Undressed and private?

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Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At last I had the opportunity to see this exhibition at the V&A.  It was really interesting on many different levels: as a history of garments that were beautifully made; as a history of society and expectations of women’s dress; and also as a reflection of the way women have felt about their own bodies.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau didn’t like girls in corsets (!), and it was wonderful hearing Fifi Chachnil say that her company made corsets in the same Paris streets where he had said you shouldn’t!  The undergarments she makes are full of femininity and humour.  For her, corsets are beautiful, and they add to the beauty a woman already has in virtue of being a woman: ‘A woman is not just born beautiful but works to be beautiful’.

Of course it was shocking to see the straight-laced, whaleboned corsets of previous centuries in which women’s forms had to be squeezed and constrained in order to achieve a standardized shape that was deemed beautiful.  Yet women themselves in those times ‘willingly’ subjected their bodies to pain and discomfort because they wanted to conform to the standard idea of a beautiful body shape.  I am so glad I don’t live in those days!  Yet it got me thinking about the extent to which women have internalized ideas of what an accepted body shape is, creating  a ‘corset in the mind’, pushing and pulling themselves into a particular shape through diet and exercise, in accord with an internalised image.  I would want that image and idea questioned as to where it came from – and if it is from you yourself, then great.  But if it is not, then live in your body the way you want to and love it as it is.

I was struck by a number of designers from the 1980’s onward, using the style of underwear to be outerwear.  Jean Paul Gaultier designed a cocktail dress using a corset design as the outer-garment and some of Vivienne Westwood’s designs reworked underwear to be the style of outerwear also.  She consciously did this in order to question the boundaries between the private and the public.  And that got me thinking!

I thought of the writing of the thinker Hannah Arendt and the distinction she made between the private realm and the public realm, and the importance of the private. Privacy shelters the intimate; a private place is a place where you can be truly yourself and she points out that some things survive only in the realm of the private. ‘Love…is extinguished, the moment it is displayed in public’.  I reflected on those ideas, and I think that privacy is so important, as is solitude, where you can work through things, think about things that of necessity need space away from public glare and censure, in order to form and grow.  It’s rather akin to bulbs planted in the garden that need the dark space below the soil, out of public view, to grow and develop if they are to sprout and become the beautiful tulip or daffodil that will grace the world in spring.

If the boundaries between private and public are blurred too much – in fashion and in life, then perhaps we will lose something that is vital for our well-being.

[The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt]

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