It does not usually make it into the spotlight but the humble back is always there. Yet, it is almost never seen in fashion images, forgotten amid the focus on the front and faces.
A new Paris exhibition, however, aims to redress this imbalance, exploring the relationship between fashion and this part of the body that is so rarely seen.
At the exhibition organized by the Palais Galliera fashion museum – showing at the Bourdelle Museum amid its famous collection of plaster statues – visitors are confronted by mannequins with their backs turned.
Curators say one of the aims of the exhibition is to explore the relationship with the back through history, with the complex fastenings imposed on women often seen as a symbol of submission.
Excluding the straitjacket, no men’s clothing item has ever fastened at the back. But women’s clothing often has been, leaving them in a position of dependence.
“Anatomically, the body is not made to put its arms behind the back. Fastening at the back is unnatural,” Alexandre Samson, the curator of the exhibition which runs until November 17, said.
At the end of the 15th century, lacing appeared on the backs of women of all social classes. Without the luxury of chambermaids, peasant women had to ask their brothers, fathers or husbands for help.
Hook-and-eye closure appeared in the 18th century, corsets arrived in the 19th century and closed in front, laced at the back.
The plunging neckline came in the 20th century when French master fashion designer Paul Poiret freed women from their corsets.
But even then, freeing the back from the network of lacing and fastening carried connotations of prostitution.
A landmark moment came when Rita de Acosta Lydig, a high-flying American socialite, caused a scandal by showing off her bareback in a simple black dress at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the early years of the 20th century.
A more recent “back fashion scandal” occurred in June 2018, when US first lady Melania Trump visited a camp for undocumented immigrant children at the Mexican border. The words on the back of her parka sent a powerful message: “I really don’t care, do you?”
Through history, what mattered most for rich women was less the look of their back but the vast trains that trailed behind.
This trend started in the 13th century and Catherine the Great of Russia set an ultimate record with a 14-meter train, carried by 12 valets, at her coronation in 1762.
In modern times, the back is often marked by a bag. After a failed attempt by Hermes in 1968, the humble backpack only broke with its school and military image in the late 1970s when Prada gave it a nylon make-over.
The back is absent in most fashion show pictures. In one hallway of the museum, 3,607 Paris Fashion Week shots are displayed: none taken from the side, none from the back.
According to the organizers of the exhibition, modern society is obsessed with people’s faces while the back is more a reminder of our limitations.
“Our back is the only part of ourselves that we don’t see and that others do,” Samson said.
“To toy with the back is to toy with a form of fragility, of powerlessness. And human beings hate powerlessness.”