Dressing the Body: Silhouettes and Fashion

Design Museum of Barcelona

Museu del Disseny de Barcelona

Dressing the body. Silhouettes and fashion (1550-2015)Design Museum of Barcelona

Dress (circa 1850) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona

Dressing the Body

In every age, the different ways of dressing are intimately connected with moral, social and aesthetic codes. Fashion imposes standards of beauty; silhouettes and volumes are modified and nature gives way to artifice. Clothes change the body's proportions and alter the wearer's relationship with physical space and other people.  The exhibition showcases how dress can increase, reduce, profile, reveal and elongate the body.

Dressing the body: IncreasingDesign Museum of Barcelona


Creating volume using interior structures or ample rigid fabrics, separated from the body.

Dressing the body: ReducingDesign Museum of Barcelona


The natural forms of the body are reduced, especially the thorax and waist.

Dressing the body: LengthenDesign Museum of Barcelona


Enhancing the vertical to make the body look taller.

Dressing the body: ProfilingDesign Museum of Barcelona


The forms of the body are outlined, without being altered.

Dressing the body: RevealingDesign Museum of Barcelona


The silhouette is suggested, showing legs and arms and bare skin.

Gown (1735/1740) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona

The Gentleman and the Courtier: dresses compress the body (1550-1789)

The Renaissance saw the perfecting of tailoring techniques and clothes were cut to fit the body closely. Women wore long skirts, while men showed their legs. The body was a clothes-horse for the display of fabrics, dresses, lace, embroidery and accessories. Interior structures were used to enlarge or reduce the figure. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Spanish fashion of wearing black and adopting a soberly hieratic pose was followed by the courts of Europe, while the eighteenth century saw a shift to the French style, which sought a theatrical effect.

Court gown (circa 1760) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona


Men wear triangular capes, padded doublets to enhance the chest, flesh-toned lower hose or stockings, stuffed upper hose or trunks and codpieces.

Skirts are increasingly voluminous, thanks to interior structures.

Corset (1770/1775) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona


The waist is emphasized. The torso is compressed and flattened with cardboard over the chest and corsets.

Fashion plate (1778) by Le Clerc (illustrator), Dupin (engraver)Design Museum of Barcelona


High chopines raise the wearer: the first platform shoes, and shoes with heels. Wigs and adornments give extra height.

Suit (1750/1800) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona


Coat with waxed skirts, waistcoat, breeches and stockings give a slender silhouette.

Dress (circa 1815) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona

Dress and Revolution: the body set free (1789-1825)

The social transformation set in motion by the French Revolution is reflected in dress. Napoleon suppressed by decree the symbols of the aristocracy: corsets, paniers, breeches and heeled shoes. Clothes were simplified. For both men and women the silhouette becomes rectilinear, following the model of Greek statues. Women wear chemises dresses. The waistline is raised to just below the chest.

Dress (1790/1810) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona


The costumes of men and women become flexible; the silhouette is deflated and follows the forms of the body.


Women show their arms. Lightweight transparent fabrics reveal the shape of the body.


Dresses with trains and long sleeves stylize the woman's figure. Men wear long trousers, high collars and top hats.

Dress (1830/1835) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona

Ethereal Women: the dress inflates the body (1825-1845)

Romanticism Is inspired
by the forms of Gothic and Renaissance art.


With their flat shoes,
pale skin and puffed-out dresses, women in the second quarter of the 19th
century seem to float above the ground. The male figure was straight,
with dropped shoulders, dressed in a simple and comfortable three-piece suit,
with a cape or overcoat. 


Very large puffed and padded sleeves, and full skirts inflated and rounded by being worn over petticoats. Men also adopt a figure with volume.

Dress (1840/1845) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona


The corset, introduced around 1828, makes it difficult to breathe.

The waistline returns to its natural place.

