‘Underwear Undressed’

Volunteering brings a lot of benefits.  Not only do I get the pleasure of getting wonderful experience in my all-time favourite museum – I get the opportunities to listen in on amazing talks by various historians and curators. For those who are unaware (although you all probably are because I talk about it all the time) I volunteer at one of my local museums, York Castle Museum.

Due to an unfortunate staff illness, I responded to an emergency ‘help’ email to assist with an event later that day and became very lucky to get the chance to listen to a wonderful talk from Susanna Cordner, an assistant curator in fashion and textiles from the V&A, London. Her talk, ‘ V&A Undressed: a brief history of underwear’ had been advertised for a few months, which I had my eye on – but being a student on summer break made it pretty impossible to part with £15. However I would like to add that this event was well worth the price! My role was a greeter, before sitting down and listening to the talk.

The topic was a great addition and combination to the Castle’s newest exhibition ‘Shaping the Body’ (If you haven’t been, you really need to) – exploring the innovations and developments of clothing items and body shapes. The exhibition itself spans a timescale of 400 years, having a variety of clothing items in its collection – from regency period dresses, 1960s versions of ‘flapper dresses’ and a dress owned by the most famous Victorian of all time…

Going back to the talk, it took place in the ‘Shaping the Body’ exhibition Hall, being a host for around 50 people.  Susanna is a fantastic orator as well as being very glam!

Unlike most historic underwear talks or research, which is normally very female orientated, Susanna incorporated elements of both genders so I learnt completely new facts and different areas of fashion. For example, corsetry was not exclusively for women – men in fact wore an item which was advertised as having a purpose away from a traditional ‘corset’. One idea is to keep the gentleman’s clothes having straight lines, another is more military centred – protecting the torso and keeping upright in uniforms. A funny fact thrown into this topic was that, although men and womens corsets were made exactly the same they were advertised with completely different names reflecting the feminine and the masculine.

Keeping the focus upon corsets, the talk also explained the sheer variety in the different types of corset. This includes the corset’s predecessor, the stays as well as different types of corset such as the ‘S’ bend and ‘maternity’ corsets. The stay and the S bend provide their intended function in their name – the stay to almost fix the flesh of the upper body in place and the ‘S bend’ explaining the shape it makes (bust out, stomach in, rear out). The latter is more of an idolised figure, used purely for advertisements or models – not practical in any way for day to day life! Regarding the maternity corset, the audience was reassured that this is not as extreme as it sounds. Unlike the stereotypical corset that comes to mind, this corset is made of two front pieces, laced, and a back piece with laced panels up the both sides. As the stomach grew, the side and front lace ties could be tied looser at the same as keeping the fitted shape.

Susanna explained the key differences between the stay and the corset – the former being made of predominately whale bone. In a previous post I explained that a corset’s original purpose was to take the weight off the heavy skirts and dresses worn by women of history. The stay did this, adding stiffness to the torso, allowing a straight posture.

Corsets are less stiff and lacks the detailed structure that stays have. In my personal opinion stays are more informal than corsets, the latter are normally more detailed and embellished, more personal and carry a distant similarity to lingerie. Susanna explained that because stays are made of whale bone they are rooted in the working class in whaling towns, which in part shows reasoning for the plain designs and lack of ‘softness’ the corset is claimed to have.

Accompanying the superb talk was an array of historic pieces from the Castle’s collection including a variety of corsetry in different sizes, lace bralets and some ‘crotchless’ pantaloon/trouser type for women (a great contraption, allowing women to go the toilet without removing the gigantic skirts, underskirts etc…) The most significant piece, for me, was a ‘stay’ dating from, I think, the 1740s-1760s. This piece was too delicate to handle but just to see the parts of this corset alongside a stay ‘busk’ was so interesting.  In regards to a ‘busk’ this is a triangular wooden carved piece – inserted into the front of one’s stay with an edge flattening the stomach in a vertical way. This made it extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, for the wearer to move or bend forward. The busk on display was engraved with the owner’s name and age – the girl was 17 at the time.

I would have loved to get lots of pictures, however I am always cautious of photographing exposed historical items. I’ve included photos on this post of the items within the ‘Shaping the Body’ exhibition, shielded behind glass. Similarly, Susanna included some photographs of the V&A collection in her talk, making me really tempted to book a weekend trip to London…


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