BENNINGTON, Vt. I see London, I see France, I see Lucy’s underpants. Oh, my heavens, I also see Emma’s petticoats and Betsy’s corset. And dear me, isn’t that the silky dressing gown that Mary wore on her wedding night?
There’s a fun and informative exhibit about women’s unmentionables at the Bennington Museum; a G-rated show for women, girls and anyone who is fascinated by fabric, fashion and American history.
“We went through boxes and boxes and boxes of underwear. We found an incredible amount of chemises and petticoats,” says Callie R. Stewart, the museum’s collection manager, who cares for its 60,000 objects, including its famous Grandma Moses paintings and 19th century American pottery.
‘Revealed: A Century of Women’s Underwear’
WHERE: Bennington Museum, 75 Main St. (Route 9), Bennington, Vt.
WHEN: Through Tuesday, May 15. Museum open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Wednesday.
HOW MUCH: $10; $9 for seniors and students over age 18. Children are free.
MORE INFO: 802-447-1571, www.benningtonmuseum.org
Stewart came up with the idea of “Revealed: A Century of Women’s Underwear,” and she is also the curator.
“Fashion changes dramatically because of underwear,” she says.
In “Revealed,” visitors see about 40 lingerie items from the late 1700s to the 1920s, along with portraits and stories about some of the women who once wore these undies, plus clippings and illustrations from great-grandma’s fashion magazines and newspapers.
The exhibit unfolds chronologically from the 1700s, with a forest-green corset that laces in the back. The stiff, flat camisole fits tightly over a short-sleeved, calf-length shift of ivory-colored cotton.
“It was not all comfortable. It held the body erect,” says Stewart.
To make the corset, 100 strips of whale bone, from the baleen or food-filtering bristles of the creature’s mouth, was hand-sewn in vertical panels.
The shift or chemise protected a woman’s dress and could be washed and bleached.
“In the 1700s, they were not bathing regularly, not laundering regularly,” says Stewart. “A good dress you may never wash.”
The corset pushed up the chest and was worn with low-cut gowns, but made it nearly impossible for the wearer to bend from the waist.
In the late 1700s, young ladies got relief, as a looser “Jane Austen look” came into vogue. Women wore a shorter, boneless underbodice that was laced in the back and barely supported the bust.
Easygoing underthings didn’t last long. By the early 1800s, “the contained look comes back,” says Stewart.
And now there’s a metal or wood bar in one’s corset to separate the breasts, an innovation that ends the “uniboob” look. (“The Divorcer” was the brand name for one of these bosom buddies.)
Here we meet Susan Dyer Spencer Monroe of Shaftsbury, Vt., and see the corset she wore, probably before she bore children. Cocoa-brown in color with pink stitching and a scalloped edge, it was hand-sewn by a professional dressmaker or tailor.
Susan, who was born in 1814, came from a wealthy farm family, and the corset was probably part of her trousseau.
As the 1800s marched on, “skirts were becoming larger and larger and larger,” says Stewart. “By the Civil War, women were wearing humongous skirts.”
At first, creating this extremely full look required layers of petticoats.
“You might be wearing up to six,” says Stewart. At home, a woman wore maybe one or two petticoats, but for a formal outing, she might wear six or more.
Then came the hoop skirt, a light wire frame with a fabric waistband.
“It frees women from the huge weight of petticoats,” says Stewart. “And they were not as stiff as they looked.”
Ladies could easily raise the hoop to step into a carriage. Under the hoop, they wore long pantaloons for modesty and warmth.
“You don’t want anyone to see your legs,” says Stewart.
The pantaloons had separate legs, so they didn’t have to be pulled down during a trip to the outhouse.
In the 19th century, women’s foundations became “a visual status symbol,” says Stewart.
“You can’t work in the field all day. You are kind of showing that off. There’s definitely a class element to it.” The woman’s role was changing, too, as she was perceived as “a moral leader, the moral compass of the family,” she says.
By the late 1800s, during Victorian days, lingerie was made by machine, and Bennington was Vermont’s center for cloth and knitting mills.
“Underwear became much more elaborate, a little flirty,” says Stewart.
Women still wore their corsets, although doctors warned against them, claiming they could cause cancer, miscarriages and ugly or mentally impaired children.
A corset could reduce a waist by up to 4 inches, and if tightly laced, under a fancy dress, could subtract up to 7 inches from a lady’s mid-section.
For a while, as skirts decrease in volume, the pouf moves to the back as a bustle. Stewart could only find two bustles that were exhibit-worthy: a black-ruffled number and a small wire cage with a waist strap.
It’s in this section of the exhibit that we see the lacy bridal set, including the silky dressing gown, that Mary Wolford Megibben wore after she got married in 1888.
As the 20th century turned, the Gibson Girl look was the rage, with its statuesque, exaggerated hourglass form and hair piled high atop the head.
“It’s because of the corset she’s wearing. It’s pushing the hips forward and the chest back,” says Stewart.
In the early 1900s, when suffragettes were on the move and females were becoming more athletic, the first brassieres appeared, but they didn’t offer much support.
The “Bien Jolie Brassiere” looks more like a modern camisole than a bra.
Fashions changed dramatically in the 1920s, the flapper era, when skirts went up, hair was bobbed and young women’s silhouettes were slim and boyish.
The free-wheeling flappers didn’t wear corsets. And they gave up pantaloons for panties.
“They may not even be wearing bras,” says Stewart.
“Revealed” concludes with the flappers, but hints at the next underwear change that pushes fashion in a new direction, as sturdy bras and girdles take over in the 20th century.
While women’s undies rule in this exhibit, there is a nod to men’s skivvies.
From the 1800s, we see a man’s billowy, long-sleeve cotton undershirt with long tails that were often tied diaper-like under breeches; a short-sleeve, knee-length cotton union suit worn on summer days; and woolen longjohns that were made in Bennington.
Men’s underwear, which wasn’t decorative and was worn until it fell apart, doesn’t really get passed down through history, Stewart says.
But she unearthed a few pieces and added them to the show anyway.
“Everyone kept asking us: ‘What were the men wearing?’ ” she says.