Killer Fashions at York Castle Museum

Killer Fashion at York Castle Museum
Anthony Chappell-Ross for York Castle Museum's Shaping The Body exhibition

Victorian styles and killer fashion may not seem to go together in the same sentence but an exhibition at the York Castle Museum, with an arsenic-laced dress, could change your mind.

Shaping the Body: 400 Years of Food, Fashion, and Life, a permanent exhibition at the museum (open from March 25, 2016) explores the relationships between lifestyles, fashion, food and body modification over 400 years.

Did you think that the big booty fetish was a 21st-century idea made popular by Kim Kardashian? Think again. Padding the body to make certain curves look a lot curvier goes back all the way to about 1580 when bum rolls to accentuate the hips became popular. And, according to Ali Bodley, senior curator of the exhibition, they stayed popular well into the early 19th century.

"Since Elizabethan times, with a few notable periods, women's fashion has been obsessed with highlighting and accentuating a woman's curves..," she explains. The straight-laced Victorians were just as obsessed with big bums as some people are today but they used the more refined and prim word, the bustle, to describe the elaborate framework and cushion that held up the black of a woman's dress. The photo right, above, is a spoof of La Kardashian's famous Break the Internet picture but, as the exhibition in York demonstrates, exaggerating the rear with a bustle was once the height of fashion.

Visitors to the exhibition can try on several original and replica dresses worn with cushions tied to the waist to create that much-desired bottom shelf so admired by 19th-century fashionistas.

Body Shapers

The exhibition explores the weird world of body modifying, starting with 19th-century corsets and moving right into the 21st-century version of this fetish.

Early corsets gave women wasp waists and pushed up bosoms and to accentuate the curves from bust to hips. Some of these contraptions would create an idealized hourglass figure by compressing a woman's waist to as little as 16 inches. No wonder those Victorian women were always fainting or having "the vapors" - the poor things just couldn't breathe.

Fashion's Great Poisoners

Tight corsets weren't the only reason those Victorian ladies were always so delicate. Some of their clothes were actually lethal. Take the lovely, minty green dress pictured above, left. A key ingredient in finishing that color was arsenic. As long as the dress remained dry, all would be well but as soon as the wearer perspired, the poison was released and absorbed into the bloodstream. Over time this could cause irreversible damage, including rashes, ulcerations, dizziness, confusion, and weakness. In fact, this killer dress remains so deadly that museum curators have to wear gloves when handling it.

The More Things Change...

...the more they remain the same. The exhibition looks at the way diet, lifestyle and fashion have influenced body shape and health over the past 400 years - and it turns out that some things haven't changed very much at all.

Everybody may be talking about the obesity crisis in western countries these days but did you know that there was a perceived obesity crisis in the 19th century too. And back in the 1990s, educators and health professionals were criticizing "heroin chic" in the fashion magazines - an unhealthy look that called for skinny, pale models with dark circles under their eyes and protruding shoulder blades. A version of the look was popular in the 19th century too. Then it was the pale and tragic look of TB chic. And while today's politicians debate a sugar tax, politicians in the 18th and 19th centuries already had one. A whopping 34% tax on sugar raised about £1 million a year between 1764 and 1874.

Hundreds of Years of Style

Visitors to Shaping the Body at the York Castle Museum enter through the sounds of paparazzi and can explore galleries dedicated to all sorts of fascinating facts and trends - including transgender styles and heroes, body piercing, padding, and tattoos.

There's a catwalk - with a funhouse mirror at one end that lengthens legs and can create supermodel look. Said senior curator, Ali Bodley, "Clothing and body shape have been intrinsically linked for thousands of years," explaining that all sorts of health risks could result when fashions were taken to the extreme. She added, "Visitors will see in the outfits on display just how diverse the silhouette can be, but the wearers of these clothes would be cinched in, padded out or, in some cases, malnourished to make their garments look good."

If you're interested in style or you've ever joined an exercise class or gone on a diet, this exhibition is definitely a must.

Exhibition Essentials

  • Where: York Castle Museum, Eye of York, York YO1 9RY. The museum is near Clifford’s Tower and the Coppergate Shopping Centre, about 25 minutes from York Railway Station. Green pedestrian signs will point you toward the Castle Area.
  • When: Every day from 9:30 am to 5 pm, closed Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year's Day.
  • Admission: £10 for adults, children 16 and under free when accompanied by an adult
  • Other exhibitions: Other exhibitions feature a Victorian shopping street, a Victorian riverside watermill, vintage toys, York Castle Prison, 1914, the 1960s and more.
  • Facilities: Family friendly cafe open for lunch and tea.
  • Contact: Telephone +44 (0)1904 687687
  • Visit their website

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