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Exhibitions/ Jewelry: The Body Transformed/ The Alluring Body

Jewelry: The Body Transformed

At The Met Fifth Avenue
November 12, 2018–February 24, 2019

The Alluring Body

"Allure is . . . something that exists. It's something around you, like a perfume or like a scent. It's like memory . . . it pervades," wrote Diana Vreeland, legendary fashion arbiter and longtime Vogue editor. Jewelry can define and redefine that grip of mystique and sensuality in ways both subtle and theatrical. This section highlights the complex role adornments play in crafting the alluring female body. From classical pearl necklaces to subversive Surrealist accoutrements, from silver bridal ornaments to courtesan's hairpins, the jewelry here alternately affirms, converts, or disrupts notions of feminine beauty and appeal.

In July 1879 the London publisher William Lazenby cheekily titled the first volume of a pricey journal of pornographic writings The Pearl. While the pearl necklace has long stood as an emblem of respectability and social status, even a certain primness, it has also enjoyed favor as an erotic accessory. Whether conjuring Venus, a goddess who arose pearl-like from the sea, or the odalisque, a sexualized Eastern figure whose exotic origins were often signaled by the "oriental" pearl, many nineteenth-century photographers drew on the model of earlier Western art, presenting for (male) delectation women wearing nothing but those creamy iridescent spheres.

The turn-of-the-twentieth-century showgirl often embraced the multiple meanings assigned to pearls, using them as part of a transgressive self-fashioning that celebrated her sexual autonomy. It was a short step from there to a silky strand as symbol of a wholly modern liberated woman, whether a flapper or a famously independent fashion designer. How strange, then, that these pearly connotations of eroticism and modernity seem to have faded in the post–World War II era.

Selected Objects

Traditional Japanese women's dress required no jewelry. The only part of the body to which a woman would add visible ornamentation was her long dark hair. An elaborately styled coiffure—accessorized with beautiful combs (kushi), multipronged hairpins (kanzashi), and flat rods (kogai)—amplified allure and could signal social class, profession, and marital status.

The fashion trendsetters in Edo-period Japan (1615–1868) were the courtesans of the government-sanctioned entertainment districts in major cities, such as Yoshiwara in the capital. Within these so-called pleasure quarters, affluent men across social classes sought sensual delights (food, drink, music, dancing) and sexual gratification. As seen in "pictures of beauties" (bijinga), stylishly bedecked and coyly posed courtesans presented the feminine ideal for male consumption, luring patrons to the entertainment establishments.

Selected Objects

In many cultures, a bejeweled bride is presented to the groom on her wedding day. Bridal ensembles often function as protective talismans and incorporate religious elements, while at the same time making manifest on the body a woman's most valuable economic possessions.

For young women of the Central Asian Turkmen tribes, jewelry was believed to ensure future fertility. The number of ornaments increased as marriageable age neared and peaked on the wedding day itself, when the bride wore as many as twenty pieces of heavy jewelry. In South India the vegetal forms reflect the floral garlands traditionally tied around a bride's neck. Rendered in gold, the necklaces were more enduring and opulent yet still reminiscent of freshly strung blossoms and their sweet, seductive scent.

Selected Objects

"You find beauty in the ugliest of places," the maverick fashion designer Alexander McQueen assured the jeweler Shaun Leane. Modern jewelry does not always aim to flatter. Some of the most spectacular examples assert mastery over the female body, compressing and distorting its volumes and piercing its flesh. This is jewelry designed to push the limits of glamour, courting danger and even pain. In contemplating the sharp-edged neckwear of Elsa Schiaparelli, the elaborate cage of Alexander Calder, or Leane's spangled bodysuit, we might ask where the line is drawn between desire and revulsion, the sublime and the grotesque, the erotic and the chaste. These objects challenge all our perceptions of traditional feminine allure and at times embrace a transgressive aesthetic of both power and passivity.

Selected Objects