C = Clair Repsholdt, K = Kate RowoldVisit podcast page
C: Welcome to A Thing of Beauty. I’m your host, Claire Repsholdt, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University studying English and History. This podcast is part of Themester, a themed semester brought to you by the College of Arts and Sciences. This fall we are exploring beauty as a core component of human experience. In each episode, we’ll invite faculty to share an object of beauty with us. So, let’s meet our guest.
C: Hi I’m Claire Repsholdt and this is A Thing of Beauty. Today, I’m here with Kate Rowold, who is a Professor of Fashion Design and the Director of the Sage Collection of Fashion and Culture. Professor Rowold, welcome.
K: Thank you, Claire
C: So I was wondering if you could begin by describing the object of beauty that you brought for us today.
K: The object of beauty that I selected for our conversation today is a woman’s corset from circa 1890. It’s constructed of black silk with shocking pink or bright pink silk embroidery.
C: And could you describe the experience of being near the object, some of the finer details of the object or why it was so interesting because I know the Sage Collection has many corsets and interesting pieces of clothing, so what is so astonishing about this object?
K: This particular corset represents a place and time for fashion, as do all items of fashion; they’re contextual to a place and to a time and to a particular group of people. This individual corset was not worn a lot, and so it came to us in almost pristine condition, so, first of all, that makes it, as an object, makes it appealing in many ways.
But I selected it to have our conversation about beauty because in many ways, to me, fashion can be both beautiful and the antithesis of beauty, and the corset in some ways represents the extent to which people will modify their bodies to create a particular ideal of beauty at a given time and place.
This particular corset is not the same shape as a corset from ten years before or a corset fifteen years later, and corsets, as early as the 15th century also had a different shape. So the corset itself as an object, to me, is beautiful because of the craft, the art and craft, that went into making it, but it also represents to me the conflict between beauty and, perhaps, the distortion of natural beauty that we do to ourselves through fashion.
C: And when you talk about beauty and fashion, how is it being conceptualized? When you hear a colleague mention it or when you read it in an article, what are you understanding when they say beauty or reference beauty?
K: Well that’s, of course, that’s the question, of the hour, of the day, of this Themester, yes. And I believe that everybody perceives beauty differently. Even within the context of fashion, I think it’s perceived differently. Certainly people of different age groups see different or embrace a different definition of beauty than older or younger people. Each generation evolves a different notion of what’s beautiful.
First of all, I believe that beauty is a sensorial thing. Beauty can be visual or something we hear or smell or touch, and so there are a whole variety of different elements and principles that might come into that definition of beauty. But, to me, beauty in fashion is something that is visually relaxing—
This is my definition, of course, this is not everybody’s definition—
That there is some equilibrium, that there’s some peace, some quiet— However, contemporary fashions, post-modern fashions, post-modern design, in general, tends towards the more dissonant, maybe more disorienting variation from some of the classic notions of good design and balance and harmony.
C: So do you feel that when people are talking about fashion, they think of it as inherently beautiful? Are the two always overlapped?
K: I don’t think people do always think of fashion as beautiful. I think sometimes people think of fashion as more an expression, particularly if it’s a fashion or a combination or assemblage of things that are more personally created rather than buying something off the rack the way that a designer or a manufacturer told you you should wear something. I think then it’s more a personal expression.
In all of fashion and fashion history there’s this conflict between individuality and conformity. And so notions of beauty can be very personal when they’re individual, and notions of beauty might be, uh, very different when they’re based on conformity, and—
So the word fashion, I should also say, fashion typically refers to the mode or the majority of a population, what they’re wearing or what they’re driving or what they’re writing with or what they’re, how they’re decorating their house, that there’s a commonality of accepting colors and textures and shapes and proportions.
C: So when people are producing items for a fashion collection or when they’re putting on an outfit in the morning-- When you’re thinking about that, do you consider beauty as a primary objective in that? Or is it just kind of an after effect that hits you?
K: Well, what I ask my students to think about is—is commercially successful fashion beautiful, or is beautiful fashion commercially successful? (C: Hm) It doesn’t necessarily follow that one or the other is true across time. Certainly, it varies across time and place. I think that, in fashion, beauty-- It’s difficult to separate beauty of the clothing from the beauty of the individual wearing the clothing, which is one of the great dangers and sorrows of beauty, that it is— It ends up being so personal and judgmental in many ways, but if you think about figures or figures of women in art—even Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa—they might not be considered facially, or, in terms of their body shape, beautiful today in the way that they were beautiful, or the Rubenesque figures, certainly, would be considered plus-sized women today, which might be beautiful or might be okay but not beautiful.
