Fashion by Felicia reviews ‘Gizmos, Corsets, and Concoctions’
Felicia Caponigri | Sunday, February 26, 2012
Upon entrance to the South Bend Center for History’s exhibit “Gizmos, Corsets and other Concoctions: Our Obsession with Health and Beauty,” the visitor is greeted by an early 20th century banner, complete with beauty advertisements and a mannequin reminiscent of barbershop entertainment. The journey into the historical origins of our timeless desire for health and beauty has begun.
Organized in a circular manner, the exhibit alternates recreations of a fully-equipped late 19th century doctor’s office(complete with bones and concoctions which makes one realize how much trust we truly place within our doctors prescriptions), with later hospital and sanitarium scenarios. On display is a 1930s phrenology machine, which capitalized on the pseudoscience’s hold on the public imagination by equating one’s talents and intelligence with the size of the head (problematic on so many equal rights fronts).
Moreover, did you know Dr. Kellogg’s (yes, of the corn flake variety) sanitarium in early 1900s Battle Creek advocated not only regular exercise, but sitting in a contraption of electric lights to sweat out toxins? Think it’s similar to our obsession with tanning beds? You would be correct, dear fellow fashionistas. In fact, the exhibit explains the first tanning beds were invented in the 1920s and soared in popularity. Of course, we insiders know this was thanks to two things: Coco Chanel and her propensity for Cannes vacations, and all those fabulous women who courageously worked on farms during World War I, taking on the brunt of men’s work.
Next to the 1920s tanning machine is the world’s first electric perm variety. Be prepared, darlings, it looks like a torture device engineered by our medieval forefathers ¾ but the black and white photographs prove it to be a staple of 1920s hair care, and you can’t deny the photographic evidence.
Of course, apart from explanations of lead make-up and arsenic laced beauty products, no health and beauty exhibit would be complete without a large display of corsets through the ages. Yes, turns out while those good posture-inducing contraptions were beloved by women from the 17th century to the early 20th, they were none too comfortable (but let’s be real here, don’t we always suffer for beauty?).
The exhibit supplements its life-sized recreations of actual corsets and undergarment ensembles with advertisements of the period and even a helpful “Silhouettes through the Ages” plaque. Now there is happily no need to fear a disgraceful historical fashion faux pas during out next cocktail party style debate.
Exercise is also on the menu, with those oh-so-lovely conveyor belts which promised to shake the excess fat and cellulite off your middle and behind on display (men take notice, this was for you too, as evidenced by the male mannequin demonstrating the talents of this machinery).
The most scintillating and scandalous prize, however, goes to the section devoted to the history of male and female pleasure enhancers. Clearly inspired by recent Hollywood movies such as Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “Hysteria” and the Freud flick “A Dangerous Method”, the exhibit shows the 21st century HBO phenomenon of advertising intimacy is not as innovative as we thought ¾ it’s actually been used for centuries.
On a more serious and less historical note, the exhibit is extremely thought-provoking in its presentation of the lengths we go to attain our culture’s beauty and health ideals. Will 22nd century fashionistas looks upon our stiletto heels with the same scorn with which we interpret the corset?
Moreover, the exhibit highlights a recent Facebook phenomenon, which will have even the most liberal among us questioning the messages we send to our fellow citizens of the world. In 2010, Vaseline sponsored a skin-lightening application for photos on Facebook’s India site. Whether a demand was being catered to or detrimental stereotypes were being enforced is up for debate, but nevertheless it gives us pause.
Every time we apply make-up, tan, exercise or dress, we fashionistas and all our counterparts must keep in mind the non-verbal and visual language we speak. As it turns out, tanning our skin or lightening it by staying out of the sun, applying our favorite lipstick, exercising on that treadmill or stair master and choosing those skinny jeans will affect the future generations of tomorrow. “Gizmos, Corsets, and Concoctions” at the Center for History has assured us of that.
Contact Felicia Caponigri at [email protected]