A history of desire, told in clothing

Timothy Piotrowski’s photographs reveal the subtle eroticism of fashion from 1800–1945

Photograph by Timothy G. Piotrowski. Credit: Submitted image

WHITTIER — Does a glimpse of ankle set your heart all aflutter?

While not exactly titillating today — for most of us, anyway — it was, in the latter half of the 19th century, considered rather risqué, so much so that the image of a woman lifting her heavy skirts to step across a stream or puddle was a staple of erotic imagery. At a time when fashionable women were covered nearly head-to-toe in long sleeves and floor-length skirts, spotting a dainty ankle was like tasting forbidden fruit.

Hemlines would rise again for the more athletic women of the 20th century, true to the what-goes-around-comes-around whims of fashion. In a new Hennepin History Museum exhibition, clothing trends seem to spiral up out of history, reappearing in new forms as they chase — and are pursued by — sexual desire.

Yes, even the Victorians had it.

“The Changing Erotic Zones” charts 150 years of fashion through the work of Kingfield photographer Timothy G. Piotrowski in collaboration with Colleen Gau, an expert in historical fashion who lives in Rochester. The exhibition, funded through a $10,000 Minnesota State Arts Board grant with support from the 2008 Legacy Amendment, starts with a loose-fitting, diaphanous gown of circa 1800 and follows women’s fashion through to a calf-length skirt and jacket, worn with white gloves and a jaunty hat in the style of 1945.

It’s Piotrowski’s second exhibition at the museum; in 2007, curator Jack Kabrud allowed the photographer access to the museum’s extensive vintage clothing collection, and the resulting exhibition breathed new life into the garments, some over a century old.

Kabrud will once again pull some of those old clothes out of mothballs to show alongside Piotrowski’s luminous, sepia-kissed silver prints. But the models this time are dressed in a mix of theatrical costumes and pieces handmade for the show by Rochester designer Marann Faget.

In the time period covered by the exhibition, style trends often originated in France and were copied first by the British before washing ashore in the United States. It was very unlike today, when couture designers take their cues from street fashion.

Piotrowski shot the photos in three sessions, beginning in May 2011 and continuing in October of that year. The final photos were shot in May in a makeshift studio in the attic above his apartment, while negatives hung to dry in the kitchen below.

To the work, Piotrowski brings a rigorous aesthetic inspired by the photography of Hilla Becher and her late husband Bernd, influential German artists known for their documentation of architecture and industry. The Bechers would photograph many variations on one type of structure — water towers, for instance, or the look-alike framework houses found in one particular region of Germany — laboring to reproduce the same angle, framing and diffuse, even lighting for each shot.

Piotrowski’s photographs are not nearly as sober. This is fashion, after all, not industrial design. Besides, the models’ personalities are irrepressible, and Piotrowski is as beguiled by them as we are.

What the Becherian presentation does, though, is make it possible to imagine one year’s fashion morphing into the next, to see the slim Empire silhouette inflate into a Victorian hourglass and then suddenly, as if punctured with a needle, regain its form-fitting sleekness in the 20th century. The thin waistline of the early 1800s, formed by cinching the fabric of loose-fitting gowns just below the bodice, eventually falls to its modern position just above the hips, but only after being encased in armor-like corsets for much of the rest of that century.

Gau’s illuminating comments highlight just how those tight-fitting corsets made a fetish of thin midsections, while at the same time emphasizing the curves of the hips and bust. In its late 19th-century incarnation, the corset forced women into a bust-forward S-curve, like puffed-up pigeons.

The popularity of such undergarments briefly ebbed around 1800, when the fashionable post-Enlightenment women imitated the toga-wearing ancient Greeks. But then skirts swelled atop layers of petticoats and, later, stiffer horsehair crinolines. The odd, 20-year reign of the bustle, beginning around 1870, moved the skirt support entirely to the rear.

The women of that era can seem like birds wearing their own cages, and one exhales in sympathy with the models representing the 20th century.

In the end, it’s not just a history of fashion and desire, but also of women’s shifting roles in society. Outside of historical re-enactors, no one wears a crinoline to work.


“The Changing Erotic Zones” runs all summer long at Hennepin History Museum, 2303 3rd Ave. S. 870-1329. hennepinhistory.org