Those examples of beauty in history of art-- All are Eurocentric kinds of figures rather than being across cultures. If you think about movie stars from the 20th century who were considered beautiful: Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe couldn’t be more different than each other. Today’s stars: Halle Berry and Angelina Jolie and maybe Charlize Theron, all very different in body size and shape and proportion and their personal styles are very different, yet they’re all considered beautiful.
So there’s a lot of personal interpretation that goes into it. And I think also that in our language-- We have a fashion in our language, in which words are used when they may not necessarily mean anything consentually. And so, people use beauty all the time, “Oh, that’s beautiful!,” “That’s a beautiful thing!,” “That’s amazing!,” “That just blew me away.” Well what do those words even mean?
In the fashion world the word “couture” had a very, very specific meaning for almost 200 years. Today you can go to Sam’s Club and you can see a sign for a “couture” sweatshirt. So the words get-- They lose their meaning and are interpreted different ways by different people.
C: And do you feel that beauty is usually applied to feminine beauty when you’re talking about fashion? I’m noticing as we’re going into it and thinking about the corset as an object of beauty in fashion that maybe there’s a different word for male attractiveness or male fashion ideal that—‘cause it seems that beauty seems to concentrate on gender, at least in the way that you’ve just described.
K: Well, let me first say that men have worn corsets in the historical past. Although we think of corsets as something that women wore, and probably initially it was to hold breasts up in to a particular place, maybe even not so much to cinch the waist in some time periods as it was to cinch the waist in other time periods, but in the 19th century men wore corsets during a very romantic period.
They wore them to make their waists smaller, or appear smaller, make their chests look broader, they actually even sometimes wore calf and thigh pads to make them look more muscular in their very slim fitting pants. So those might actually, those very feminine characteristics were part of men’s fashion at that time.
C: And were they called beauty?
K: Probably handsome.
C: Talk to me more about the corset from this period and why, in context, it’s so interesting, particularly the shape of it because it is a different shape than you picture. It’s not quite the hourglass shape.
K: Right, so corsets, as I said, emerged really during the 15th century and they had a slightly different shape then. In conjunction with the Themester, our Sage Collection is doing an exhibition called “Eye of the Beholder,” where we’re going to be looking at 200 years of women’s fashion, demonstrating, in particular, the silhouette.
So we’re going to start with 1810, which was a time period that was after the French Revolution, so the very tight waistlines and full panniered skirts were out. They, they were done after the French Revolution. And it was a return to the classical lines of the Greco-Roman cultures, so these dresses were completely linear, but women still wore a form of corset under them. The corset that they wore at that time really ended just below the breast, so it was just a way to make the breast shape the way they wanted it to be shaped within these very ethereal, gauze, clinging, gorgeous, classical dresses that that still had a form of corset underneath.
And as the decades progressed during the 19th century, the corset once again elongated. It took awhile to get the cinching back down to the natural waistline, but it did do just that during the course of the 19th century. From time to time there would be straps on a corset. The object that I chose today does not have any straps. So it looks—It looks like a bustier or something that might be worn today under a strapless dress. But, depending upon what the shapes of the two-dimensional panels of fabric-- It depends on the shape of those panels and how they’re stitched together that really just pops into a three-dimensional shape that holds the body into place.
So, the particular object I selected today, the back of the corset is higher than the front of the corset, and it causes the body posture to change. And if you add straps to those corsets then it, again, it throws the shoulders back in a different way.
This particular corset ends just a little below the waistline at the very high hip level, but 15 years after this corset, the corsets were much longer. They came farther down to the lower hip area, and they actually curved in over the abdomen and really held the body in a very upright position, if you looked at it from the front.
If you looked from the side, it had an S-curve, and there was a belief that this would be a more healthy corset. Corsets, in general—There’s a debate over whether they were healthy or unhealthy for the figure, but, depending upon how the corset is shaped, it causes the wearer to carry their body differently, and that different body-positioning then works in conjunction with the shape of the clothing.
Most often between 1810 and 2010-- which is our “Eye of the Beholder” exhibit that’s going to be this Fall. Most often the clothing really relies on the undergarments rather than the garment relying on the shape of the body. In today’s world, we all wear cotton and Rayon and Spandex and it really relies on the shape of the body rather than the clothing you’re wearing under the body.
