New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) museum has snapped the bra strap of decorum, exposing a side of fashion usually kept private. Fittingly entitled “Exposed: A history of Lingerie,” a new exhibition draws back the proverbial curtain of discretion on intimate apparel, showcasing unmentionables from the 18th century to the present.
Seventy “hard” and “soft” lingerie pieces selected from the museum’s permanent collection beautifully illustrate the sociological progression of the intimate and the provocative. The evolution of these undergarments substantiates how flighty, and at times, fickle notions of femininity can be. Although previous conventions of rectitude have fuelled the constructs of lingerie, there is no doubting the power of its enduring allure. As French lingerie designer Chantal Thomas once observed: “the essence and attitude of lingerie is all in suggestion.”
Running in chronological order, the exhibit commences with pieces from the eighteenth century. “Stays,” the ancestor of the corset, marked the early beginnings of “hard” lingerie. Stays were said to straighten the backs of women and enhance their bosom, by pushing their breasts upwards in a low-cut, square neckline. Girls as young as nine years old started wearing Stays; it was thought that the whale-boned stays maintained a woman’s posture and figure.
Jumping ahead on the lingerie timeline brings us to the dawn of the twentieth century, an era that was defined by dramatically new conventions. The debauchery incited by the backlash against the Prohibition called for a complete change-up in women’s wardrobes. Streamlined silhouettes and shorter hemlines required more discreet underthings to be worn beneath the slender fit of flapper dresses. From this point, lingerie evolved towards functionality as women’s lives demanded comfort and the ability to move freely. This style paradigm shift catalyzed the creation of the bra, originally a mere bandeau of silk chiffon and lace.
If lingerie from the twenties was about independence, then lingerie from the sixties was about freedom and insouciance. They are illustrated by Rudi Gernreich’s famous “no-bra bra” from the sixties (a padding-free garment that adapted to the natural form of the breasts) and Valerie Porr’s seventies green silk lounging pajamas, featuring the playful print of a woman smiling at herself in a mirror.
The exhibition “Exposed: A history of Lingerie” not only chronicles the historical necessity of these undergarments, but also curates them to show the relevance of trends. The section addressing ‘underwear as outerwear’ for example, chronicles how the look made its debut appearance well before Gaultier/Madonna circa the 1980s.
The design of a 1950’s nylon nightgown designed by the famous label, Iris, is echoed by an evening gown made by Claire McCardell (also from the 1950s). Both share an identical fabric and a similar shape. – In fact McCardell was one of the first designers to use nylon in eveningwear – prior to this, the material was used strictly in retire wear.
The exhibition also features items from the French luxury lingerie brand, Cadolle, alongside designs from Juel Park, a couture lingerie designer responsible for the underthings of clients such as Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
“Exposed: A history of Lingerie” closes with exclusive, contemporary pieces, from Gwen Stefani’s LAMB x Hanky Panky collaboration (featuring a long-line bra and a camouflage print on Hanky Panky’s signature, fluorescent stretch lace material), to Columbian designer, Suki Cohen’s black bodysuit and bolero jacket made from neoprene and stretch nylon.
Organized by Associate Curator, Colleen Hill, “Exposed: A history of Lingerie” will run until November 14th, 2014 and can be visited in the Fashion and textile history Gallery at the Museum at FIT.