Reader's travel: Museum display that gets to the bottom of it all

Reader's travel: Museum display that gets to the bottom of it all

By VIVIENNE MACKIE/For The News-Gazette

This is not about a crypt, an archaeological site or catacombs under a city. No, this is about underwear. Corset. Chemise. Drawers. Petticoat. Crinoline. Girdle. Bra. Pantaloons. Thong.

This is some of the language of women's underwear, the subject of this most unusual exhibit, which seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by all the visitors: We heard lots of laughter, gasps, chatter and discussion.

At the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, a special exhibit on women's undergarments from the last (approximately) 250 years aims to tell the story of how underwear changed and evolved and how that was intertwined with the history of women's roles in society. The emphasis is on American women, with some special mention of events, people and places in St. Louis that fit into this theme.

The exhibit, on display through Jan. 27, is called "Underneath It All." But the subtitle is "From Victorian to Victoria's Secret," which is a clever way of bracketing the timeline, especially seeing as Victoria's Secret is today an amazingly popular brand of women's products.

There are undergarments of all types on display and some of the outer garments that go over them, all with a very detailed description. Many information boards tell a fascinating story of women, their role and image in society and how what they wore both reflected and influenced this.

As one board says, "Fashion is always evolving, but how did we get from the corset to the bra, or from drawers to thongs? Technology, advertising, societal pressures, economics, beliefs about modesty and even politics have all played a role. Add the shifting and often-disputed ideas about femininity and women's roles and change is inevitable."

The exhibit has an interesting way of trying to explain these changes, by discussing a series of revolutions and how each of them had an effect on fashions, clothing and women's roles in society.

They start with the French Revolution and the extravagant clothing of the upper classes, which had to change as the lower classes demanded equality. Then came the Industrial Revolution with mass production of fabrics, leading to cheaper clothing and improved printing techniques, allowing publication of more women's magazines and the accompanying advertising.

Another important step was the Health Revolution. As women's clothing became more restrictive again in the mid-1800s, both men (especially doctors) and women pushed for women's dress reform because fashions were deforming the figure and restricting movement.

Next came the Technological Revolution, with new types of fabrics in the textile, clothing and underwear industry, such as nylon, elastic, rayon, acetate, silk and cotton.

Last addressed is the Information Revolution. In the past 30 years, more information from more sources is spread quicker than ever before.

In the past, there were just a few fashion magazines extolling the perfect womanly shape, but now there are thousands of websites, print magazines and TV shows. Americans (and of course people in other countries) are bombarded with promotions for products that will make us "ageless," "shaped" and "flawless." In the 1980s, plastic surgery grew more popular as a way to achieve an ideal figure. Undergarments have become more about hiding supposed imperfections than creating a stylish silhouette.

The 1980s also saw the birth of the supermodel (super thin) and an explosion of diet and exercise plans "guaranteed" to give any woman that idealized beauty.

Today many women and girls say they feel more pressured than ever to attain that certain look. In response, companies and organizations have created their own campaigns to promote positive attitudes toward women's and girls' bodies, whatever the size or shape, celebrating individual differences and multicultural perceptions about what it means to be female.

As we wandered and looked at the dreadful corsets and the huge metal hoops and crinolines, we tried to imagine what it must have felt like to wear them. No wonder women were so limited physically at that time, so often fainted, became ill so easily. The long outer dresses were often very pretty, but hiding these contraptions underneath.

Lots of lively snippets of conversation I overheard focused on the speakers' memories of certain garments or events in time, memories evoked by seeing certain items. And every woman will have memories, as this is a universal topic and we've all been touched by it: what we've worn and why, what we hoped to achieve by wearing something and what influenced us to do so.

It's also obvious that some things don't change much: There's a common theme running through this timeline here, just the details are different. Women are still expected to look a certain way, and many will go to great lengths to achieve that; the "ideal" woman's figure is still elusive for most women, but that doesn't stop them from trying.

However, some very significant changes did occur over time, all for the good, I think. The use of underpants with two legs and the development of the bra, for example.

Also very good is the change in attitude about the health risks of tight corseting and the more relaxed attitude about children — being allowed to be children for longer and not just considered as little adults — and clothes for little girls, in particular, which can be pretty or casual but not restrictive.

A fun exhibit, well worth a visit if you are in St Louis sometime. Entrance to the museum is free, although some special exhibits have an admission fee. This exhibit is free. For more information about the museum, its hours, etc., visit

Vivienne Mackie is an Urbana resident who loves to travel, around the corner or around the world, and to write about the experiences. See her blog at

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