Corsets and bustles were used to give the woman a silhouette and an exaggerated hourglass shape during the late 1800s. Courtesy image, WRVM

Museum seeking historic women’s undergarments for exhibit

  • Sunday, October 29, 2017 11:35am
  • Life

Do you have one of grandma’s girdles lying around somewhere, or your great-aunt Betty’s bustle? Perhaps you own a jewel of a bygone fashion age, like the 1960s-era Mark Eden bust developer or a nose harness from the ’30s?

The White River Valley Museum is putting out the call for all sorts fashion items and accessories to be displayed in its upcoming exhibit, “Suffer for Beauty: Women’s History Revealed by Undergarments.”

Patricia Cosgrove, director of the museum, said examining women’s fashion through the ages is a great way to reveal women’s constantly changing role in society.

“Fashion has dictated that the ideal female body shape keep changing,” Cosgrove said. “In the 1920s, a woman’s body was ideally straight and boyish, but after World War II we wanted an hourglass form. Remember 36-24-36? So, in order to accommodate fashion, women turned to shape altering undergarments.”

Cosgrove and her staff hope people from all over (but preferably locals) can donate or lend them historic bustles, waist cinchers, bullet or whirlpool bras and girdles that date back before the 1970s.

Fashion isn’t just about clothes and underwear, though, and many items — like dimple stampers, chin reducers, acne healing wands or a Venus-Adonis Electric Normalizer — were used by women all around the country in the pursuit of the ideal female look and form, and would be welcomed in the exhibit.

“They verge on hoaxes, but they’re interesting and show the extremes we go to for beauty,” Cosgrove said. “And nowadays it’s plastic surgery — we just fix it from the inside out. We can’t exactly laugh at our past because we’re doing it, maybe worse. Worse as in, more extreme.”

The museum will be accepting donations for the exhibit until October, and the exhibit will be on display from January to June 2018.

For more information, or to ask if your old fashion items can be used in the exhibit, Cosgrove can be contacted at 253-288-7437 or pcosgrove@auburnwa.gov.

From hoop skirts to housewives: A brief history

The “Suffer for Beauty” exhibit starts off with the late 1800s, when women’s fashion was just as restrictive as their roles in society were expected to be, Cosgrove said.

“Hoop skirts were a little before the era that we’ll be dealing with. Bustles are not,” Cosgrove said, adding that it was fashionable in the late 1800s for a woman’s skirts to flair out a bit, especially in the back. Bustles, almost like reverse fanny packs, helped achieve that effect.

Corsets were also fashionable around this time period. Some were long, extending below the waist and extremely restrictive due to laces and boning. Women sometimes wore corsets so tight in order to create an hourglass figure that they restricted their breathing and would faint.

“A corset defined you as a moral woman. Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘straight laced’? It references the laces of the corset,” Cosgrove said. “The corset was this rigid armor that separated you from the world. You had to sit in a certain way… it defined everything about you.”

Even women’s outerwear was restrictive, with seams and stitches designed to keep a woman’s arms from having full movement.

There are many rumors and urban myths about how corsets could damage a woman’s body, specifically by altering rib structure and misaligning the spine. Researchers still debate exactly how much damage was caused to bone structure and internal organs by corseting.

One famous myth is that some members of high society had their bottom ribs removed to have smaller waists, though some scholars have determined this operation was probably too lethal for anyone to attempt around the turn of the 20th century.

Michelle Marshman, a member of the museum’s board of directors and a history professor at the Green River College, said conservative and liberal ideals are often reflected in fashion during their respective time periods.

“When we unpack the political, economic and religious events or ideas of an age we can see how they intersect with expectations for women and fashion… In some conservative eras, the idealized female form accentuates traditional ideas of gender – high heels, girdles, corsets tight sweaters tend to limit women’s movement rather than enable it,” she said. “In periods of women’s political activity in the public sphere, whether picketing for suffrage, striking for safe working conditions, or protesting female subordination legally and culturally, women’s clothing was more relaxed. It’s no accident that women at the 1968 Miss American Beauty Pageant protest threw girdles, false eye lashes and hair curlers into the Freedom Trash Can.”

A few decades later is Cosgrove’s favorite fashion period, “the 19-teens,” when there was movement away from restrictive clothing and toward allowing the body to have a more natural shape.

“They were trying to get away from heavy corseting so they shortened the corsets. Some audacious women would go without corsets,” she said, adding this is where we get the phrase “loose women.”

When the roaring ’20s came around, “suddenly, the ideal form is a sort of boyish shape, kind of streamlined down,” Cosgrove said, adding that brassieres weren’t around yet. “You weren’t really being shaped. You were just yourself in a straight little dress.”

For the next several decades, women’s fashion became less and less restrictive. When the depression came around in the ’30s, undergarments and dresses became simpler in order for women to save money, and when World War II arrived, women’s fashion started to emulate men and be more about practicality and safety as women became more involved in the U.S. workforce, Marshman said.

But when the war was over, designers started bringing back restrictive clothing in the ’50s and ’60s.

“Picture Donna Reed or one of those homemakers in high heels and a string of pearls. That’s the ‘new look,’” Cosgrove said. “Pointy boobs, tiny waist, wide skirt and you’re supposed to cook in this. Suddenly you got women pulled out of the workforce and put in this form, which was the 36-24-36 form. Again, expectations of their body shape are changing, what they’re doing with their day changes as they give up their jobs for men that are coming home from war.

“That’s the kind of thing you’ll see in this exhibit,” she continued. “It’s very visual, very easy to figure out how the clothing is either freeing or confining, and how one’s life gets shaped that way.”

Marshman occasionally uses fashion to teach her students how life can be shaped by fashion, and vice versa.

“What I try to help my students understand in the Women’s History class is that notions of ideal beauty and fashion trends change over time, sometimes pretty dramatically. In one woman’s lifetime, for example, the ideal bust shape went from the high mounds of a corset, to a monobosom, to a rubber reducer, and back to the hourglass shape,” she said. “Ideally, I hope students leave the class understanding the history of fashion and beauty standards, and make thoughtful, informed choices about how and why we participate in fashion.”

For more information, visit wrvmuseum.org.

Do you have one of grandma’s girdles lying around somewhere, or your great-aunt Betty’s bustle? Perhaps you own a jewel of a bygone fashion age, like the 1960s-era Mark Eden bust developer or a nose harness from the ’30s? The White River Valley Museum is putting out the call for all sorts fashion items and […]

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