Fashion fix at York Castle Museum

CROTCHLESS pantaloons from the time of Jane Austen, bum rolls and a killer dress made from arsenic are on display at York Castle Museum in its new exhibition ‘Shaping the Body’, which explores 400 years of style.

The influence of fashion and pop culture on women’s bodies is nothing new – the 1990s ‘heroin chic’ look was a descendant of 1890s ‘TB chic’ and today’s cinching waist-trainer is merely a 21st century version of a body-bracing Tudor corset made from iron.

From a dress worn by Queen Victoria to 1980s shoulder pads,  the galleries show how fashion and lifestyle has influenced body shape and image over the last four centuries.

“Clothing and body shape have been intrinsically linked for thousands of years, with men and women choosing different styles in different periods that influence their body shape to reflect the latest trends,” said senior curator, Ali Bodley.

This isn’t a new idea that has come about with J-Lo style bum implants, but has been going on for centuries with assorted health risks when the fashions are taken to the extreme.”

“Visitors will see in the outfits on display just how diverse the silhouette can be, but the wearers of these clothes would be cinched in, padded out or, in some cases, malnourished to make their garments look good.”

Visitors to the new exhibition are greeted by  the sounds of London, Milan and New York fashion weeks and can dress up in some of the costumes before taking selfies and strutting their stuff on a catwalk.

Other galleries in the exhibition focus on different fashion trends and people who have taken their body shaping to an extreme – from transgender men and women to those with piercings and tattoos, and from the protruding shoulder blades that characterised TB chic to the extreme obesity of Daniel Lambert, who used his extreme size (52 stone) to turn himself into a tourist attraction in the early 19th century.

As part of the exhibition, visitors will be able to step into the recreated 1980s kitchen for the first time – the dawn of the fitted kitchen age, which features a new-fangled microwave oven.

Another gallery in Shaping the Body reflects on how lifestyle changes have influenced fitness and body shape, comparing the daily energy expenditure of housemaids, farmers, sportsmen and even bus drivers – perhaps explaining why people living in the 21st century require expensive gym memberships to keep trim when our often sedentary lifestyles are compared to earlier generations.

The forerunner of today’s fashion magazines – a dress-up fashion doll – is also on display. “Before the age of Vogue, fashionistas relied upon miniature replicas of the latest styles which were displayed on small dolls to learn what they should be wearing the following season,” Ali explained.

“These dolls could be much more easily transported around the country than a whole wardrobe of outfits, and so played a crucial role in ensuring that the best dressed people remained on trend – very important given the links between clothing, wealth and social status.”


Shaping the Body is just one of a number of exhibitions at York Castle Museum, which is open daily from 9.30am to 5.00pm. Tickets are £10 for adults and free for children aged 16 or under with a paying adult.

York Museums Trust (YMT) card holders get in free.