Paris Secrets: The Stylish Silhouette


The stylish silhouette always ranks high among Paris secrets. Praised by visitors since the 14th century, it now defines how the rest of the world likes to look. But think back to Marie Antoinette’s paniers, the bustles of Impressionist ladies or Dior’s New Look. How were all those centuries of radical shapes achieved? You can find the answer at the Musée des arts décoratifs, in the exposition “Behind the Seams” (“La mécanique des dessous”). Whether you’re a costume buff or just a corset lover, the lacy rarities on show are well worth a visit.

Panier circa 1770 and corset circa 1740–60. Photo: Patricia Canino/courtesy Les Arts Décoratifs.

In exploring the Paris “underworld,” the show gives equal time to the boys. After all, gents were the first promoters of style. Take the trend-conscious man of the 16th century, who emphasized his midriff with a padded “peascod” doublet. For the gallant who donned it, this had a double purpose. Costumed like a strutting bird, he would cut a dash. But he would also keep his tummy toasty. 

Bustle frame. Photo: courtesy Les Arts Décoratifs.

While men stuffed their middles and privates (via the 16th-century codpiece), women played second fiddle. But, by the next century, girls were fashion’s leaders. The ladies have never looked back and, over five centuries, fashion has continuously resculpted their silhouettes. “Behind the Seams” is the ultimate insider’s peek at that process. 

Panier frame. Photo: courtesy Les Arts Décoratifs. 

In search of ever-tinier waists and rounder curves, women have laced themselves into some incredible structures. We’ve used whalebone, hoops, hinges, straps, springs, strings and elastics. Many of these Paris secrets were always meant to stay hidden. But others are rich with extraordinary decoration. From fabulous jeweled “stomachers” to hip-widening paniers, at some point women have reshaped every bit of their bodies. Included, of course, are the whimsies of couture. You’ll find out how Dior engineered his New Look—and goes under Gaultier’s slinkiest satins.

Prêt-à-porter spring-summer 1992 (detail), by Thierry Mugler. Photo: Guy Marineau/courtesy Les Arts Décoratifs.

The show ends with a special homage to underwear in film, via clips from the likes of Gone with the Wind and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Bonus: If you have kids, they can play next door while you watch. (There’s a special area with kid-sized prop undies to try.)Many of fashion’s most famous silhouettes were little black dresses. That legend is being celebrated at the Mona Bismarck American Center, in a show called “The Little Black Dress.” Curated by American Vogue contributor André Leon Talley, this features 50 dresses (plus a Salvador Dalí portrait of Bismarck, who was a 1950s socialite). Of course, there is a Coco Chanel design—a pleated silk affair from 1962. However, there are four Chanel dresses by Karl Lagerfeld.

The Little Black Dress. Photo: SCAD/Mona Bismarck American Center.

“The Little Black Dress” has work by 10 Paris “names,” houses such as Balenciaga and Dior. (There’s also an impressive Fortuny gown from 1907.) However, the real focus is on designers based in the States, Manhattan multitaskers such as Vera Wang, Donna Karan and Norma Kamali. Out of 50 pieces, too, 31 were made during the past three years. 

The Little Black Dress. Photo: SCAD/Mona Bismarck American Center.

“The Little Black Dress” shows how American sees “Parisian style.” So if you follow the Oscars or the red carpets of Hollywood, it may be up your alley. However, in Paris fashion, the little black dress has a long history. By ignoring this context—and its chronology—the show becomes more a Pinterest page than a study. 

Related Links
Musée des arts décoratifs
“La mécanique des dessous” (on view through November 24)
Mona Bismarck American Center
“The Little Black Dress” (on view through September 22)
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