For centuries, women have been using undergarments to achieve an ideal feminine silhouette. As fashions change, so does the underwear. But you rarely see this part of a museum’s collection on exhibit.
The Missouri History Museum’s exhibition Underneath It All pulls those “unmentionable” pieces out of the drawers and thrusts them into the galleries for all to see.
The idea came to Senior Curator Shannon Meyer as the culmination of two separate thoughts. She had wanted to do a comprehensive exhibition of women’s fashion for long time, but the spark for this unique idea came to her while giving tours of the museum’s textile storage areas. “The most interesting thing I show people is the underwear collection,” Meyer said. “It always starts conversations.”
And an idea was born.
Meyer wanted to show visitors the foundation and support structure that helped to create the fashionable looks of the past, but she knew an exhibition featuring just underwear only tells half the story. To present a complete picture of the fashions, “you have to show the dress that went with it,” she says.
Underneath It All isn’t just an exhibition about underwear. “Something as seemingly insignificant as a corset or a bra can actually help define a decade, a generation or even an entire social movement,” says the museum’s publicity materials. Divided into six “revolution” sections, the exhibition explores women’s history while placing the textiles in context. Two of the sections feature the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and the Information Revolution in modern times.
Highlights of the exhibit include a steel cage crinoline (c1856), a fuschia colored satin corset (c1885), a pink cotton maternity corset (c1902), and a Merry Widow corselette (c1950).
The oldest artifact on view is a corset from the 1770s. But Meyer’s favorite piece is much more recent. She loves the Playtex rubber girdle from the 1950s. “They came in a tube, which we also have, to demonstrate how flexible they were. People are constantly telling me stories about wearing them when they were younger.” As the rubber aged, it weakened. Women of that era have shared many tales of the untimely release of their girdles when the rotted rubber finally gave way.
Meyer also included a case to answer the rather delicate questions visitors might ask, titled “Perspiration, Periods, and Pregnancy.”
The exhibit has been very popular, attracting over 60,000 visitors since it opened in June 2012. If you aren’t counted in that number, hurry! You don’t have much time left to see it! Underneath It All closes on January 27, 2013.
The Missouri History Museum is located in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri.