How Museums and Cultural Institutions Have Shaped the History of Body Diversity

When it comes to mannequins, dress forms and other displays for dressing the human body, do museums have a responsibility to exhibit garments — particularly contemporary fashion — more realistically?
By Laura Neilson,
A 1997 Martin Margiela Tunic on display at "The Body: Fashion and Physique" at The Museum at FIT. Photo: Eileen Costa

On Tuesday, the Museum at FIT opened its latest show, "The Body: Fashion and Physique," a survey of the human form within the context of fashion and how its notions of the "ideal" body have shifted throughout the last two centuries. The exhibition features a broad mix of fashion items — from a 19th-century corset with a 32-inch waist to evening gowns to pieces by contemporary brands such as Chromat — displayed on mannequins and dress forms of varying figures and proportions.

The subject of the show mandates such diverse sizing of mannequins, but seeing the assortment side by side feels like looking at fashion through a new lens. One can't help but wonder: why do other museums and cultural institutions continue to use mannequins with nonrepresentational measurements? As some retailers course-correct following the backlash over their extremely thin display mannequins, do museums have a historical responsibility to exhibit garments more realistically, especially — given that the average US woman is a size 14 — when it comes to contemporary fashion?

"Clothing is an embodied form of visual culture. It's completely interconnected to the physical form of the wearer, so obviously what we show clothing on is a huge consideration for this exhibition," notes Emma McClendon, FIT's associate curator of costume and the "Body" show's primary organizer. "Every institution is different in their particular attitude towards mannequins; how they approach the issue, from the mannequins that they use to how they dress objects, etc."

A 2016 Christian Siriano custom dress for actress Leslie Jones on display at "The Body: Fashion and Physique" at The Museum at FIT. Photo: Eileen Costa

FIT relies mostly on its own in-house stock of more than one hundred mannequins in various sizes and poses (as well as dress forms ranging from sizes 2 to 18, and custom-shaped forms for specific objects) to facilitate its number of fashion exhibitions — four major shows per year — with minimal turnover time between each one. Other non fashion-specific museums, however, may pull an entire stock from a manufacturer in a standard, uniform size.

But that very notion of "standard" is a complicated and loaded one. At FIT, McClendon put the issue front and center, as the exhibition begins in a room showcasing a selection of different dress forms of the 19th century. "You can see very clearly that the mannequin and the shape of the mannequins is a social construct," McClendon says. "We're talking about the body, we're talking about physique. It's crucial to mention what these garments are going to be dressed on, so that's why at the start, there's a comment on the dress form itself." 

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At MoMA's "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" show, its first fashion exhibition in 70 years, you'll find over a hundred clothing and accessory pieces from the past two centuries that remain relevant today. For the most part, the mannequins used were prefabricated bodies measuring 72.8-inches in height, with 32.7-inch busts, 23.6-inch waists, and 34.1-inch hips, although senior curator Paola Antonelli notes the use of some custom-made forms in larger sizes as well. (Note: A representative at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute referred to a similar use of mostly uniform, pre-fabricated mannequins for its annual exhibitions).

While Antonelli had hoped to show the fashion items in sizes that more of the population wears, she and assistant curator Michelle Millar Fisher found the mannequin selection process extremely nuanced and complex. The acquisition process also forced them to "resize" their expectations. "Most of the pieces that we could borrow from collections of institutions and private owners were in runway size, which is not only 0/2, but also with couture proportions, which we discovered are different from those that will go into stores," she said.

Installation view of 'Items: Is Fashion Modern?' The Museum of Modern Ar. Photo: Martin Seck 

The issue of how museums acknowledge body diversity, therefore, runs deeper than their use of mannequins, as it concerns the acquisition and collection of the fashion itself. Lauren Downing Peters, a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University where she's writing on plus-size fashion (she also sat on the advisory panels for both shows currently up at FIT and MoMA), attributes the limited range of sizes within many fashion archives to something she calls "survival bias."

"When it comes to historical costume, only the most special garments tend to survive — or those made by noteworthy designers or those once owned by the wealthy and elite," she explained. Considering an institute's potentially-limited resources, this creates more pressure to acquire only the most exceptional items. Furthermore, Peters added, such pieces "tend to be small in size due to the fact that, at least from the late 19th century onward, there was a patent neglect of women of size by the fashion industry." In other words, the fashion industry has marginalized larger body types throughout most of its history.

Clare Sauro, who oversees an archive of more than 14,000 fashion and textile items at the Robert and Penny Fox Historical Costume Collection at Drexel University (FHCC), agrees, adding that museum collections usually take an art historical approach to fashion, versus history museums or those with a material culture approach. Sauro also attributes a curatorial bias to the ease in dressing a slender garment on a form versus a larger one that, she says, "will require careful padding to give the correct appearance." While people were, on average, smaller in the 18th and 19th centuries, the general population still reflected a diverse range of sizes, which isn't reflected in many of these archives.

In a way, the issue of mannequins and dressing fashion at museums is as charged as the ongoing conversation about store displays, if not more so when you consider the historical implications. Besides presenting a skewed image of standard body proportions today, how accurately — or inaccurately — are these shows depicting how the general population lived and dressed in the past? At the same time, the presence of one or two larger-sized garments amongst those displayed on otherwise slender frames might seem more like tokenism versus authenticity.

An 1865 dress from Scotland on display at "The Body: Fashion and Physique" at The Museum at FIT. Photo: Eileen Costa

Therefore it becomes the viewer's onus to consider the venue itself (art-focused museums make take greater liberties with their curatorial choices versus those more strictly dedicated to fashion and its history), the intent of the show and in some cases, if it's a retrospective on a single designer, designer intent, too. However, McClendon feels that museums still have a responsibility to offer a more accurate portrayal of body diversity through their displays and dress forms. "It's about the body that you put the clothing on that's as much about the message and the brand, and I think cultural historians and public institutions need to examine that more fully," she says.

Thankfully, that's becoming more common practice. While Sauro has noted the growth in researchers' requests to FHCC for garments that would be designated as "plus size," Peters also points to the number of curators and institutions that call on her expertise in historical plus-size fashion. Becca McCharen-Tran, whose pieces for Chromat feature throughout FIT's "Body" show, offers one of the best reasons why museums should display fashion on a greater variety of silhouettes: a more inclusive future. "If more museums showed garments on a multitude of mannequin body shapes, it would encourage designers to expand their thinking during the inspiration phase," she says. 

"The Body: Fashion and Physique" runs through May 5, 2018.

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