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Go Figure: The Fashion Silhouette and the Female Form

November 13 - July 19, 2018

Cornell Costume & Textile Collection–Level T, Level 1, Human Ecology Building, Cornell University

Poster RGB

Go Figure explores perceptions and representations of Euro-American beauty ideals across the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Through outerwear and undergarments, this historical costume exhibition shows how women’s bodies have been manipulated and shaped to fit fashionable silhouettes at different moments in time. From corsetry and girdles to diet and exercise, shaping the human body is critical to fashion change and illustrates the fluctuating and dynamic nature of socio-cultural conceptions of “beauty.”

Curated by: Rachel Doran ('19)

Faculty Advisor: Dr. Denise N. Green

Funded by: The Charlotte A. Jirousek Undergraduate Research Fellowship


We begin by acknowledging that Cornell University is located in the traditional homelands of the Gayogohó:no (Cayuga Nation), one of the six Haudenosaunee nations.

With special thanks to: Helen McLallen, Kimberly Phoenix, Katherine Greder, Michele Draiss, Karen Steffy, Tim Snyder, Amanda Denham, Charles Beach, the Seward House Museum, Eileen Keating, Amanda Dubin, Regina Mun, Tori Pietsch, Katie Williams, Jackie DeVito, Jackie Fogarty, Allie Malakoff, Livia Caligor, Claudia Libow, Samantha Stern, Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design and the College of Human Ecology.

Thank you to Priscilla Stampa and Marjorie Watt for instilling in me a passion for historical fashion and for inspiring me to be the best I can be. Thank you to my parents, Lisa and Alan Doran, for supporting me in everything I do and being there for me no matter what. Thank you to my sister, Ellie, for calling me a nerd for so many years that I made it to Cornell.

Letter from the Curator:

Working on this exhibit over the past nine months has been an indescribable experience. I learned so much and pushed myself in new and incredible ways. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to curate Go Figure. My deep interest in the intersection of body image and fashion drew me to apply for The Charlotte A. Jirousek Undergraduate Research Fellowship last spring and now here we are.

The idea of body image has always been of great interest to me. I remember in middle school we talked about the models in fashion magazines setting unrealistic expectations for girls. You can talk about this ad nauseam, but all the same it’s hard not to picture that fashion model as an ideal. This discussion has died down a bit in recent years, and we have seen the inclusion of a few plus-size models. Models these days look stronger than ever before. The waifishly thin ‘90s supermodel is out and the insanely ripped Victoria’s Secret Angel is in. This doesn’t necessarily make things any better.

In doing research for this exhibit, I read The Body Project by Cornell’s own Dr. Joan Jacobs Brumberg. It was this book that introduced me to the idea of internal versus external body controls and what they have meant for women and girls in particular. Brumberg writes, “Instead of relaxing the imperative to lose weight and be thin, the pressure to control the body has been ratcheted upward by an even more demanding cultural ideal: a lean, taut, female body with visible musculature” (Brumberg 123). While we may think we have done away with corsetry and its associated health risks, we certainly have not done away with unrealistic expectations of the female body. The health risks are pervasive: national surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men will have an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Another study found that over 13% of girls have suffered from an eating disorder by the time they turn 20.

This exhibit has allowed me to explore historical dress and, more specifically, corsetry practices throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as well as body shape control techniques and devices up to the present day. Though corsetry fell out of favor over 100 years ago, fashion has found ways to bring it back and today takes the form of a waist trainer. Not only are we obsessed with internal body control, but now external control has returned. Go figure!

Opening Reception

The Exhibit