An exhibit at the White River Valley Museum is a glimpse into the ways women have struggled to keep up with fashion while keeping themselves in place — both physically and culturally.
You don’t have to go very far back in history to understand how large a role undergarments play in the lives of women.
“Suddenly you have breasts and suddenly you have a waist,” Patricia Cosgrove, of the White River Valley Museum, said the other day. “For her, a corset might be really helpful.”
‘Suffer for Beauty: Women’s History Revealed Through Undergarments’
Through June 17; White River Valley Museum; 918 H Street S.E., Auburn; $5, $2 for seniors and children (253-288-7433 or wrvmuseum.org)
For others, well, not so much — one of the clear take-aways from an exhibit called “Suffer for Beauty: Women’s History Revealed Through Undergarments,”at the Auburn museum through June 17.
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It’s not just corsets and bullet bras, bloomers and a ’60s-era gadget called The Fabulous Mark Eden Bust Developer. (“I bought one when I was 13,” Cosgrove cracked.) The exhibit is a glimpse into the ways women have struggled to keep up with fashion while keeping themselves in place — both physically and culturally.
Cosgrove has used shoes, hats, purses, workwear and swimsuits as conduits to women’s history. This current exhibit is the third iteration of the “Suffer for Beauty” exhibit.
“There is a lot to be said for teaching women’s history in some painless fashion,” Cosgrove said of the exhibit, which she co-curated with Michelle Marshman, a history professor at Green River College. “I don’t want to hit anyone over the head or alienate anyone.”
Because, well, it’s a roomful of underwear hanging on the walls. There’s even a corset you can try on, to see how much hell it is to wear one and breathe normally.
You also learn the origin of the term “strait-laced.” It meant that the laces of their corsets were pulled so tight, they came together in a straight line and forced their backs up — and made it a little hard to breathe, what with all the metal or whale-bone stays pressing against your middle.
“It was an inward and outward controlling mechanism,” Cosgrove said, “and part of morality at that time.”
And to be called a “loose woman” meant that your corset wasn’t tied that tightly, allowing for easier removal and breathing — heavy or otherwise.
“If it’s loose, who knows where you’ll go?” Cosgrove asked. “You’re not controlled.”
And then there is a certain pair of underwear that look like simple cotton pantaloons from the front, but feature a gap from the waist through the crotch.
“There is no way of knowing whether that was convenience or style, as opposed to control,” Cosgrove said.
Control could be interpreted in many ways: Bladder control, which would make these ideal for women who didn’t have much; or control by husbands who wanted easy access.
“Women were pretty much under the thumb of men then,” Cosgrove said, “so it’s conceivable that the open back had other uses than hygiene.”
The crotchless cotton pants were also the result of fashion’s demands: “Men wear pants and women don’t,” Marshman said, “so closed-crotch anything is closer to pants.”
Thankfully, that style didn’t last long.
By 1910, Amelia Bloomer had created bloomers — crotch included — which were satirized as masculine. But still, women welcomed them.
Then came the teddy, a result of the Rational Dress Movement, started by women who had clearly had enough of all this pulling and constraining. The fashion gave them loose cotton blouses and split skirts (covered with a panel of fabric) — and came just in time for the suffragette movement and labor strikes.
Designer Paul Poiret tried to slow the women down with something called “The Hobble Skirt,” which featured a band around the knee area.
“When women are striking and protesting, the dress puts a band around your knees so your gait is hobbled,” Cosgrove said. “As if to say, ‘Oh, no you don’t, little lady.’
“It was a short-lived trend, because it was silly.”
The 1920s brought women new freedoms like the right to vote and the establishment of the League of Women Voters. It also brought new music and the flapper style, which did away with the hourglass shape and was much more androgynous. Women wore girdles instead of corsets and rubber flatteners around their chests.
Women were voting, smoking, attending college, using birth control and cutting their long hair short, Marshman said. In 1920, Cosgrove said, there were 4,000 beauty salons in America (if women cut their hair, they went to a barber). But by 1930, there were 40,000 hair salons for women.
World War II brought women’s fashion a more militaristic, uniform look. Jackets. Skirts. Bras and hose.
In 1947, as the war ended and women lost their factory jobs to returning soldiers, Christian Dior brought forth a New Look, “designed around sending women back home,” Cosgrove said. They wore bullet bras, dresses and a string of pearls.
“Whenever rights are diminished, style usually accentuates the female form,” Cosgrove said. “Bullet bras are like, ‘Whoo! Look at my breasts!’ You’ve got a lot of curves going on.”
Marshman said the look “was part of reshaping women’s role and accentuating the family life.”
The exhibit ends in 1970 — but that doesn’t mean that women’s striving toward physical perfection from the inside out has stopped.
Panty lines are eliminated by thongs. Silhouettes are smoothed by Spanx. Body hair is removed with waxing. Skin is peeled, lips and foreheads are injected.
It never ends.
Cosgrove and Marshman have curated an accompanying male-centric exhibit, showing how men, too, have suffered for beauty. There is a case filled with starched collars, a mannequin in a tailored suit and tie, and a variety of straight razors for shaving.
In the 1980s, Marshman said, men started to struggle with body image, thanks to “Pumping Iron” star Arnold Schwarzenegger and action-man Sylvester Stallone. It’s called “bigorexia,” and is also known as “muscle dysmorphia.”
To illustrate her point, Marshman has placed side by side in the display case two tiny Luke Skywalker figurines. The newer figurine has a tiny torso that opens into a V-shaped upper body. Even Halloween costumes now come with foam muscles built in.
“Men’s bodies have increasingly become objectified,” Marshman said, “as the female body has been forever.”
And because underwear is so relatable, the exhibit has opened great discussions about how far we’ve come — and whether we’ve made it far enough.
“You need to understand the history in order to make good decisions for yourself today,” she continued. “You make choices based on how it feels for you to be a female. Based on who you are and a love of who you are. Inside and out.”