significance, capturing an ethos, an idea or an attitude: consider that, to pinpoint one example, when women clinched the vote in 1928, drop-waist and roomy flapper dresses and mannish smoking suits afforded the freedom of movement required to dance mad Charlestons.

Vivienne Westwood is a particularly interesting designer represented here, and one who has revisited the corset-shape in order to update and reinvent it with a twist at sexy, punk-defiance – she was always a revolutionary designer who mixes contemporary influences with meticulous study of period pieces.

The exhibition includes her ‘Boucher’ outfit from 1991, using imagery from 18th century artist Francois Boucher’s work on a faux-bodice top teamed with gold and black velvet leggings. This is a bold remodelling of the female form; here the historical is fused with the contemporary in a typically Westwood punk-daring style.

Reflection on Costume


Elsewhere in the exhibition we see the echoes between 1960s Yves Saint Laurent with a gold lame, heavily beaded number from the 1920s, while boldness in pattern and palette makes apparent the parallels between a silk evening dress from 1845 and an evening cape from the 1920s.

Elsewhere Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1946 creation presages the underwear-as-outerwear trend that became huge for grunge queens of the 1990s. Only the wide, voluminous bell-shaped skirts of the 1800s and whalebone imprisonment seem unable to find seamless crossover into modernity. And thank goodness.

The corset may have gone out of vogue but fashion, working in tandem with the media, has arguably created a climate of continuing and insidious body oppression that continues to this day. Skinny jeans, skin-tight evening dresses and a widespread obsession with zero body fat mean women are today oppressed in different, more subtle ways; fashion can still be the industry through which such control is imposed.

On the one hand this exhibition made me think about the ways adornment of the female body has charted women’s journeying towards liberation; casting off corsets, impractical petticoats, crinoline and nun-like high necks as history moved towards greater gender equality and sexual liberation.

Today, clothes are less restrictive but, paradoxically, woman-as-object is still an all too predominant construct, and body fascism still keeps women worrying if they can fit into miniscule frocks. One sees a correlation between the itsy-bitsy corset-waist and the sample-size designer clobber hanging from the patently anorexic runway model.

Fashions change, but in another sense they endure and return. This exhibition conveys this truth in eloquent shorthand, and is likely to induce dress-lust among the sartorially minded.

However, this is a slight collection that doesn’t always convey much information on the displayed designs and, with the historical pieces in particular, a more detailed context for each would have underlined how fashion can be a symbolic index for the historical construction of gender roles, social mores and class divides.

Reflections on Costume (1730-2013) continues at the Ulster Museum until April 27, 2014.

Reflection on Costume