C: So at what point does an object cease to be beautiful because of what it’s doing for the body and the body that it’s making possible and beautiful because it’s a historical interest piece or something? Do you notice that as a curator of a collection with such a wide range of historical pieces? When does beauty start to change from being a body that can be beautiful when you put this on and a memory of craftsmanship or something like that?
K: Also a very good question. That’s a hard one to answer, I think. I’m so embedded in my thinking about history as a way to understand today’s world and even look to the future that it’s hard for me to really make a division there.
I think that there are elements of clothing, and if we want to go back to the corset as a reference point. There are forms of corsets that people wear that are very distorting of the body. They aren’t typically worn by mainstream individuals, but they might be worn by particular subcultural groups.
So there are—even in today’s 21st century--there are subcultural groups that even go into very extreme waist cinching as part of a fetish behavior. Those people, I’m certain, believe that that kind of a truly distorted waistline is extraordinarily beautiful. I would suspect that the mass population would not see that as beautiful in the same way, so it’s really very contextual.
C: And you were talking earlier about the individuality verses the broader context of that individual. How are you seeing the ways that an individual concept of beauty butts up against the larger social context or the larger historical context of that beauty?
K: Well the manner in which beauty works with fashion has to do with the people who are leaders in the fashion world or in culture. There can be very talented designers whose work never shows up as important fashion because there are a group of people that we might refer to as “gatekeepers.”
K: In previous centuries, the gatekeepers were the aristocracy and the very wealthy. 15:36 As industrial revolution happened, then it began--began to be the newly moneyed, the industrialists, their wives and daughters etcetera. In our world today day it’s entertainers, celebrities, um, sports individuals.
And these people, who, typically, have some kind of an individual expression, are then emulated, copied: We all want to be like Mike. We always-- And so the individuality of those fashion leaders or those fashion innovators, that individuality is copied by people who want to assume that similar kind of status until we reach a point of conformity, at which point the innovators are already on to something new because they certainly are going to be more individual than the mass of population.
C: You’re talking about gatekeepers of beauty and the way that they’re selling it in kind of a celebrity fashion, so it sounds like in some ways--and I’m relating fashion and beauty very closely here--but it sounds like in some ways beauty can be an identity that you choose. Is that true, is that what you’re describing, possibly?
K: I think it can be. I think it certainly can be there are many people in our culture in this United States who say, “I, I refuse to follow fashion,”
K: And so they, they select an individual style, an individual look, a signature look as it were. Uh, from time to time, there’ll be celebrities who do that as well, but as soon as a celebrity does that, then it’ll be copied. And the truth is, fashion designers who want to be on the cutting edge will walk urban areas all around the world to find individuals who are really making a unique statement with their combinations or silhouettes or colors or whatever. And draw off of those innovative styles or combinations to try to create some new fashions that more people will wear.
C: So beauty is sitting in a really complex place between the presentation of the body, and commercial desires, desires to be popular in the mainstream, to look a certain amount of “now.” And do you still see that today? Are there similar items like the corset today that have this complex dialogue of beauty going on around them?
K: I think there are. You know, from time to time the bustier or a corset worn on the outside even becomes fashionable. And it’s interesting when I meet young women who think that’s attractive or they choose that for a special occasion might be the same women who work out everyday and wear very comfortable shoes and are very concerned with the health of their body during different times and them-- They select times in which they are going to be wearing that kind of a garment that really is restricting.
In today’s world there’s not so many corsets around, but there are the—the Spanx, the Spanx culture. So in the, in the early 20th century, corsets were replaced with girdles as elastameric fibers were available. So girdles were very stretchy and heavy, some even had zippers in them, but the boned corsets went away. The bra or brassiere was invented, so the combination of a bra and a girdle replaced the corset.
In the 60s and the 70s everything kind of was left by the wayside, by a certain segment of the population. And in the last 10-15 years with even more advanced elastameric fabrics and fibers, um, these very stretchy Spanx that are, when they are knitted, when they are produced, they are produced with more stretch, more fit in some places and more release in other places, very similar in some ways. It’s maybe the 21st century corset.
C: Then, I’m interested when people are coming to see items such as this in the Sage collection or other items that have similarly changed significantly changed over time in the way that, perhaps, a dress, like, is more or less a constant part of the fashion dialogue. How are people—
How do you see them experiencing the collection pieces? Are they thinking about their bodies in them. Do they just look at them as art objects? Do you have any sense of how the public, or what they’re looking for when they see historic clothing pieces?--which are sometimes hard to find it’s not necessarily something you would see in an average history museum because it is such a specialized process.
