The mystique of lingerie and how it strategically conceals and reveals the female form is the centerpiece of “Exposed: A History of Lingerie” at the Museum at FIT.
Curated by Colleen Hill, who serves as MFIT’s associate curator of accessories and exhibition organizer, the exhibit traces intimate apparel from the 18th century to present day and runs through Nov. 15.
Featuring more than 70 beautifully crafted undergarments, sleepwear, loungewear and robes from the museum’s permanent collection, each piece illustrates key shifts in fashion, such as changes in silhouettes and how the ideals of propriety and modesty have changed in the past 250 years. Also important is the evolution of fabrics and the advancement of technology in intimate apparel design, which ranges from cotton, wool, lace and silk to rayon, polyester, nylon and Lycra spandex.
“Many of these pieces have never been shown,” said Hill as she described a key piece — a sky-blue silk sleeve English corset, circa 1770.
Many lingerie and corsetry pieces are flanked by dresses and gowns of the period, showing the fashion link between intimates and apparel. As example, a Fifties nylon nightgown by Iris, an upscale sleepwear label, is shown alongside a Fifties evening gown by Claire McCardell in a similar floral-printed sheer fabric and silhouette.
A 2007 evening gown by Peter Soronen with a corset bodice is flanked by two 19th-century corsets, one of bright-red silk, the other of peacock-blue silk.
The corsets are so petite they appear to have been designed for a child.
“These were about 00 sizes,” said Hill, noting that a number of corsets during that period were constrictive and unforgiving.
She pointed to a whalebone busk from the mid-19th century — an accessory that was inserted at the center-front of a corset and served to straighten a wearer’s torso. The busks were personalized through carving and painting, represented social status and were given as gifts.
“They certainly prevented one from slouching,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hill examined the varying silhouette changes, which became softer, looser and more forgiving as the 19th century approached, such as an embroidered peignoir with tassels and Chinese-inspired frog closures and Mandarin collar from the 1870s. The development of chemical dyes contributed to the popularity of colorful long petticoats which were worn over simple white petticoats, while looser-fitting 20th-century tea gowns could be worn with or without a corset at home, explained Hill
A proto-brassiere or “bust supporter” from 1905 shows ingenuity of design, but not necessarily the comfort factor, with wide straps that can be adjusted like a belt with notches.
The exhibition runs through the Flapper Girl looks and soft bandeaus of the Twenties, the elegant bias-cut styles of the Thirties and the popularity of rayon in the Forties, when nylon use was relegated to the war effort for things like parachutes, not stockings.
“Rayon robes in the Forties became very important for women to wear in case there was an air raid and they had to run outside,” explained Hill.
A key item from the Fifties is guaranteed to generate curiosity: “Gay Deceivers” by Warner’s — cotton-filled falsies of rayon satin that were stuffed into bra cups to create a larger bosom. A focus of the Sixties and Seventies is a baby doll by Vanity Fair, a printed body stocking by Emilio Pucci for Formfit Rogers and an animal-print bra and panty by Rudi Gernreich for Exquisite Form. Over-the-top glamour of the Eighties is captured in a metallic-thread gown by Fernando Sanchez that served as both loungewear and eveningwear. Also on hand is an original Wonderbra from 1994, when the fixation with push-up bras and busty necklines took off.
The exhibition concludes with examples of high-end contemporary lingerie by such designer brands as Jean Yu, Chantal Thomass, La Perla and Agent Provocateur.
The takeaway is a revealing mix of past and present and how lingerie continues to redefine the relationship between dress and the body.