“Burn up the corsets!” clothing reform activist Elizabeth Stuart Phelps wrote in 1873. “Make a bonfire of the cruel steel that has lorded it over the contents of the abdomen and thorax for so many years and heave a sigh of relief: for your 'emancipation,' I assure you, has from this moment begun."
We have feminism to thank for making our underwear more comfortable, a truth that's clearly reflected in Exposed: A History of Lingerie, now on view at the Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). The more than 70 pieces on view, from the 18th century to today—from girdles to the “no-bra” bras of the ‘60s—track the social and sexual mores of different eras through the lingerie that women wore. The show also reveals how designers (thank goodness) responded in very tactile ways to feminist demands for less oppressive underwear.
The corset symbolizes male power but also undermines it.
We typically think of the waist-slimming, bust-enhancing Victorian corset as symbolic of our historically patriarchal society’s stranglehold on women’s freedom, but there's more to the story. “The evolution of the corset is fascinating,” exhibition designer Colleen Hill tells Co.Design. Early corsets of the 1700s featured stays of whalebone or lightweight steel, which painfully constricted women’s bodies and turned their bodies into cartoonish hourglass shapes. “Stays straightened the back and enhanced the breasts by pushing them up and together, and were obligatory for the ‘strait-laced’ woman, yet they also held an erotic allure,” Hill says.
In the 19th century, early feminists rose awareness about corset-induced health problems. (Victorian doctors believed that corsets led to skin damage and organ-bruising, although there's evidence that such reports are overblown.)
But here's the wonderful part: In response to such outrage, women got more choices. Designers developed more flexible stays. FIT features one raspberry-red silk corset from 1889, which follows the sinuous hourglass silhouette of the late 19th century but is shaped using coraline, a plant-based material that was an alternative to whalebone or steel. “Coraline was meant to be a more flexible, wearable shaping material," Hill says. "This seductive corset was likely marketed as a ‘healthy’ style,” she explains. And from this less excruciating corset ultimately evolved the popular elasticized girdle of the ‘20s, which many of us associate with our grandmothers.
So how did women go from wearing whalebone-stay corsets and bustles to Wonderbras, Band-Aid-size thongs, and strapless panties? A century ago, women were trying to please their husbands—unlike today, marriage was very much in vogue. “In the early 20th century, exquisite lingerie came to be viewed as an important factor in a happy love life—and by extension, a happy marriage,” Hill says. “Demure styles often gave way to designs as colorful and decorative as they were functional.” So you could wear elaborate underwear that flaunted your sexuality, and it wasn't considered scandalous. It was, in fact, what every suburban housewife was wearing. We must nod, here, to Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor, all clients of Hollywood couture lingerie designer Juel Park. His nightgown of yellow silk crepe is on view at FIT. There’s also a peach silk satin “all-in-one” girdle by French luxury lingerie brand Cadolle.
But the marriage stats didn't last and neither did women's patience. Sick of cramming their breasts “into bras constructed like mini-Vesuviuses, two stitched white cantilevered cones which bore no resemblance to the female anatomy” (as Lisa Jardine put it, paraphrasing second-wave feminist Germaine Greer), women soon cast off the mainstream lingerie of the ‘50s. Those garments were such dated tools of patriarchy!
And lingerie designers answered to women's demand for freer breasts. “Designs such as Rudi Gernreich’s ‘no-bra’ bra—an entirely unstructured brassiere made from sheer fabric—corresponded to ideas of sexual liberation,” Hill says. Going bra-less, or nearly bra-less, became a symbol of sexual freedom. In 1976, Valerie Porr emphasized the natural body with green silk lounging pajamas, printed with the motif of a nude woman gazing in a mirror. Women weren't going to be pushed around much longer.
Lingerie design came full circle in the late 20th century, when the corset was appropriated by punk- and burlesque-influenced couture designers Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier. You can see, with those styles, how lingerie began to sincerely, even aggressively, reflect women's new ways of manipulating sexual power. These are serious gestures, and no less significant for being beautiful to wear or to look at. Also on view here are Gwen Stefani's L.A.M.B. x Hanky Panky designs, in camouflage stretch lace—a nod to the fact that lingerie can be flamboyant, cute, swank, and basically anything it wants.