The Bizarre and the Beautiful

Dorothy Baca teaches students about the artistry and social meaning behind the decorated human body.

by Valerie Roybal

With paint, cosmetics, clothing, and jewelry; by reshaping, resizing and sculpting; in permanent and temporary fashions; with beautiful or bizarre effects, people throughout human history have sought to adorn, enhance, and alter their bodies.

“From culture to culture and generation to generation, human beings have been interested in embellishing and distorting the human body,” says Dorothy Baca, assistant professor of makeup design, costume design, and costume history courses at UNM’s Department of Theatre and Dance.

“A very important part of theatre and costuming is understanding the decorated body. What I teach is more than just fashion, it’s understanding costuming from a cultural, sociological, and historical perspective,” says Baca.

“The choices people have made about their outward appearance can be seen as meaningful statements about the society and culture in which they live. I think it is important for my students to understand this in order to creatively, effectively, and accurately design for theatrical productions,” continues Baca.

Changes and differences in the ideals of beauty and fashion can be charted in much the same way as political, sociological, and socioeconomic trends. Ideals in beauty and fashion can also be highly reflective of the physical environments in which people live.

“One of the things that I find fascinating is the rather dramatic differences that exist in the ideals of beauty. I am amazed at the lengths to which people will go to live up to the ideals of their society, and how ironic it is that beauty can be very unnatural,” says Baca.

For example, from country to country, era to era, and class to class, there have been dramatic variations in what is seen as the ideal body shape and size. What is considered beautiful or fashionable in one society can be considered completely unfashionable and undesirable in another. The people in the Victorian period wore restrictive corsets which made waists artificially tiny while accentuating the hips and buttocks (not to mention causing a variety of health problems). In Cameroon and many other parts of Africa, obesity, especially in the buttocks, has been associated with abundance, erotic desirability, and fertility. Fat has been seen as a statement of well-being and has been frequently produced artificially through fattening processes. In modern Western society, “thin is in” and sometimes artificial means such as liposuction have been used to lessen the appearance of hips, buttocks, and fat in general.

In the early nineteenth century, European travelers and explorers expressed their disbelief at the “savage” and unusually decorated bodies of the natives, while asserting their own wildly interesting fashion statement consisting of powdered wigs, large and often frivolous hats, painted faces, and body deformities caused by the wearing of narrow, pointed, and tight-fitting shoes.

In a theatrical context, these differences in ideals, including extremes, can be created with the use of lines, scale, physicality of color, and the architecture and movement of the costume. Small and grand illusions can also be cleverly created through skillful use of accessories and makeup.

“Research is very important to the design process. Designers have to understand the `period’ the story takes place in order to create the illusion and feeling of that world. The designer creates an environment that helps tell the story. From the clothing, the audience makes assumptions about each character and the time and place of the story,” says Baca.

An undergraduate alumna of UNM, Baca returned to New Mexico after twenty-five years in Los Angeles, first earning her MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles, and then going on to decorate and costume the bodies of actors of stage, television, and film. Some of her credits as a designer include Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Major Dad, and Murder, She Wrote on television, and Bette Midler’s character singing mermaid costume in the Divine Madness World Tour, for stage.

Her research in costuming and body decorating began in graduate school with a fascination with underwear–the styles, the history, and the differences between cultures in its purpose in relation to the human body. “In western cultures, people have used underwear or foundation garments to change the natural body and distort the figure into the fashionable ideal,” says Baca.

Baca’s latest “obsession” has been the costume and clothing history of New Mexico, primarily during the Spanish Colonial period. “There isn’t a great deal known or documented on what was worn during this period, so the research has been both fascinating and difficult. With funding and support from the library, a costume history database is being generated at UNM’s Bainbridge Bunting Memorial Slide Library to collect and classify images of clothing worn by people in New Mexico. There is much more information on clothing worn in the East Coast colonies at that time. The Southwest in the eighteenth century was very different–the trade routes, the isolation, and of course, the different cultural and religious influences created a fashion unique to New Mexico. There was also the influence of the indigenous people, and what fibers are natural to this region. Additionally, we are looking at what was fashionable in Spain and Mexico at the time, because much of that fashionable clothing was brought here from those places,” says Baca.

“My goal with this research is to involve more people, have it become interdisciplinary. I would like to involve anyone who is interested–theatre people, historians, anthropologists, students, and artists,” she continues.

“The original funding for this project came from the Bainbridge Bunting Memorial Slide Library. I am looking for additional funding to continue. So far, the collection contains images found from other sources on campus, such as the Center for Southwest Research at Zimmerman Library. The ultimate dream would be to create a database with original clothing digitally scanned in, so that someone could look at the details–from the inside and the outside of the antique garmenton his or her computer without needing to touch the garment, or even be in the state,” says Baca. Baca is also planning to work on a children’s book and do research on rituals, ceremonies, and costumes of Northern New Mexico.

“The decorated and costumed body is such an interesting field. I look forward to teaching students, discovering more on the past, and observing the shifts occurring in fashion and body decoration in the future,” says Baca.

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