Fashion is both an expression of individual and gender identity, as well as our role within society. How a body looks is not only determined by nature – social norms also influence the way we modify and model the body.
Nude suits (1996) by Katharina KrenkelLandesmuseum Württemberg
The crocheted nude suits by textile artist Katharina Krenkel render one function of fashion obsolete – namely to cover the body. With these Adam and Eve costumes, the artist and her husband create a new nakedness: the woman becomes the man, the man the woman. The artist plays with the social expectation of clear gender images. Gender role models where also fluid in the past, which becomes evident in dress fashions.
A time travel through 250 years of fashion & gender
In all time periods and cultures, gender-specific clothing is being worn, certain body parts emphasised and colours and cuts assigned to each sex. A look back at fashion, the body and gender roles in Europe over the last 250 years shows how male and female identities were constructed through clothing and how ideals of beauty changed.
Let's go on a journey through the history of dress in the fashion museum at Ludwigsburg Residential Palace...
Fashion museum in Ludwigsburg with first display caseLandesmuseum Württemberg
Magnificent ladies at the French court
Baronial ladies at the courts of the 18th century emphasised their bust, waist and hips. They used stays to lace the waist and chest into a conical shape. These were reinforced with whalebone made from the bristles of the baleen whale that hang down instead of teeth. Panniers, from the French word for "basket", were large hooped petticoat frames with which women emphasised their hips. Court dresses worn by high-ranking women were particularly wide. Expansive hips were considered a sign of fertility, which was necessary to maintain the dynasty.
Women's dress and underwear 1745–1770Landesmuseum Württemberg
Gentlemen in pink glamour
Aristocratic gentlemen showed their status and social rank through fashion and accessories. They proudly presented themselves in closely tailored silk suits and fine lace. Pink silks, sequins and embroidery stood in no contrast to their masculine appearance. Below their breeches, men emphasised their calves with elegant silk stockings. Shoes with high heels and diamond-studded buckles as well as high wigs completed the outfit of the fashion-conscious man.
Display case: Women's fashion 1800–1820 (1800–1810)Landesmuseum Württemberg
The "natural" classicism
In response to the French Revolution and a return to the democracy of ancient Greece, the ideal of the female body changed. In the period around 1800, the waist moved upwards. Like an ancient statue, the bust was accentuated and softly falling cotton fabrics created a straight silhouette. Despite the apparent return to a "natural" dress, women wore short stays to shape the upper body.
The Great Masculine Renunciation
The political upheavals at the late 18th century also led to a reorientation in men's fashion. Inspired by the English landed gentry and the working classes, the new bourgeoisie abandoned the expensive fashions of the aristocracy. Men's suits increasingly consisted of woollen fabrics in muted colours. Instead of colourful silks, fashion-conscious men showed their taste through simple elegance.
Display case: Women's fashion 1820–1870 (1822–1832)Landesmuseum Württemberg
Corsets for both sexes
In the Romantic period around 1830, the waist moved back to the centre of the body. For the first time there were corsets. New metal eyelets allowed for a tighter lacing of the waist. Women and a few men wore corsets, additionally emphasising shoulders and hips. Large "leg of mutton" or gigot sleeves and numerous heavy petticoats were now the latest fashion for women.
Some male dandies also wore corsets and padded their shoulders, hips and thighs.
An hourglass figure made of steel
The bourgeois woman of the 19th century showed her status through sweeping silk dresses. During the 1860s, the typical hourglass figure was taken to extremes with tight corsets and wide cage petticoats. New steel underskirts, so-called crinolines, freed the body from heavy textile petticoats. Steel bones replaced the old whalebone for stabilising corsets.
Women's dress and underwear 1867–1870Landesmuseum Württemberg
Display case: The correctly dressed gentleman (1850–1907)Landesmuseum Württemberg
While the bourgeois woman, pushed into the private sphere, was preoccupied with fashionable frippery, the man of the 19th century was supposed to focus on work and supporting the family. The respectable citizen therefore wore plain black suits. Nevertheless, behind the uniform appearance lay a lot of tailored finesse.
Made-to-measure suits, preferably from London's Savile Row, fitted the individual body shapes of gentlemen. Shoulder pads and stiff horsehair interfacings accentuated the male shoulders and chest.
Away with the corsets – Reforms for women
Resistance to the supposed bourgeois idyll of the 19th century grew. While the first women's movement caused a political upheaval, the first rational dresses for women emerged in artistic circles. Supported by doctors, artists and social reformers, women's rights activists declared war on the corset. With untucked, loose dresses, disparagingly called "reform sacks" by critics, they underlined their political opinion.
Freed from the corset, female reformers around 1900 wore bust bodices, also called brassières in French, which evolved into the bra we know today.
During the 1920s, working women raised by the war and social upheaval to be independent, increasingly strived for equal rights. A type of woman with a boyish figure and a straight silhouette was in demand. In keeping with the new Charleston dance, women wore calf-length skirts and for the first time their legs came into focus.
The woman wears the trousers!?
At the beginning of the 20th century, the centuries-old battle for the trousers picked up speed. In satirical depictions, women had been fighting with their husbands over trousers as a symbol of masculinity and thus power in marriage since the late Middle Ages. Led by feminists such as the American Amelia Bloomer, sporty women increasingly wore pants around 1900. During the 1930s, women from the artistic avant-garde showed themselves in trousers made famous by Marlene Dietrich.
New Look – A return to old roles
The New Look of the 1950s revived the ideal of the hourglass figure for women. With the increasing prosperity of the post-war generation and the ideal of the caring housewife and mother, a new longing for a feminine silhouette emerged. The steel petticoats of the previous century were replaced by petticoats made of modern synthetic fibres such as nylon.
Men show their colours
In the revolutionary spirit of the Swinging Sixties, colour also returned to men's wardrobes. Inspired by designers from London's Carnaby Street and King's Road, modern dandies now unabashedly wore frills, velvet, colourful patterns and other fashion elements that had previously been regarded as too feminine.
Unisex fashion - new equality!?
Established by cinema stars of the 1950s such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, jeans, T-shirts and sneakers achieved cult status. Since the 1970s, jeans have also become an everyday wardrobe staple for women. Today, these three items of clothing form a kind of unisex outfit for both sexes. But does this seemingly equal appearance of men and women also mean equality in terms of their social, political and financial status and opportunities?
Push-up bra (2001)Landesmuseum Württemberg
Body modification today
Some people today may ridicule or reject body-shaping garments like crinolines or corsets – but we still modify our bodies. Outwardly, this is accomplished through push-up bras or elastic Spanx pants.
Breast implants (2010–2022) by Mentor and NatrelleLandesmuseum Württemberg
With a focus on youthfulness and permissiveness, ideals of beauty are increasingly "internalised" today. Through diet, fitness and plastic surgery, all sexes strive to shape the seemingly perfect body. Certain parts of the body, such as the breast, are accentuated with implants like these, while others are slimmed down.
Concept/text/English translation: Ruth Egger
Editorial work/realization: Anna Gnyp
Photos and videos: Hendrik Zwietasch, Jonathan Leliveldt
Photo of the nude suits from the portrait series “Außerirdische”: Gerhard Westrich, https://www.westrichfoto.de/