Sculpting Beauty

These garments are on display at the Modest Man Brewery, 100 Main St, Keene NH, till June 13th, 2021, as part of the Keene ArtWalk.

The making of women’s clothing has historically been dismissed as a lesser art form, largely because it was so often done by the women themselves.  And a large part of their handiwork remained unseen to anyone else’s eyes.  The foundation garments are necessary to shape the body into  whatever the contemporary idea of “beauty” happens to be, so that fashionable clothing will sit properly over it.  

As a costume designer, I am fascinated by the unseen aspects of historic fashion.  I hope these three ensembles will give the viewers a sneak peek into the time and skill that went into creating garments which, though never seen, have a beauty of their own.


One of the most dramatic outlines in the history of Western fashion, the late 1700’s gown relied on whalebone and steel to create a conical torso and highly exaggerated hips.  The incorporation of horizontal bones across the bust encourages spread rather than lift. From this significant breadth, the torso narrows in a straight line down to the waist, with no curves to reference the anatomy underneath.  The side hoops might have started as padding to create “childbearing hips”, but have now swollen past attractive proportions and instead serve to display the expansive fabric the wearer can afford. 


A classic hourglass shape from the front, the Edwardian silhouette becomes more complex when viewed in profile.  Padding at the bust and top of the skirt create an S-shaped curve.  The gores in the corset, and its flat front, which pushed the hips back and the bust up and forward.  The curvilinear nature of this sophisticated corset makes it possible to nip in the waist very tightly while also giving the skeleton and internal organs enough room.  The ruffles at the bottom of the drawers help hold out the bottom half of the skirt, giving it its distinctive movement. 


The unfitted ‘20’s dress may give the illusion that no undergarments are needed.  But these garments are made of flimsy materials, with heavy trims and beads that cause the dress to swing and twist around the body with every movement, revealing the form underneath. The curves that were accentuated at the beginning of the century are now flattened by a tubular corset into a firm, rectangular shape, giving as little suggestion of hips and bust as possible.  The wearer’s wealth is displayed by the quality of their trim, fabric, or by sporting a garment made by the newest of artists–the fashion designer.

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