Come enjoy the beauty of the Met’s stylish sitters—and learn how the obsession with beauty is as old as civilization itself…
How Do We Present Ourselves To The World? If you’ve never thought much about that question, you certainly will after this tour. This tour is about everything glamorous. From the grand hairdos of Imperial Rome to the outrageous wigs of the court at Versailles; from gold ear spools in pre-Columbian America to neck rings in Africa and Southeast Asia; and from three hundred years of torturous corsets to three thousand years of gorgeous cosmetics, the history of fashion is on dazzling display at the Met. We’ll look at fashion from head to toe, as well as inside out. (Just what did Victorian women wear underneath those giant hoops?) And we’ll look at men, too—with their powdered wigs, white makeup, foppish ruffs and of course those ridiculous codpieces.
As always on a Shady Ladies tour, we’ll go beneath the surface to get to the real story: the political, social, and even medical currents that shaped fashion and how it changed. Why did French courtiers wear foot-high wigs in the 17th century? Were beauty spots really used to cover up syphilis? And how did bicycles affect the way women dressed in the closing years of the 19th century?
On this fun and informative two-hour tour you’ll find out the answers to these and many more fascinating questions about fashion and beauty. Above all, we’ll come to see that fashion is one of art’s biggest topics—not only for what it tells us about changing standards of beauty, but also for what it reveals about the astonishing lengths to which people will go to attain it.
Head of an Oba, Edo People (Nigeria), 19th century
Long necks are considered desirable in many cultures, and the length of the neck is simulated or emphasized in many different ways, including for instance, from our own culture, ropes of pearls. In several cultures in Asia and Africa, neck rings create the illusion of a lengthened neck by forcing the clavicle and shoulders down. They are generally worn from puberty on, and removing them can lead to death. Here they mark the status of an oba (royal chief) among the Edo people, the founders of the precolonial Benin empire, now in Southern Nigeria.
Bartolomeo Montagna, Saint Justina of Padua, 1490s.
Like many saints in Renaissance painting, Saint Justina is the ultimate fashion plate. The jewels on her clothing, her embroidered stomacher, and her green sleeves (as in the song!), separate from her bodice and set off by the sections of blouse pulled through the gaps, are the height of stylishness. The Renaissance favored a high forehead, which ladies achieved by plucking their hairline back, and she is an extreme example; a relatively unisex upper body shape was also in fashion, and to this end, her corset has flattened her breasts (by pushing them to the sides). This painting may actually be a portrait of Isabella D’Este, one of Renaissance Italy’s great power figures—ruler, diplomat, and art collector.
Paolo Veronese, Young Man with a Greyhound, 1570s
This young man has every fashionable accoutrement of his day—each one intended to show off (or create the illusion of) his assets, physical or financial. The hose that show off his legs, his huge stuffed breeches and his prominent codpiece all speak of his virility, as of course do his sword and his greyhound. The gold cloth used in different ways on his breeches and doublet, the gold ornaments of his sword, and his elegant lace cuffs and ruff all speak instead of the wealth of his family. The shape of his corset, with the little belly in front, was very fashionable at the time and may have been meant to resemble armor.