Museum gets beneath history of women’s undergarments

Hoop skirts are on display at the McKinley Museum’s history of women’s undergarments exhibit.Tribune News Service
Hoop skirts are on display at the McKinley Museum’s history of women’s undergarments exhibit.
Tribune News Service
By Mary Beth Breckenridge
Tribune News Service

CANTON, Ohio – The McKinley Museum’s underwear is showing.

“Mentioning the Unmentionables” is an exhibit that explores the evolution of women’s undergarments from 1810 to the turn of the 21st century.

The exhibit is sponsored by Ambiance, a chain of stores that specializes in intimate apparel.

It’s an unlikely partnership, Curator Kim Kenney said. But this isn’t a typical museum exhibition.

Visitors will see all manner of devices that have concealed, supported and sucked in parts of the female anatomy over the last couple of centuries. They’ll see how women have endured discomfort and even disfigurement in pursuit of an ever-shifting notion of the ideal feminine shape.

The exhibit came about simply because the museum had undergarments in its collection but never had a reason to put them on display, Kenney said. “I thought, let’s get it all out,” she said.

Kenney said about half the items in the exhibit belong to the McKinley Museum. The rest were donated or loaned, some from other museums.

“People save bras more than they save underwear. That I learned,” she said.

The exhibit contains some curious devices, including a “figure improver” from 1810, a pad stuffed with horsehair that’s sort of the 19th-century equivalent of falsies. There are down-filled sleeve puffs, used in the 1830s and again in the 1890s to make sleeves stand out so the upper arms would look bigger and the waist smaller.

You can even see the white linen underwear of first lady Ida Saxton McKinley, including bloomers that were divided and open all the way to the waist to allow for easier access.

Fleeher said in earlier times women didn’t wear any underwear.

“Basically,” she said, “they thought you should air out.” In fact, women’s underpants came about only when someone identified a need to discourage bugs from flying up women’s skirts, she explained.

Now aren’t you glad you live in the 21st century?

The exhibit shows how underwear evolved along with women’s rights. It traces how corsets evolved into girdles and eventually Spanx, and follows the evolution of the bra, including such oddities as a circa-1915 garment that hooked to the drawers and a 1920s bandeau bra that flattened the chest and gave women the boyish figure that was stylish at the time.

Undergarments are displayed alongside clothing from the time, so viewers can see how one supported the other.

The exhibit also includes night wear and bathing suits, from woolens to bikinis.