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Fashion Plate

Lacing Into Lingerie of Old

By Angela Murrills

Step into Unmentionables, the exhibit opening next Thursday (June 26) at the Vancouver Museum, and you will kiss the ground for how blessed you are. Perhaps not if you're a man (male underwear hasn't changed that much over the centuries), but if you're a woman, you will rightly stare in horror at what greets you. Dating back to 1720, and the oldest piece in the exhibit, is a set of blue silk-damask-covered stays from Munich. Nearby is an example of "jumps", the term for a "casual" corset, this one made of embroidered ecru linen in the 1760s or 1770s, and probably English, says fashion historian Ivan Sayers. A couple of deductions: corsetry spanned national boundaries, and decades, in a single whaleboned leap.

It's a giant jump in time, fabric, and mores to a lingerie item borrowed from the Nanaimo Museum: a blowup bra, complete with inflating straw, dating back to the 1950s. "That's one of the eccentric things none of us had here [in Vancouver]," says Sayers, who, aided by fellow collectors Claus Jahnke and Melanie Talkington, has contributed innumerable unmentionables and extensive experience. What was in the Vancouver Museum's collection and flaunts itself amid the array of foundation garments, hoops, and bustles is a red satin corset, made in 1898, that was part of a wedding from Nelson.

Centuries ago, being born female meant that unless you were a lowly peasant, yours would be a life of constriction. The gap between diapers and corsets was a brief one. "Children were wearing corsets from the age of three," says Sayers. (The exhibit includes an example from the 1780s.) "By school age, little girls were expected to wear some kind of foundation garment. It was the objectification of women," he explains. "A girl had to have a good figure to find a husband," to which end, she even wore corsets to bed.

How small was the perfect waist? Asking that very question of a magazine of the day, a young woman in the 1860s learned that because she was so extremely tall (five foot six) she could add one inch to her 16 years. As an indication of what that means, Sayers points to his own neck, which measures a half-inch more. In fact, reports of unnaturally tiny waistlines may be exaggerated, he says: "Of all the dresses I've ever seen or examined, maybe four dresses had proportions like that."

In the great cavalcade of sartorial history, the widespread donning of underwear is a fairly modern invention. "Men only started to wear underwear as we understand it from the mid-19th century," says Sayers. One of the little-heralded side benefits of the industrial revolution was a rising middle class that wanted to ape its betters in everything, including the adoption of underclothes. These had to be white because whiteness (associated with purity and cleanliness) further helped discriminate the pristine bourgeoisie from the grubby working classes, and that meant using bleach, which couldn't be used on colours.

By 1810, women were wearing pantalets, but these were seen more as a novelty. "It was considered very vulgar to wear any kind of trousers, anything that divided the legs." The cancan was so offensive because the dancers' underwear was basically two legs attached to a waistband. These early, essentially crotchless styles answer one of the most common questions Sayers says he is asked on the lecture circuit: "How did they go to the bathroom?" The exhibit responds to the other--"Who invented the bra?"--with an entire section detailing its evolution, launching off with an early model designed to display an Edwardian bust as a matronly mono-bosom. By the 1920s, women, keen to appear lissome and boylike, wore flattening bandeaux, fabric bands six inches deep that were held up by ribbon straps; over time, the garment acquired a vertical drawstring between the breasts. Around the early 1930s, darts were introduced for shape and comfort, and by 1939 bras were available in different cup sizes, essential equipment for wartime "sweater girls".

There was one last hurrah from the concentrically quilted missile-cone bras of the 1950s and then, soon after, everything fell flat.

Unmentionables' time line concludes at the end of the 1960s with a psychedelic girdle, just before lingerie became not unmentionable so much as temporarily absent.

Displayed chronologically, Unmentionables is a fascinating and erudite look at the sometimes provocative, often uncomfortable, always intriguing underlayers worn by our ancestors. Among the most stunningly beautiful pieces on show is a 1904 corset from Claus Jahnke's collection. Made of rose-printed grey silk with strips of ivory-coloured silk satin, and edged with black and white ruffles, it belonged to a German countess. Among the quirkiest examples (note that the exhibit spans gender as well as history) are men's Danish hipster-style briefs in a red Lycra-like fabric, unworn and still packaged as they were sold, in the shape of a tulip. But for the truly unmentionable, check out a little item made, Sayers thinks, in the early 1950s: Polish-made Y-fronts of transparent pink nylon.




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