“Exposed Is Not Just An Exhibit At FIT”

 Tiny corsets  19th century and a Peter Soronen evening dress 2007
at the entrance to the exhibit

Yesterday I previewed a museum exhibit dealing with something on the edge of virtual extinction.  No, I’m not referring to the prehistoric beasts at the AMNH… I spent my morning at FIT  perusing an exhibit entitled “Exposed: A History of Lingerie.” Surely you remember lingerie… aka intimate apparel, colloquially referred to as underwear, right?  It seems that many of the famous who flaunt their fannies (and other naughty bits) are perhaps, unaware of its existence but I’ll rant about that later. Colleen Hill, Associate Curator of Accessories at FIT has culled about 70 pieces from the museum’s permanent collection that tell a story. “I wanted to find things that were visually striking as well as historically significant” she explained.

Corset with sleeves c 1770, Europe and petticoat

The exhibit starts with a blue and beige long sleeved whalebone corset from 1770 which promised to straighten the back while enhancing the breasts and was “obligatory for women in the 18th century” as well as a quilted petticoat which would be de rigeur at the time. Two weeny, tiny silk and satin corsets in ruby red and peacock blue circa late 1800’s don’t even look like they would fit today’s supermodels however they show the beginnings of the innerwear as outerwear trend that Madonna and Jean Paul Gaultier would later appropriate and run with almost 200 years later.

1880 corset from France and cotton bustle USA

In the beginning of the 19th century, women’s undergarments became more modest. A completely covered white cotton dressing gown, which although designed strictly for inside the privacy of a woman’s boudoir was detailed to echo the dress style of the day, demonstrates this. By the late 19th century, underwear became more colorful yet was still rigid to help its wearer achieve the popular hourglass silhouette and bring to mind Scarlett O’Hara being laced up by Mammy with her measuring tape. Bustles were also worn as they were essential under the heavily draped backs of the skirts of the time. The early 1900’s ushered in the tea gown, sort of an early hostess gown which a lady would wear when having friends over for tea. These were mostly shapeless yet highly ornamental in chiffon, silk and lace.

Fernande Burel tea gown and other examples from the early 1900’s

Ms. Hill mentioned that the years from 1900-1930 saw the most opulent lingerie. ” Undergarments changed and shifted” she said. “As clothes were more embellished, lingerie became less embellished. As clothes were less embellished, lingerie became more so.” The modern bra and girdle were born in the 1920’s as the youthful, Flapper-esque, slender fashion demanded more streamlined undergarments. The exhibit features a girdle from the Strouse, Adler Company with brocade satin and elastic on the sides which Ms. Hill termed “an early day Spanx.” Bras were made from delicate material that merely covered the breasts but did nothing to support or enhance them as a flat chested look was the style then.

Early Spanx Strouse, Adler Company corset c 1920
and boxed Gossard Corset

By the 1930’s underpinnings had less structure  as comfort became more important.  Ms. Hill mentioned a popular ad at the time featuring models bending in their undergarments to show the flexibility. “The corselet smoothes but doesn’t mold like the earlier corsets” she said and pointed to her favorite item of the exhibit: a Cadoffe ( a company still in business today) corselet with attached slip. In the 1940’s robes and tailored pajamas became popular. An interesting selling point of a robe or dressing gown was that it was marketed as a wartime necessity as something to slip into for those “nighttime air raids,” an explanation card in the exhibit under a rayon (a new fabric) floral robe states. A Maggie Rouff nightgown of silk and silk satin featured a halter neck which is still fashionable and wearable today. A trousseau was an important bridal event and one nightgown features an “I love you Yumi” embroidered on it while a set of tailored pajamas features the bride’s new monogram as well as a pocket handkerchief of the groom’s initials.

Air raid robe from early 1940’s and Dior petticoat c 1949

The late ’40s to the late ’50’s heralded in the return to structure as Christian Dior introduced the “New Look.”  The fashion was a return to exaggerated silhouettes but unlike the fashions of Charles James which had the structure built in architecturally (see the Met Museum exhibit) the Dior designs depended largely on undergarments to retain their shape.   A Dior petticoat of nylon net, taffeta and horsehair from France which would have been worn under a gown is on view. Ms. Hill mentioned that most of the Dior dresses of the time were sold with an attached or accompanying corset in order to mold the dress correctly on the body and so that the wearer wouldn’t have to purchase these garments separately. The “merry widow” style of corselet became all the rage after the movie of the same name.  These garments were designed to take 2-3 inches off of the wearer’s waist making me wonder how the “widow” could breathe let alone be “merry.”

1960’s lingerie with Twiggy pantyhose in case

Of course, the 1960’s marked a big change to structure-less undergarments. Not mentioned in the exhibit but I remember as a child hearing about the bra burnings and the early feminists rebellion against those evil perceived instruments of torture and restriction imposed on women by dominating males (or something to that effect, hell I was in grade school then). The 1965 “No Bra” designed by Rudi Gernreich, a flimsy and sheer creation perhaps led the march towards this “why bother?” attitude. There are several items from more recent decades including the high-end luxury brands Agent Provocateur, and La Perla as well as the comfort and style of Hanky Panky which demonstrate the idea of lingerie worn for seduction rather than shapeware. Highlights of the exhibit (on display through November 15) include an actual wire bustle (intended to give you the Kardashi-ass as well as a cool accessory: a Jean Paul Gaultier backpack in the shape of a black bustier complete with cone bra.”I think the history of lingerie is the history of fashion” said Curator Hill who has written a companion book to the exhibit and is obviously well versed on the subject. I stumped her, however when I asked what she thought the current trend to go “underwear free” said about fashion.

Merry widows and early padded bra

Perhaps a museum will soon become the only place to view undies (sorry Victoria’s Secret supermodels, you’ll soon be out of a job)! We’ve recently witnessed Duchess Kate,  (caught pantyless in Australia by a German lensman while disembarking from a helicopter)  as well as “Rule Breaker” Rihanna at the CFDA Awards in a crystal encrusted Marilyn Monroe “Happy Birthday suit Mr. President” gown without an underliner or bra, perhaps some sort of thong which covered her in the front but still exposed her in the back. I’ve seen the “Txts with RiRi” video and I have to say I’m not amused.  Do you suppose she ran this “sham” outfit(some say “inappropriate” choice of get-up) past Ms. Wintour before donning it? Maybe someone should have told her she was being given a “fashion” award not a “nudist” award. Yes, we’re all aware that she has a killer bod but did we really need to see it in this way at this event? I would like to say that I loved her head scarf/do-rag thing, as well as the gloves, and Thank God for the well-placed fur boa!  I also appreciate the irony of her “fashion is a defense for me” speech as she stood there naked.

As for Kate giving us a glimpse of the royal arse,  there really is no excuse.  She knows she’s constantly being photographed, this was not even close to her first wardrobe malfunction even of the butt-baring upskirt kind, leading me to believe that she was tired of Pippa garnering all the attention for her shapely bottom. Kate’s decision to go commando seems like a sad plea for attention. Can you imagine her saying “Give a look at my bum, won’t you! It’s every bit as perky as my sister’s.” Rumor has it that the Queen has ordered Kate a minder to make sure this never happens again by doing what exactly? Run around pulling the Duchess’ skirt down? Remind the Duchess to don the royal underpants especially when taking a ‘copter ride? Block the shot with her body? Pull an Alec Baldwin/Kanye West and grab the camera while tussling with the offending paparazzo? Seriously, how much trouble is it to don some drawers or unban the bra? To paraphrase Jay Z, “I’ve got 99 problems but keeping my underwear on ain’t one!”

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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