New York

“Bare Witness”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes asks, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no ‘erogenous zones’ (a foolish expression, besides); it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself that seduces, or rather the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.” Since it is a kind of textuality, fashion provides the surest meditation on this space—the midriff between meaning and meaninglessness.

For “Bare Witness: Clothing and Nudity” curators Richard Martin and Harold Koda assembled stunning examples of the various revolutions in the history of revelation: from a late-18th-century robe à l’anglaise which “redefin[ed] the shaping of the torso” by emphasizing “hipline and buntline” to early French and American nineteenth-century evening dresses, which raised the waistline to highlight the bosom, allowing the body to be conceived “as a graceful neoclassical column . . . with articulation at the bust equivalent to a capital.” It would take roughly 100 years before there would be more “poitrine” and the back “revealed to the lower shoulder blade,” but then the pace really quickens: in the 1920s hemlines “rise just below the knee”; in the 1930s “backs [were] bared to the waist” and the midriff exposed. Snap—little more than fifteen years after Dior’s New Look, Rudi Gernreich offers the topless bathing suit (1964); Mary Quant and André Courrèges, miniskirts (1965).

When male and female dress is taken in tandem, as it too infrequently was in this exhibit, the swift transitions of such an abbreviated timeline become even more difficult to mark. In the catalogue accompanying the show, there are no photos of outfits revealing the male body, and the exhibit displayed little menswear. When it did, as in Gernreich’s thong bathing suit, 1974, in black nylon knit, it became interesting to think about who could display what parts of the body in public and when, and whether or not this has as much to do with gender as with class distinctions. The curators provide the following information about the thong: “Gernreich aggressively bares the male body but on the template of the man’s tank (indoor pool) suits of the 1920s.” What are the connections between men’s and women’s tank suits? When were men (not just workers) allowed to show their chests? Similar questions arise when looking at Thurmand Hedgepeth III’s hot pants from 1970, and the Serendipity micromini skirt (worn by Cher [Bono], 1969–70. The catalogue states that “the micromini became so short that hot pants were the only logical evolution that could afford any structure or closure. Ironically, the pants that had been associated with menswear’s decorum became synonymous with womenswear’s striving for exposure.”

This tension between menswear and womenswear, between decorum and exposure, reverberated throughout the show, but only through what was missing. It would have been interesting to have included “streaking” as a ’70s (male?) fashion response to bralessness. Incorporating ’80s athletic wear—Spandex aerobic gear, tight biking attire—would have allowed for a greater consideration of garments that ruthlessly reveal without baring skin. The strange trend in the late ’80s and ’90s for sweatgear, often oversized (L, XL, XXL, XXXL), with elastic or drawstring waistlines, about which Martin has written fascinatingly, has some integral relation to nakedness. If, as David Barton advertises, the point of the gym is to “look better naked,” why should so much of gym fashion fetishize concealment? Why should trends that move from menswear to womenswear be considered advances in style when the reverse (men in kilts or skirts) is still relegated, as men in drag almost always are, to the comic or strange? Some of these questions would seem only to be answerable by investigating men’s and women’s fashion together—their indebtedness to each other, and the creation of gear that would have to be called androgynous.

Regardless, it was a great pleasure to see contemporary designers’ meditations on baring the female body, especially Geoffrey Beene’s exquisite Evening Gown, fall/winter 1995–96, in silver panne velvet; Anne Demeulemeester’s sumptuous Ensemble, 1996, a study in subtle contrasts (black leather, silk tulle acetate, satin rayon crepe, and cotton tape); Alexander McQueen’s trig Evening Dress, 1996, in nude nylon marquisette; and those jet offerings by the too frequently underrated Ronaldus Shamask, whose designs the Costume Institute, discernedly, continually highlights. (The simple, gorgeously ingenious dresses by Shamask employing black leather and zippers to reveal more and less of the body at the wearer’s discretion, coordinated with chocolate brown zipper shoes by Anthony Valentina, from 1976, were at once the most understated and the most innovative pieces in the show.) But I yearned to see these “haute” examples contrasted with things more louche and trendy—a tight, sexy, formfitting club top by Raymond Dragon or International Male; a little revealing number that a raver might wear, perhaps from TG-170; or outfits inspired by the vixens in a 007 flick. I would want some fuller explanation of why “Bare Witness” is not about “burlesque stripping” as the catalogue noted, “but about demarcating the body and making discriminating choices about the body.” Isn’t some lack (of discrimination? of decorum?)—which burlesque, like porn, exploits and explores—exactly what caused the various unveilings to happen? Displaying only the haute may obfuscate fashion’s indebtedness to what some may consider the unseemly, but it does not make it irrelevant. When porn star Jeff Stryker dons leather chaps and nothing else for a porn-awards ceremony, his butt and cock bared for all to admire, it seems a moment fashion (or at least its historians) cannot ignore. Fashion thrives on that between—one skin meeting another.

Bruce Hainley