Shake What Your Mama Didn't Give You: Shapewear Through The Ages From corsets and codpieces to shapewear and Spanx, people have tried to change their silhouettes for centuries. From The Seams, Jacki Lyden takes us on a sartorial tour of shapewear.
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Shake What Your Mama Didn't Give You: Shapewear Through The Ages

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Shake What Your Mama Didn't Give You: Shapewear Through The Ages

Shake What Your Mama Didn't Give You: Shapewear Through The Ages

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Spring weather means that people wear lighter fabrics and fewer layers of clothing that may make us feel little more exposed. Hit the gym or the lingerie shop. Women and men have been shaping their silhouettes for centuries, as an exhibit in New York City now demonstrates. From The Seams - the series about fashion as culture. Jacki Lyden has more.

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: You might think bustles and corsets and codpieces were all gone by the time electricity was invented, but a New York exhibit shows us that vanity has always been with us. Before we go to that show, "Fashioning The Body: An Intimate History Of The Silhouette," let me introduce you to someone brave enough to admit her vanity. Every day of her life, Nikki Adams, a consulting psychologist who lives on Long Island, puts on a corset.

NIKKI ADAMS: I love my corset, and I was led to my corset - it was, like, divine intervention.

LYDEN: She got the idea from a woman she knows who wore one and looked amazing. Nikki found her way to a corset shop on New York's Lower East Side run by an Orthodox Jewish man and his wife.

ADAMS: He pulls out a variety of different options for me, and I pick the one that's the most detailed and beautiful and pretty. And his wife took me back to a changing room, and she says, are you ready? And I said, yes. And she opened the corset and she put me in. And I had this "Gone With The Wind" moment where you kind of like - she pulled the strings and I lost my breath and then she said turnaround. And I turned around and looked, and I had this shape that I hadn't seen - like, it was, like, two kids ago.

LYDEN: Women and men have been trying to shape their silhouettes through undergarments for centuries. Denis Bruna, a curator at Paris's Museum of Decorative Arts, which is inside the Louvre, showed me a small, yellow corset from 1760 with 200 pieces of whalebone. He talked about its physical and social restrictions.

DENIS BRUNA: With this kind of underwear - the whalebone stays, pannier, etcetera - it's very difficult to move.

LYDEN: But as a French noble, you didn't need to move; you just needed to impress a duke, a duchess, the king himself. Curator Denis Bruna says that unless you're going naked, there's no such thing as a natural body. There's only a cultural body, shaped by our time and obsessions. And this was as true in the 18th century as it is in an era of CrossFit, shapewear and tummy tucks.

BRUNA: Don't forget that we shape our body now. If we have the possibility to speak with the men of the 18th century that we shape our body by gym or by surgery, they could be very shocked.

LYDEN: Back in the Renaissance, men sculpted their bodies with padding - fake calves, paunches, doublets that puff a man up to twice his size. And nothing says power like a codpiece.

BRUNA: It's a reproduction of the men's sex, and it's a sign of virility and wealth, too.

LYDEN: Attached to the front of a man's pants, shown off with his robes thrown open, Denis Bruna showed me a codpiece reproduction he'd bought from Paris. He explains that a codpiece was a guy's signature.

BRUNA: It was not only the fashion at the court, but it was the fashion from all the class - the nobleman to the simple one.

LYDEN: There were even rules stating how big anyone's codpiece could be. Now, we humans love our physical assets, and we love to show them off. The U.S. undergarment business nets over $13 billion annually, according to the market research firm Ibis, which brings us back to our psychologist Nikki Adams. Before she started her daily corseting, she spoke to her doctor about wearing one. It does not - she says - move her organs.

What do you say to naysayers who say this it is too much, this is ridiculous?

ADAMS: It is too much, and I love it (laughter) because it does give you a very remarkable, different look. I want to walk in a room and everybody's like, oh, my gosh, what is she doing?

LYDEN: Now, we can't say how happy her female forebears were to be corseted from cradle to grave, but you can get a hint from the show or online. "Fashioning The Body: An Intimate History Of The Silhouette" runs until July 26 at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.

SIMON: And Jacki is host of The Seams podcast. You can find more on this story and more about The Seams on our website, npr.org.

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