Dangerous Liaisons At The Met

From left, Dr. Mark Pochapin, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric and Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith with the colonoscopy camera used in Smith's on-air colonoscopy. CBS

If you think today's fashion, inspired by the likes of Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears or Janet Jackson, is all about how much skin you can show and how raunchy you can appear, well, there's another look that's stealing the stage.

Long elegant skirts, corset-like tops styled from sumptuous fabrics, formal, figure-enhancing shapes - they're all making waves on fashion runways, reports CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver.

The creations of designer Maggie Norris have been featured in a slew of magazines and worn by trend-setters such as actresses Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts.

Says Norris, "If a woman has on a beautiful embroidered piece and your waistline is two inches smaller, and your décolleté is really beautiful, then I think it's very, very sexy."

How long does it take Norris to make each of her creations?

About two weeks, she says, with about 10 people working on it.

And what's the price of one of her corsets?

Says Norris, "Well, usually they're about $25,000."

The price tag, she adds, is directly related to the workmanship. Norris's creations are one-of-a-kind and custom-fitted. She uses flexible plastic or metal pieces rather than the rigid bone that gave shape to corsets of old.

But these new numbers are grounded in history -- 18th century French history to be exact.

"It was a very sexy and decadent period and all of that translated into making a woman feel really special," says Norris.

She laughs, "I would say, a 'Dangerous Liaisons' type of person."

Dangerous Liaisons - that's a film you may remember from a few years ago, in which everyone wore fabulous clothes and lounged in extravagant interiors. Glenn Close and John Malkovich play bored French aristocrats scheming to seduce Uma Thurman.

That kind of seduction is in the air once again. This time, it's within the staid confines of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where an exhibit called "Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century" is now on display.

Technically, it's meant to showcase items from the museum's collection of historic French clothing and furniture.

"But underneath that is also an erotic subtext to the exhibition," says curator Andrew Bolton. "We're trying to create storylines which are often based on 18th century paintings or illustrations in which men and women used furniture and clothing to seduce each other."

Bolton is not kidding. The museum has devised scenarios meant to show the sexually-charged reality of upper-class life during the period of wretched excess leading up to the French Revolution.

Card tables designed to be intimate enough for a little game of footsie, fans used for flirting, and dresses so elaborate that just walking through a doorway is an attention-grabber.

Says Bolton, "It's a case of negotiating your dressed body in a densely interiored space."

In one room, you notice a woman having her portrait painted while lounging on a velvet sofa. She's wearing a gown, hand-embroidered with the same lattice design on the table which, by the way, was made for Marie Antoinette.

But the real action occurs across the room, where the portrait sitter can clearly observe her husband - flirting with her best friend.

It seems that almost any occasion was a prelude to romance.

In one tableau, one sees a lady having her hair and makeup done, with her admirer watching on. The "levee" was a time in which a lady could invite her suitor to come over and she'd almost perform a reverse strip-tease. So, instead of taking her clothes off, she'd be putting them on.

As Braver considered this woman getting dressed in front of her boyfriend, Braver couldn't help but wonder what parents are supposed to tell their children as they take them through the exhibit.

Says Bolton, "What's nice about it is that a parent can tell their child whatever they would like because the can invent their own narratives. There's nothing - (the scenario) is not really fixed."

But it might be hard to come up with an innocent explanation for a tableau called "The Music Lesson." A chaperone, momentarily distracted, fails to notice her young charge having an intimate encounter with her music instructor.

Or the scene set in the showroom of a porcelain merchant, in which an elderly husband (an American, the museum says, because that's where his suit was made) is examining a jewelry chest.

As the husband is looking at the casket, the merchant is actually grabbing the wife - who seems perfectly fine with it.

Bolton's assessment is that the young French wife is thrilled with the attention.

The idea behind all these subtle eroticisms is that lavish clothes and surroundings make us giddy.

In one chamber, a waiting room outside one of Louis XV's grand balls, a gorgeously dressed young woman appears to have fainted from excitement - or maybe her corset was just too tight.

Another aristocrat flirts surreptitiously with her valet and all around them is ornate paneling and sensuously-styled furniture.

We asked co-curator Danielle Grosheide if she really thinks furnishing and décor can be so powerful that they can cause people to succumb to seduction?

Says Grosheide, "I certainly wouldn't exclude it. I think we have all been in beautiful places - grand hotels in particular - where you are not quite yourself. You're a little bit outside yourself, you might be a bit light-headed so that you may not be quite responsible for your actions."

And, Grosheide adds, there's no question sex sells. In these competitive times when museums are vying for crowds, this exhibit has been packing them in.

And nothing has been more popular than the final scene where form and function really do meet. There's a daybed (another piece made for Marie Antoinette) that has clearly been used for a tryst.

The bodice of the woman in the scene is just a little open, and she's holding a garter in her hand. Grosheide explains she's about to present it to her lover as a memento of their rendezvous.

A man's clothes are gracefully strewn across the chair, and her shoes are kicked out as well, showing how intimate the two are with each other.

As for the rest of us - well, we may not be able to live as the French aristocracy did, or even afford Maggie Norris's $25,000 creations. But we can always dream about our own dangerous liaisons.

As Norris put it, "I just think that there is a need for dreaming again, for having fantasies and dreams. Because if we don't have that, we're lost."
  • Raksha Shetty

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