K: Right, those types of exhibits often end up in art museums in today’s world. The audience sees many many different things. In order to show a garment from the 20th century 19th, 18th, the forms underneath them have to be specific to really the underwear people were wearing at that time. So very often audience members will look at them and say, “Wow look at how small that waist was” or “Those people were very short” or, you know, “I can remember a picture of my grandmother and I’m sure glad we don’t wear that” or “Look at the clothes we’re wearing. We’re wearing such boring, plain, simple clothes.” There’s a wide range of reactions.
One of the elements of beauty in fashion that we haven’t really touched on here--we’ve just barely mentioned is about, really about, the shape and appearance of the model. When designers or manufacturers show their clothing on the runway, it’s on a body, and sometimes people say well “the models are chosen because they’re like hangers and they just hang the clothes.” Well that’s not really, actually true. Those models are chosen because of extreme height, typically very, very slender, and—
There continues to be a concentration on European or European American, American models rather than bringing in other ethnic groups, other racial groups. That’s been an issue that’s continued to be very important. And, certainly, by virtue of some of today’s celebrities, the body types that are becoming more acceptable as being beautiful that wouldn’t have been accepted as beautiful in the past, that’s really changing with larger derrieres, larger legs, more muscles, more muscular legs.
And the issue of African American models in the fashion world is going to be explored during a special event during the Themester, um, which is, that our Sage Collection is helping to sponsor. It’s called Versailles 73, which is an examination of African American beauty and fashion. In 1973, five American designers went to Paris and showed their design alongside five French designers, and the American designers brought stunningly beautiful African American models and just changed the whole fashion world with that one evening.
C: Mhm. So, has your thinking about beauty in your own work and your own selection of objects to present or to share with classes-- How does it come down for you? Like, ultimately, how are you operating under what definition of beauty?
K: How to select best, what’s the best?
C: Or just when you’re trying to communicate it to students, and you were talking about changing ideas about the body and changing ideas about individuality in the media spectacle of fashion today, what do you try to convey about beauty to a student who’s trying to learn it?
K: More than anything else I try to convey the variability that’s there. More than anything else I try to get the students to recognize that their perception of beauty today is probably not the same as their perception of beauty will be five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now. To open their minds to the variability of beauty, particularly across time.
It’s not unusual for someone to look at some item of clothing, men’s or women’s clothing, from 200 years ago and just laugh, “Wow! They wore that!,” and that’s kind of funny. Well, it never was funny when they were wearing it, and so to open their curiosity about what could be beautiful in a different time and a different place and to accept that what they’re wearing right now is not the last thing that they’re going to consider to be beautiful.
C: So it’s a constantly evolving story in every individual that’s molded by context, molded by historical exhibits that they might see, (K: Right) and molded by intuitive preference.
K: Intuitive preference and the culture around them. So even a young child, a little child in our culture recognizes labels and styles of clothing and what’s popular and what shoes they want to have. They recognize that very, very early on, and they treat their friends differently, their friends treat them— Teachers treat them differently based on what they look like, the clothing that they’re wearing, and it’s constantly, constantly evolving and constantly changing.
C: Then beauty is a fundamental part of our daily experience of the world and a fundamental way that we’re making decisions, and forming relationships, and making progress.
K: I think it is a fundamental part of our everyday life. Unfortunately, that can be very judgmental, can be very negative to some individuals. So young people learn just from exposure what they think is beautiful, but then as they start to establish their own self, they are also taught to see that novelty is good and individuality is good, and that’s really what feeds the fashion cycle always and always, and that’s why it’s continually changing. Each generation wants to do something different than their parents’ generation.
C: Right. So that’s an exciting thing. We never know what beauty is in a permanent way. It will always change and influence different futures for us and different paths.
K: Physical beauty, yes. Of course, we all yearn for and wish for spiritual beauty and universal altruism and, which is a difficult thing, sometimes, to express in fashion, although there are some designers and manufacturers who are really trying to make a statement about our planet in their designs and move it in a more thoughtful way.
C: So for a person who is looking to encounter beauty today, right now, wants to understand it, wants to see something beautiful, do you have a beauty tip for us?
K: Go outside, the sunset, and see the beautiful sky. Sit by the ocean and see the waves. I can find beauty in a meticulously crafted art or product, but more often than not I find beauty in more organic or natural settings. That’s my beauty tip.
C: Great. So your beauty tip is to appreciate beauty and how it can be constructed but also be open to the simplest and most natural beauty that’s all around us.
K: Well said.
C: Thank you very much, this was great to talk to you.
K: Thank you.