It's amazing to think that we only find a brief respite from "form-shapers" for a few decades here and there in more recent times, usually at a point when women are asserting their rights, specifically the 1920s and the 1970s... I wonder what will happen to our contemporary body shapers if we elect our first female president next year!
A perennial down through the years seems to be the whalebone corset and some form of crinoline worn under the dress to create a smaller waist in contrast with a propped-up set of bosoms and a generous hip ratio. I think the crinoline and corset pictured here sort of say it all in terms of the lack of comfort that aristocratic women put up with in the name of status and beauty. Illustrated below is the cage crinoline - the word is derived from the French term crin, meaning "horsehair" - and a modernized version of the corset from the mid-1800s using the latest in technology at the time: steam-molded stays woven directly into the fabric on the loom.
Finally we arrive in the early 20th century with the invention of the Merry Widow, or la guêpière in French (derived from the word for wasp, la guêpe), a one-piece garment that accomplished the dual objectives of defining a wasp-waisted physique balanced by cups molded to project each of the breasts forward, a departure from the mono-bosom silhouette of the previous decades.
Once the Flapper era arrived in the Twenties, women had apparently had enough, cropping their hair and adopting loose-fitting undergarments that provided little if any "support", though the French word for bra or brassiere (which actually is the term used for an "undershirt" in French) is in fact un soutien-gorge... In other words, literally translated, a bra is called a "throat (or neck) support" in French. Love it!
Unfortunately, it is too late to see the exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center - it closed on July 26 - but you can find the book produced by the center in English, called Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette. It is a beautifully photographed, extensively-researched coffee table book edited by Dr. Denis Bruna, the curator of the Paris show and a professor at the École du Louvre that can be purchased here.