Photo courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, Dec. 6, 2001-Mar.17, 2002 (order Harold Koda's companion book direct from Amazon for $28.00). Forget about mass-market walking shoes and sensible, no-iron-needed fabrics. "Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed" reveals fashion's true forte: over-the-top gorgeousness, to be achieved by any means necessary. Dandyism is nothing especially new, evidenced by a series of 17th- and 18th-century engravings shown in the stairwell descending to the Met's Costume Institute. In one, a skinny man crawls up a zaftig woman like a tree, straining with all his might to tighten her corset. Others show such elaborate rituals of face powdering and hand kissing that fashionista antics of our day come to seem comparatively restrained. At the bottom of the stairs, viewers are met with an astonishing, floor-length sequined gown by Thierry Mugler, plumed with feathers and fringed with horse hair. Inspired by a "mythological chimera," the dress sets the bar high: it's so impractical and untouchably precious that it does, in fact, seem as if it might endow its wearer with superhuman powers.
 Book Cover Harold Koda, curator of the show, organized the exhibition according to body parts. In the one section, an x-ray of the ritually elongated neck of a Burmese Padaung person (ca. 1900) can be seen alongside Franz Pourbus the Younger's oil-on-canvas portrait of Margherita Gonzaga (ca. 1625-30), which features the Italian noblewoman wearing an astounding lace ruff that protrudes past her shoulders and engulfs her face. One might wonder how on earth she made do—eating and seeing and the like—while wearing such an impractical collar. That is, until, around the corner, one finds a an even more exaggerated, contemporary version of the ruff, designed by Junya Nutanake for Comme des Garçons. A sculpturesque, orgamilike donut of sorts sits slightly off-kilter on a mannequin's shoulders. The accouterment would obviously prevent anyone wearing it to sit down, walk through a doorway or to move very much. But it looks so good, really, who cares?
There are two or three moments in recent fashion history that have caught us off guard, a couple of which are represented by objects in this show. One is probably as close as we will ever get to a modern-day relic: the infamous corset with pointy, conical breasts designed by Jean Paul Gaultier that Madonna wore on her 1990 "Blonde Ambition" tour. (You have to hand it to the Met. The institution has resources to get its hands on pretty much anything it wants.) Then, there are examples of the controversial, lumpen dresses designed by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons. "Is it fashion or is it art?" everyone wondered in 1995. People loved and hated the weird, bumpy, gourdlike vestments they said nobody would ever wear. Some hailed them as sculptures and others derided them as misogynist. More servitude to the mandates of color and form are found in a disclike Maasai beaded collar, the shape of which is uncannily echoed by a hoop circling a millennium "pop-up jacket" by Walter Van Beirendonck.
Photo courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art  For "Extreme Beauty," Koda was able to gather a number of corsets, variously made of whale bone, steel, leather, silver and beads. Bustles constitute another phenomenon of design. A "motorcycle bustier" by Thierry Mugler has a headlight between the breasts and fringed handlebars with which a model once "steered" herself down a runway. In the shoe section, viewers can find a series of what seem to be ornate, heeled baby shoes that were actually intended for Chinese women whose feet had been bound. A Serbo-Croation slipper has a curly, elfin toe; Turkish and Indian platform boots sit cheek and jowl with a British, punk version of the same. The anthropological bizarreness of decorating oneself is duly brought forth by this exhibition. And it's an admittedly frivolous, sometimes ridiculous endeavor. But, these days, when dourness is supposed to be "in," a show like this might help us to be less downcast, and recall that the imagination has the power to take us beyond the earth-bound realities of the human condition.
- Sara Valdez

Fashion book reviews by Tobin Levy...