Friday, September 14, 2012

The Missouri History Museum - Underneath it All

An extremely interesting and entertaining exhibit currently at the Missouri History Museum is entitled "Underneath it All". It's focus is on the history of women's foundation pieces from the 18th century to the present day. Mannequins are positioned side by side. One is dressed as a woman would be seen on the street, the other shows what was worn under the outer garments. It is a fascinating display of hoops, corsets, stays and various types of padding necessary to give the woman's dress the proper silhouette. Some of the more restrictive items made me wonder how women were able to move about at all, or perform a basic action such as simply sitting down. The accompanying notes make the point that the restrictive clothes women wore reflected and reinforced their restrictive roles in society. A corset, making her body conform to an unnatural ideal, or hoop skirt made it impossible for her to perform any type of physical labor. In some cases she would not have even been able to dress without assistance due to the elaborate combinations of laces, buckles and fastenings needed to don these garments. It was the western world's version of the Chinese custom of binding feet.

At the turn of the 20th century women began to demand emancipation and greater participation in society. These ideas influenced women's dress and foundation garments. Fashions became more comfortable and easy to wear. A woman's body was allowed to appear more natural. Foundations were relegated to providing support and protecting the outer garments as well as providing modesty. The days of the corset, hoop and bustle were behind her. The First World War forced many more women into the workplace which in turn forced more comfort and practicality into women's fashion.

As the 1920's dawned, hemlines rose. Women's undergarments became more fun as color, albeit soft pastels, began to be introduced. The downside, some more well endowed women had to bind their breasts to achieve the newly popular boyish look. Some of the thin strapped, bias cut dresses of the 1930's demanded that, for the first time, women would need to forgo upper body foundations. The war effort of the 40's meant that the fabrics that had been used for undergarments, primarily cotton and silk, would have to be substituted as these fabrics were being used heavily for military functions. Acetate and nylon were developed as stand ins.

The 1950's brought a return to more form altering foundations. Crinoline petticoats and new styles of bras, which occasionally made breasts look like atomic weapons, come into vogue. As I stood in front of a display of bullet bras, two in black lace, I heard an extremely elderly woman behind me exclaim "I never did buy a black bra!" All of us standing within earshot managed to keep a straight face, although it took some effort.

The exhibit continues through the "natural" braless look of the 60's and the disco era of the 70's, when skintight fashions required thin, sometimes almost nonexistent underwear. It then covers the 1980's, or as I like to refer to them, "the shoulder pad years", to today.

In the center of the exhibit is a rack with various styles, hoop skirts etc, which can be tired on to get a first hand feel of the pieces displayed (before you even ask, no I did not!)

One last case, also in the center of the room, displays the type of corset worn through much of the 19th and even early 20th century by the woman that was pregnant, or, to use the vernacular of the time, "expecting", to attempt to disguise or downplay her "condition". Today actresses parade down red carpets proudly displaying their "baby bumps" in clinging jersey gowns. You've come a long way baby. My how times have changed.  

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