Back Side/Dos à la mode, an off-site exhibition at Musée Bourdelle in Paris, features over one hundred works from the 18th century until present day that explore the evolution of the exposure of the back in fashion and art history. The exhibition includes film, photography, and sculpture, all approaching the flattest part of the body as a site for eroticism, adornment, functionality and emancipation. In an individualistic society obsessed with people’s faces, this exhibition turns this phenomenon on its head. Open to the public from July 7 until November 11, this exhibition has been deemed one of Vogue’s top five must-see exhibitions of 2019, so you’d be backwards to miss it!
The exhibition dominates the Great Hall of Plasters, the contemporary Portzamparc extension and Antoine Bourdelle’s studio, which is a testament to the rich history and future of the back in fashion and art. The Polychrome room also features the language of the back; an installation of linguistic expressions associated with the back in French, English, Italian, Spanish and Japanese thus illustrating its international linguistic prevalence – this is evidence of how tricky it is to keep myself from incorporating copious back-related puns into this article.

In the Portzamparc wing is an expansive collection exploring that despite its three-dimensional potential of using the body as a canvas, the back is often omitted from imagery taken at fashion shows, which instead often capture the front of the garment due to the fleeting nature of the catwalk. Defying this custom are two structural pieces from Comme des Garçon’s 1997 Spring/Summer collection by the innovative Rei Kawakubo. More sculpture than garment, the pieces reject and reinterpret the traditional notion of beauty by adding curves in all the ‘wrong places’, drawing attention to the body from multiple angles as opposed to one ‘flattering’ one. Thus, in a conceptual sense, the garments are endowed with an undeniable sense of three-dimensionality as opposed to the customary one-dimensional view of fashion; this both in a literal and metaphorical sense.

Rick Owens’s provocative 2016 Spring/Summer collection, Cyclops, equally explores the creative and structural potential of the back. Models wear each other as backpacks, emphasising the strength of the back in a way that has never been done before on the runway. This also urged the viewers and photographers to be attentive to both the front and the back of the garment, as each were interchangeable.

The exhibition also explores the evolution of the adornment and exposure of the back. From the 13th-century heavy bustles and trains used as a symbol of wealth and power to the 1990s with iconic plunging necklines and even more plunging backlines, used as an expression of sensuality and a new-found freedom in women to expose as much skin as they wished without being demonised and ostracised. The Held-back collection is especially interesting in terms of this evolvement, in that it exposes the much-overlooked fact that women’s clothing (unlike men’s) in Western society is often fastened from the back. This is evidence of a time wherein women, in their role as second-class citizens and play-things of men, could only dress with help from their husbands or others and were denied their independent agency even in dressing.

In the book that accompanies the exhibition, Alexandre Samson states that “The very fact of the back’s nudity meant that this fashion contributed to the emancipation of the female body. Skin was accepted and displayed: the hem of skirts rose above the knee and the sleeves on summer dresses disappeared, considerations that were impossible before World War I.” However, whereas this can be indeed considered emancipation, there is the catering to the male-gaze to consider. Were women free to then dress for themselves, or encouraged to dress for men? This is an issue often associated with fashion’s dual identity as a form of self-expression and an exhibitionist statement, of which Back Side/Dos à la mode approaches from multiple angles, if not albeit specifically approached.
The exhibition Back Side/Dos à la mode will open on July 7 and will be on view until November 11 at Musée Bourdelle, 18 rue Antoine Bourdelle, Paris.
2 Balenciaga Ah Fw 1961.jpg
Balenciaga, Evening dress, Fall Winter 1961-62 © Aurélie Dupuis/ Balenciaga Archives Paris/ Azentis
1 Alaïa Pe Ss 1986.jpg
Azzedine Alaïa, Ensemble bodysuit and skirt, Ready-to-wear, Spring-Summer 1986 © Françoise Cochennec / Galliera / Roger-Viollet
3 Camisole De Force X Xe S.jpg
Anonymous, Straitjacket, middle of XX th Century © Aurélie Dupuis/ Musée du Dr Guislain, Gand/ Azentis
4 Comme Des Garçons Ah Fw 2013 2014.jpg
Comme des Garçons, Suit Bermuda shorts, Ready-to-wear, Fall-Winter 2013-14 © Françoise Cochennec / Galliera / Roger-Viollet
5 Comme Des Garçons Pe Ss 1997.jpg
Comme des Garçons, Ensemble, Spring-Summer 1997 © Aurélie Dupuis/ Comme des Garçons/ Azentis
6 Corset Sans Griffe V.1880 1900.jpg
Corset, last quarter of the XIXth century © Aurélie Dupuis/ Galliera/ Azentis
7 Galliano Ah Fw 1998.jpg
John Galliano, Sheathdress closed by 51 buttons, Fall-Winter 1998-99 © Aurélie Dupuis/ Patrimoine John Galliano/ Azentis
9 Gaultier Ah Fw 2003.jpg
Jean Paul Gaultier, Corset jumpsuit, Fall-Winter 2003-04 © Aurélie Dupuis/ Jean Paul Gaultier/ Azentis
10 Gaultier Ah Fw 2011 12.jpg
Jean Paul Gaultier, « Arabesque », Trench coat dress, Haute couture, Fall-Winter 2011-12 © Françoise Cochennec / Galliera / Roger-Viollet
13 Lanvin by Elbaz Ah Fw 2010.jpg
Lanvin by Alber Elbaz, Dress, Ready to wear, Fall-Winter 2010-11 © Aurélie Dupuis / Galliera / Azentis
12 Givenchy Pe Ss 2018.jpg
Givenchy, “Thaïs”, body, skirt and belt worn by Cate Blanchett, Haute couture, Spring- Summer 2018 © Aurélie Dupuis/ Givenchy/ Azenti
14 Owens Pe Ss 2016.jpg
Rick Owens, Suspended ensemble, Ready to wear, Spring-Summer 2016 © Françoise Cochennec / Galliera / Roger-Viollet
15 Patou by Lacroix Ah Fw 1986 87.jpg
Jean Patou by Christian Lacroix, Evening gown, Haute couture, Fall-Winter 1986-87 © Aurélie Dupuis / Galliera / Azentis
16 Prisunic 1967.jpg
Prisunic, Dress, Ready-to-wear, 1967 © Françoise Cochennec / Galliera / Roger-Viollet
17 Robe Cocktail 1925.jpg
Evening gown, circa 1925 © Aurélie Dupuis / Galliera / Azentis
19 Schiaparelli Pe Ss 2015.jpg
Schiaparelli, Evening gown worn by Carina Lau, Haute couture, Spring-Summer 2015 (variation) © Françoise Cochennec / Galliera / Roger-Viollet
20 Simons Pe Ss 2015.jpg
Raf Simons, Men’s coat, Ready to wear, Spring-Summer 2015 © Françoise Cochennec / Galliera / Roger-Viollet
21 Yamamoto Ah Fw 2017 18.jpg
Yohji Yamamoto, Dress and hat, Prêt-à-porter, Spring-Summer 2018 © Aurélie Dupuis / Galliera / Azentis