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"Seduction" Surveys Sexuality in Fashion

Renata Espinosa
January 07th, 2009 @ 11:09 AM - New York

The old adage of that which is concealed can be more alluring than what is revealed is just one of the classic tropes about the role of sexuality in fashion that the Museum at FIT in New York explores in their new survey, “Seduction,” which spans the history of sensuality over a span of 250 years.

Curated by Colleen Hill, the show contrasts a mix of overtly sexy pieces like the Playboy “Bunny” costume and leopard-print lingerie by contemporary brand Agent Provocateur along with historical examples of seduction, from ankle-revealing in 1915 to extreme corset-cinched waists of the Belle Epoque to Swinging Sixites micro-minis by Rudi Gernreich and Pierre Cardin with scintillating cut-outs. Through fashion, it charts the way concepts of beauty and the female body evolved.

Not just limited to the romantic aspects of seduction - the strategic reveal or conceal - the exhibit also explores the more fetishistic aspects of sexuality in fashion - platform stilettos covered with sharp studs by Christian Louboutin, for example, or Rick Owens’ goth priestess ensemble.

“Her taste is very sweet and pretty,” said Dr. Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at FIT of Hill’s curation process in a phone interview last month - a princess fantasy wedding dress by Olivier Theyskens for Rochas, for instance, is in the mix, “so I remember at one point I said jokingly to her, ‘Aren’t you going to have any leather?’ So she ended up including a John Galliano leather and lace corset evening dress from 1990. For softer seduction or overt, more pervy sexuality, she got a wonderfully seductive body conscious Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein and a flower petally Alber Elbaz from Lanvin, and some very body-con Jean Yu.”

But, said Dr. Steele, “There are also various kinds of symbolic associations. For example, certain kinds of clothes evoke images of the vamp and the bad boy. So it’s not just a question of revealing skin, but of fantasies.”

One suit, for instance, surprised Hill with the reaction it got from people. A tailored black velvet skirt and jacket by Irene from 1950 is paired with a nude high-necked chiffon ruffled blouse, which “falls out voluptuously from the front,” said Dr. Steele. “ The contrast to the silkiness of the black velvet of the suit, although it’s completely covered up, it’s highly seductive. Velvet has such tactile eroticism.”

And in keeping with the theme of the show, some of the pieces included have scandalous femme fatale backstories, like a Balenciaga cocktail dress once worn by Ann Woodward, who famously “accidentally” shot her husband, bank heir William Woodward. Appropriately, it’s made from lace, the quintessential “conceals-but-reveals” fabric, which hints at a story just below the surface.

“Seduction” is the first chronological survey exploring sexuality in fashion and is a well-curated, comprehensive yet nuanced take on the subject. It runs through June 16, 2009.

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