This exhibit is about American women. It is about how women have shaped American society, and about the undergarments that have shaped them.
Our exhibit will explore three central themes:
1. The perceived roles of women in American culture as they have changed over time, from the Federalist period to the present, and how those roles have shaped—and been shaped by—what women wear.
2. Feminist ideas and movements since the nation’s earliest days, and the significant role of undergarments relative to those movements.
3. The outward appearance and silhouette of stylish American women over the centuries. The design, intention, and transition of women’s undergarments that helped create the silhouettes.
The exhibit is divided into eight chapters of American history:
Chapter 1: The Federalist Period
Revolution and Freedom: Clothing and the American Identity
Discarding the identity of an English Colony, Americans ponder what it means to act and dress as anAmerican. A new, relaxed and less formal way of dressing is established. Thomas Jefferson and other influential figures argued that our new nation didn't need the restrictive formality of European "court dress." American women adopt the fashion trends that follow the French Revolution, taking inspiration in lighter materials and colors. The Empire style is the antithesis of the formal, large and cumbersome dresses of the 18th century. The ease is reflected in the undergarments. The restrictive stays and hoops are replaced by sheer chemises and relaxed waistlines.
As for changing restrictive norms, even prior to American independence, American women struggled for their rights:
In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John in Philadelphia, urging him and the other members of the Continental Congress to “remember the ladies” when fighting for America’s independence, and give women a voice in the political process. “We are determined to foment a rebellion,” she wrote, “and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” They should have listened.
Chapter 2: The Victorian Period
Corsets, Crinoline, and Sleeve Plumpers: Engineering the Female Silhoutte
As the 19th century progresses, women’s silhouettes are reshaped according to the prevailingfashion. After the relaxed and comfortable dress at the turn of the 19th century, the mid-19th century sees an emphasis on the tiny waist, pronounced bust and wide skirt. This look is achieved using corsets and layers of petticoats or a crinoline, a structured and stiffened cage-type petticoat. After 1870, wide skirts are replaced by bustles, changing the shape of a woman’s silhouette from wide all around to protruding in the back. The tight, restrictive corset remains. A popular style of sleeve in the 1890s, known as the leg o’ mutton, sometimes requires sleeve plumpers - metal cages with fabric covers that create an exaggerated silhouette. The end of the 19th century and the Edwardian era are responsible for changing a woman’s silhouette again, this time in the shape of an “S”. Women’s bosoms and buttocks were pushed up and out, using a long, tight corset. Without the proper undergarments, the complicated clothes of the 19th century would simply hang on the body, without shape or support.
The Roaring 20's
The effects of WWI change attitudes and everyday aspects of people’s lives. The loss of young life to war and Spanish influenza help create an attitude of carefree existence. In 1920, women finally win the right to vote--and a sense of freedom. Gone are the stuffy clothes and regimented schedule. The new style is loose, dropwaisted dresses. The desired figure is more boyish, gamin. The hourglass corset is replaced with a bra and knickers or the cami-knicker. To achieve the popular gamin look and wear the “flapper” dress, voluptuous women don a long, modified corset with bust flattener. The era is punctuated with the new popularity of the cocktail party yet prohibition thrives in America and the speakeasy is born. These underground bars are filled with drinking, dancing and jazz music.
World War II and Women in the Workforce
America enters WWII and women enter the workforce in large numbers. Undergarments haven’t changed much from the 1930s. Women working in factories demand less constrictive but more supportive undergarments. The Saf-T Bra is introduced to protect women from workplace accidents. Panties or briefs become more common and are worn under coveralls. Materials like nylon are redirected towards the war effort and silk is no longer imported from Japan. Women make their own undergarments or repurpose older garments worn during the Depression.
Chapter 5: The 1950’s
Grace Kelly and Housework in Heels
In a decade’s time the American woman goes from riveting to vacuuming. A new, glamorous feminine ideal emerges: graceful full skirts, perfectly coiffed hair, pearl necklaces and high heels, even during housework. The ideal silhouette is trim through the waist with a perky bust. The underwear designs that emerged in the 1940s continue into the 1950s with a few modifications: the cups of the bras become pointier, strapless bras become necessary for the fashions of the day, and new man-made materials are incorporated. This aesthetic is presented in a range of looks, from the provocative sweater girl, to the elegant Grace Kelly and dutiful June Cleaver.
Chapter 6: The 1960’s and 1970’s
Counterculture and Feminism
The 1960s were a decade of tumultuous change. Women aggressively challenged previous ideals of feminine duty and beauty. The widespread use of corsets and girdles comes to an end and suddenly there are more choices: Heels or flats. Mini skirt or long, billowy dress. Slips and bras are optional. For wear with short skirts and without girdles, stockings become pantyhose. The changes and challenges of the times are reflected in the designs of clothing and undergarments.
Chapter 7: The 1980’s and 1990’s
The Mtv Era: Underwear or Outerwear?
Cultural icons like Madonna and Selena usher in a period where underwear plays a starring role, not just a supporting role. The idea of underwear as outerwear becomes mainstream fashion. Women fight to break the glass ceiling wearing lacy bustiers under power suits. Lingerie and leotards become indistinguishable. Bras and shoulders get padded once more. Women show off their aerobicized bodies. Underwear is worn proudly, almost aggressively.
“Selena” Copyright 1993, Al Rendon
Chapter 8: The Contemporary Age
What Goes Around, Comes Around
Design combinations of the last two hundred years have been incorporated into the popular fashions of today. Women are faced with an almost overwhelming array of choices--ranging from almost no underwear at all to constrictive shape-wear and waist-training corsets. The female silhouette we see in popular media and advertising is surgically, mechanically, and digitally manipulated.Paradoxically, women have never been so free to choose what they wear, yet many willingly revert to past notions of ideal beauty and the constrictive means of attaining it. Contemporary feminist movements remind us that what a woman chooses to wear, however, does not define her, or give anyone permission to judge her.
To learn more about this traveling exhibit, click here!