Dress (1850/1855) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona

The Well-dressed Bourgeoisie: exaggerating volumes (1845-1868)

 The Industrial Revolution transforms the manufacture of fabrics and, in so doing, the way of life of Europe's citizens. The bourgeoisie dictates the forms and fashions, which succeed one another ever more swiftly. Burghers strive to look like aristocrats with a return to the shapes of the eighteenth century. Women's dresses are lavishly ornamented, making visible the economic power of the family. With a severely compressed torso and narrow waist, skirts become fuller, to the extent that the wearers of these dresses find it difficult to sit down or walk through a doorway. The man is almost invisible in his three-piece suit of trousers, waistcoat and frock coat or jacket. 

Crinoline (1856/1858) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona


Skirts reach their maximum volume.

The crinoline (initially of horsehair and later of steel hoops) is a lighter supporting structure than a large number of petticoats.

Dress (1865/1868) by Charles Frederick WorthDesign Museum of Barcelona

Corsets constrict the waist and stomach and cause serious health problems.

Dress (1874/1875) by Charles Frederick WorthDesign Museum of Barcelona

The Age of the Bustle: what matters is at the back (1868-1888)   

Industrialization leads to mass production, first in underwear and accessories and then in dresses, which begin to be sold in department stores. Seen in profile, the female body is angled, flat in front and wide behind.  The heavy fabric of the so-called tapisserie or drapery dress imitates the curtains and hangings of the bourgeois interior. The long heavy trains of evening gowns extend the silhouette. Little changes in men's fashion: three-piece suit and overcoat. Tails or a morning coat are worn on formal occasions. 

Dress (1885) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona


The volume of the skirt is gathered at the back, made fuller with an interior structure (the bustle) and extended with a train.

By 1885 the bustles are folding or in the form of a cushion.

Dress (circa 1895) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona

S-shaped Belles: clothes deform the body (1888-1910)

 Art Nouveau brought sinuous decorative elements that imitate natural forms to architecture and the visual arts, and costumes and fabrics were no exception. The chest is inflated and thrust forward, the waist very narrow, the stomach flat and the pelvis pushed backwards: in this serpentine form (the famous coup de fouet) the female body is severely deformed by the action of the corset and the S-shaped posture. After 1900 the figure becomes slimmer and the skirt flares at the hem like the corolla of a flower. During the day men wear a three-piece suit of jacket, trousers and waistcoat with a bowler hat, and for evening engagements and formal occasions a frock coat, morning coat or tuxedo with top hat. 

Dress (1905/1907) by Carolina MontagneDesign Museum of Barcelona


Ruffles, bows and pleats swell sleeves, skirts and chest in a single volume.

Corset (1890/1900) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona


The corset compresses the waist and bust. By 1908 corsets are so long as to impede all movement. Women's corsets displace their internal organs and could cause serious disorders.

Dress (1925/1930) by UnknownDesign Museum of Barcelona

Clothes Reveal the Body: corsets off! 1910-1930   

The First World War marks a break between the nineteenth century and modernity. A process of liberation becomes apparent, as huge numbers of women enter the labour market for the first time. The slim, elongated silhouette, with flat chest and hips concealed, gives women an androgynous image. The waistline moves down from just under the breasts to the hips. Modern dresses are suited to outdoor activities and dancing. Men's styles also adopt a slim, linear silhouette. 

Dress (1926) by Anita MonrósDesign Museum of Barcelona


With the demise of the corset, the body breaks out of the mould. Straight simple lines: tunic dresses are not armour but comfortable and functional clothes.


The body is shown or insinuated: in the nineteen twenties, for the first time in history, women show their legs.

Dress (1950s) by Manuel PertegazDesign Museum of Barcelona

Haute Couture: the artificial silhouette (1930-1960)

In the years of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, clothes reflected the grim times, economic uncertainty and conservatism in Europe. Dresses evolve from the fluid forms of the 1930s to the austere 1940s, influenced by military uniforms, and then to the hourglass silhouette highlighting the symbols of femininity. Day dresses remain short, while gowns for evening wear and parties are long. In the 1950s, lingerie accentuates pointed breasts and curving hips. Men wear three piece suits with a hat. 

