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“Exposed: A History of Lingerie” exhibition at the Museum of FIT

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Did you know that there are several museums dedicated exclusively to fashion?

One of the things I like to do when I’m traveling is to set aside time to visit a museum, especially if there is one dedicated to a subject I am particularly interested in.

The Museum at the State University of New York Fashion Institute of Technology (Museum at FIT or MFIT) is one of these museums dedicated exclusively to fashion and its expressions. And since this month’s theme in Sirena Magazine is underwear, a good way to explore it is from the exhibition “Exposed: A History of Lingerie”. This exhibition was curated by Colleen Hill and ran from June to November 2014 in the Fashion and Textile History Gallery at MFIT.

Corset, c. 1815

About 70 underwear garments dating from the mid-18th century to the 21st century were used in this exhibition. These were selected from the museum’s permanent collection which has approximately 500 underwear garments.

Although it is no longer on display at MFIT, we can still appreciate and learn from it thanks to the magic of technology. I invite you to join me in exploring it from the exhibition’s virtual page on the MFIT portal.

When accessing the virtual exhibition page, there are several subpages in which different aspects of the exhibition are presented, such as a short video and photos, information on the book associated with the exhibition, national and international press reviews, social media, blog, and credits.

In the video, Colleen Hill explains what criteria she used to select the garments, and what she wanted to achieve through the exhibition while showing us some of the garments. In the virtual tour we are presented with photographs of 8 of the 70 outfits that were part of the exhibition.

For the exhibition, Colleen Hill chose both structured or hard lingerie and unstructured or soft lingerie garments based on their historical significance, beauty, functionality, versatility and sensuality. Among the selection there are lingerie whose purpose was to be worn under outer clothing such as corsets, voluminous petticoats with a rigid structure (bustles and crinolettes), or without a rigid structure (quilted petticoat), slips, girdles, knickers, panties, bras with structure such as the “overwire” bra,  bras without structure such as the “no-bra” bra, and lingerie that combine top and bottom in one piece (corselette, camiknickers, teddy). She also included lingerie to be worn inside the house such as tea gowns, nightgowns, and sleepwear. 

Fig. 1:  Corset with sleeves,” 1770, USA. Made of blue silk, white silk ribbon and whale bone.

Fig. 2: Quilted petticoat,” 1765, England. Made of silk satin.

The exhibition also introduces us to some multifunctional garments such as a corset with detachable sleeves that could be worn as in house wear in addition to its regular use under a dress (Fig. 1).

There is also an elaborately embellished quilted petticoat that allowed it to be worn as the skirt of an open-front dress in addition to its regular use under a conventional dress (Fig. 2).

This exhibition presents the evolution of fashion over time, taking as its starting point the design, structure, and materials of construction of underwear. However, it does not begin chronologically, but rather presents garments that were used as underwear in the past paired with clothes from the present that share design elements. The intention was to convey, from the beginning, the message that the underwear of the past has been a source of inspiration for the clothes of the present. The exhibition then continues, presenting the pieces chronologically starting with a stiff silk corset dating from 1770 (Figure 1) combined with a quilted petticoat dating from 1765 (Figure 2), and moves on by century and decades of the past and present century presenting the reduction in volume, size and/or rigidity of lingerie garments (Figure 3), ending with an intense sapphire blue lace bra and panty set in a combination of fabrics (Figure 4) that enhances the woman’s body without restricting her movement, freedom and sensuality.

Fig. 3: Bra and knickers ensemble, 1928, USA. Made of silk satin and lace.

Fig. 4: La Perla bra and panty set, 2014, Italy. Made of silk satin, embroidered tulle and stretch silk satin.

Through the exhibition we can appreciate the technological progress and the transition of textiles from natural fibers to synthetic fibers and the experimentation with different textures, colors, prints and combination of materials. We see how the design, functionality, comfort, versatility and sensuality of underwear changed in line with social changes and the struggles for women's rights.

The 18th century corsets were intended to provide women with the inverted cone silhouette valued at the time. Its construction was rigid and it was essential for a dress and the woman who wore it to look their best. The way it restricted movement. maintained posture, and the difficulty of wearing and removing it, was an important part of the concept of being a woman at that time. Nowadays, it is common to see outfits whose design is based on a corset. However, they are designed to be seen and their purpose is esthetical. Therefore, they are not as structured and limiting as those of the 18th century. This is an example of how the underwear of the past has inspired modern fashion design. It also shows how garments that in the past were not intended to be seen are nowadays designed to be exposed.

Although the MFIT virtual exhibition only features a small sample of “Exposed: A History of Lingerie”, if you are interested in admiring all the lingerie included, you can refer to the exhibition book which has 178 pages and 80 color illustrations. This book, written by Colleen Hill, was published in September 2014 by Yale University Press in collaboration with FIT.

You can also access this link which allows you to explore other objects from the MFIT lingerie collection.

I  hope you have enjoyed this virtual visit to “Exposed: A History of Lingerie”. I encourage you to visit other online exhibitions  and not to miss the opportunity to visit the MFIT when you visit New York. Until next time!


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