York Castle Museum

Shaping the Body: 400 Years of Fashion, Food and Life

Please note Shaping the Body will be CLOSED whilst we undertake repair work, please check back again later for updates about reopening.




An iron corset, crotchless pantaloons from the time of Jane Austen, bum rolls and a killer dress are a few of the items featured in our latest permanent exhibition which charts the way fashion, food and fitness have shaped the body over the last 400 years.

“In today’s selfie generation, it is said that we have become more image conscious than ever before, with the lengths that people will go to in order to achieve the ‘perfect’ look seeming ever more drastic, but the reality is that even before the age of the digital camera, people would go to extremes to conform to fashion, whether through changing diet or clothing which modified the body’s shape,” comments Senior Curator of History, Ali Bodley.

“Although there has always been a fashion elite which exaggerates extremes, our exhibition focuses on how these affected the wider population, from wigs and weight control to corsets and cosmetics.”

Researching the exhibition has shown the curatorial team just how frequently history repeats within the fashion world, with many items or concepts familiar in the 21st century that would have been in everyday usage over the last four centuries.

Just a decade ago, young women were looking to emulate the pert posteriors of stars like Kylie Minogue, whereas the rise of the Kardashians has now changed the focus onto generously proportioned bottoms.

This is exactly what happened in the early 19th century, when the Empire line dresses favoured by heroines of Jane Austen novels made way for large skirts and tiny waists that remained in fashion for the next 80 years. Rather than simply supporting the bosom, a combination of corsetry and bum rolls created a new silhouette of extreme curves for fashionable ladies.

Changing fashions occupies the main gallery of the exhibition, from 18th century dandies to the contemporary alternative fashion and body modification scene, with visitors then exploring the relationship between food and body shape in the second gallery.

“As we hear every day in the news, our eating habits and sedentary lifestyles are basic contributors to the rise in obesity, but again, this is not a new phenomenon,” observes Ali.

“Conversely, where obesity is now often linked to poverty, in the 17th century, the opposite was true – the wealthiest members of society lived on a diet rich in meat and wine and avoiding vegetables which were believed to be bad for you, resulting in a rise in scurvy and gout amongst the upper classes. Poorer people, unable to afford meat, enjoyed plenty of cheap, home grown vegetables and were a lot healthier as a result.”

The final section of the exhibition takes this exploration one step further to look at how bodies are shaped by daily lifestyle, comparing the more physically arduous lives of house maids and farm hands before the advent of modern domestic gadgets and agricultural machinery, with their contemporaries to understand why modern average body shapes and sizes are so much larger.

Please note that this exhibition is located in the Upper Galleries which are currently inaccessible to wheelchair users. Further information on access at York Castle Museum is available here.

‘Shaping the Body’ is a permanent exhibition and is included in the price of admission.