Dress (1958) by Cristóbal BalenciagaDesign Museum of Barcelona

Haute Couture and Balenciaga

The Paris fashion system imposes its dominance worldwide. Star designers create original models, presented at twice-yearly fashion shows. Outfits are handmade, and personally tailored for an exclusive coterie of clients.

The New Look created by French designer Christian Dior (1905-1957) in 1947 emphasizes the female form, with the return of the corset and petticoats, as in the past.

Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) was a master in the exploration of forms and volumes, combining several actions in a single outfit: increasing and reducing, profiling and shifting. His lines, achieved with new processes for making up, have influenced all subsequent fashion.


The volume of skirts is exaggerated at the hips with interior padding or folds in the fabric. The pointing of the bust is accentuated by the bullet bra.

Dress (1956) by Asunción BastidaDesign Museum of Barcelona

The Cooperativa de Alta Costura
Pedro Rodríguez (1895-1990) created the Cooperativa de Alta Costura in Barcelona. The Cooperativa organized the Salones de la Moda Española fashion shows featuring the 'big five' Spanish labels: Asunción Bastida, Pedro Rodríguez, El Dique Flotante, Santa Eulalia and Manuel Pertegaz.

Dress (1940) by Pedro RodríguezDesign Museum of Barcelona


The waist is compressed by belts and girdles. The very narrow effect is known as a 'wasp waist'.

Tunic dress (circa 1966) by Elio BerhanyerDesign Museum of Barcelona

Prêt-à-porter: the body on show  (1960-1990)   

During the 1960s there was a radical sociocultural break, as the young rebelled and challenged the established canons of beauty, and daring new styles made audacity the norm. There is no longer a unique silhouette. Unisex fashion prevails, with tunics, dresses and trousers, short and long, in bright colours. The 1980s are characterized by exaggerated forms and brilliant textures. Prêt-à-porter Series signed by prestigious designers reflecting the new changes in society, aimed at a wider market. 

"Moldeable tres pisos" dress (1987) by SybillaDesign Museum of Barcelona


In the 1980s, layers, outsized shoulders and skirts with huge volumes create a superlative figure.


Women's underwear no longer structures the figure, and in some cases simply disappears. Outfits adapt to the body like a second skin that shows its movement, with new elastic fabrics like elastane.

Short jump suit (1966) by Paco RabanneDesign Museum of Barcelona


With the miniskirt, shorts and tights, women in the sixties show off their legs. The back and stomach is also exposed.

Ensemble (2007) by Txell MirasDesign Museum of Barcelona

Designers versus Globalization: clothes outline, wrap or reveal the body (1990-2015)   

Men and women modify their bodies with piercings, tattoos and other actions on the skin, which come to be accepted and adopted. Streetwear: young people define different standards of beauty. The social networks disseminate images of street styles that set trends. The minimalist currents of the 1990s opt for black and pursue the purest and simplest lines and forms. Designers create small collections which are sold in their own boutiques or in multi-brand stores. For the first time, ordinary people buy and wear the same mass-produced outfits all over the world. Research into innovative fabrics and high-tech applications changes the body's relationship with clothes and fashion.

Ensemble (2006) by La Marthe (Marta Esteban)Design Museum of Barcelona


Previously unknown silhouettes appear, with clothes that wrap or deform the body.

Women's underwear is structured, with the Wonderbra and corsets revamping historical traditions, but the garments are increasingly well adapted to the body thanks to flexible fabrics, thermosewing and moulding.

Ensemble (2012) by Martínez LierahDesign Museum of Barcelona


Clinging dresses, T-shirts, bodysuits and leggings made of new stretch fabrics delineate a completely anatomical silhouette.


New transparencies and minimal garments let you expose the skin, the surface of the body.

Credits: Story

Museu del Disseny de Barcelona

Teresa Bastardes and Silvia Ventosa. Department of Collections, with the collaboration of the Department of Exhibitions.

Based on the 'Dressing the body' exhibition at Museu del Disseny de Barcelona.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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