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The Scent of Fashion

Beneath the dress

The final two images depict inner and outer components of female dress in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Seurat's painting of A Woman Powdering Herself of 1888-90 shows the distinctive shape of the cuirass corset, which moulded the female body into a socially acceptable form of feminine sexuality. During the final two decades of the nineteenth century corsets were constructed into elaborately cut sections shaped by whalebone and leather. The corseted body formed a shape, as seen in Seurat's painting, which emphasised the bust and the hips but reduced the waist to a proportionally minimal circumference. Like cosmetics, corsets inspired great moral debate on the grounds of both aesthetics and female health during the second half of the nineteenth century, but undoubtedly they remained one of the greatest structural influences on the fashionable female form throughout the period.

Seurat's image shows the dynamic between the timeless quality of his static figure and the recognisable form of fashionable dress, and also captures the essence of the mood of fashionable modernity in the 1890s, which was a great period for decorative lingerie. A simple image of a normal female toilette becomes an erotic image through the play between dress and undress, the erotic element coming from the possibility of transition between the two states. For the first time in the history of dress, conspicuous and self-conscious display of erotic underwear led to a renewed importance in the relationship between sexuality and female dress.

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