Corsets, bras and thongs may not be typical social conversation, but the Missouri History Museum’s Underneath It All exhibit is changing that.
The free exhibit, on display through Jan. 27, showcases changes in women’s undergarments from the 18th century to present day. Through dressed mannequins and their undressed counterparts, the exhibit chronicles the societal roles of American women, the history of consumer culture and the ever-changing standard of beauty.
Curator Shannon Meyer recently revealed to Ladue News some behind-the- scenes insight into the thought-provoking exhibit.
LN: What is the inspiration behind the exhibit?
SM: The exhibit is something I have thought about doing for years. The museum’s clothing and textile collection has 17,000 pieces, and a good amount of that is undergarments. When groups come in for behind-the-scenes tours, one of the things I like to show them is some of the underwear items and people always really enjoy it. So for this exhibit, we wanted to show dressed and undressed silhouettes and how they have changed. Underwear is not something people know a lot about because the subject is private. This exhibit evokes conversation.
LN: What eras are represented?
SM: The exhibit includes undergarments from the 1770s to present. It is chronologically displayed in six ‘revolution’ sections— from French to Industrial, suffrage, technological, sexual and information, which relates to how the media tell women they should look. The silhouette changes almost decade-by-decade—it starts out in the 18th century with a very wide silhouette in a dress, then it narrows to be more like a column into the 19th century. It always focuses on the tiny waist, and the size of the skirt or chest changes.
LN: Tell us about the most interesting items in the exhibit.
SM: The most interesting piece is a 1950s girdle that is made out of rubber. A number of people have commented about having worn them, and what they always talk about is that they would break while you were wearing them—just split and fall off. We also have some paper underwear from the 1970s that is meant to be disposable. There also is a dress-up station where you can try on different pieces, such as a corset or a crinoline. In addition, there is a display case called Perspiration, Periods and Pregnancy, which covers areas women traditionally weren’t supposed to talk about. Another display case, Increasing Your Volume, features different kinds of bustles.
LN: How did you gather the items for the exhibit?
SM: Most of the items are from our own collection, and some have been donated or loaned to us by the public or other museums— in Lexington, Ky., and Lowell, Mass.
LN: Why is this an important exhibit?
SM: It follows the lines of women’s progress, and it uses underwear to do that. People are learning a lot about the history of women and clothing and how they are tied together, so it’s not just about underwear. You will see that as women have made progress, their underwear has gotten smaller and less confining.
LN: Who should attend the exhibit?
SM: I encourage grandmothers, moms and daughters to come in. Many multi-generational women’s groups have attended and it starts conversations. Women will say Can you imagine wearing that? or I used to wear that, then they share stories about it.