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What corsets, petticoats revealed

Exhibit traces social history through 19th century undergarments



Contributing writer

Can a corset tell a story? Perhaps.

Callie Stewart, the collections manager at the Bennington Museum, knows that corsets, stays, and petticoats signified a lot more than the mere wearing of undergarments for women living in New England in the 19th century.

Often, what a woman wore underneath her dress revealed a woman’s occupation as well as her social standing.

The connection is explored in a new exhibit, “Revealed: A Century of Women’s Underwear,” that opened March 17 at the museum.

“We’ve done shows on women’s fashion before,” Stewart said. “What brought 'Revealed' about was how surprised we were at the amount of underwear in our collection. We were doing inventory one day and realized how many people gave their grandmother’s underwear to our collection. We thought it would be a different kind of show to do.”

Stewart said the exhibit includes never-before-exhibited portions of the museum collection, including homemade petticoats and chemises, corsets and crinolines, and commercially manufactured knit union suits and undershirts from Bennington’s underwear mills.

The exhibit will detail how the advent of the Industrial Revolution allowed for Bennington’s growing middle class to have disposable income for the first time.

The proper and strategic wearing of certain undergarments allowed women of a certain class to make a statement about fashion as well as one about socioeconomic superiority.

“Victorian women were guardians of the home and the moral compass of their families,” Stewart said. “Restrictive clothing made physical exertion almost impossible, which asserted a woman’s status as a symbolic and decorative figure. Corsets and hoop skirts might not be comfortable, but that was secondary to the social stature they signified. Wearing one showed that you were from a certain class and was a mark that you had leisure time."

Stewart said consensus views about the ideal shape of the female body changed dramatically between 1800 and 1900.

“The Empire style of the early 1800s transitioned to the wide-bottomed, Civil War-era figure to the wasp waists of the early 1900s,” she said. “Undergarments made these changes in fashion possible. Corsets cinched in the waist, which was further accentuated by a large skirt held out by multiple petticoats. Corsets and stays could either accentuate or minimize breasts, and the fashion demand for that depended on the decade.”

Handmade to mass-produced

The exhibit allows visitors a first-hand look into a long-gone era of undergarments and how they helped to create anatomical illusions such as tiny waists, voluptuous hips, and a full bustline.

“The exhibit shows just how detailed and complicated some undergarments for women were back then,” Stewart said.

But “Revealed” also addresses the economic changes in the Bennington region at the time, as well as how undergarments were a matter of practicality for women, no matter what their social class.

“From a practical standpoint, laundry was done no more than once a week back then, and some women would probably wear the same dress for the whole week, with one good dress for Sunday,” Stewart said. “A chemise or shift protected clothing from body odor and sweat. Underwear was usually made of plain white cotton or linen, which could be bleached to remove stains. Unlike the dress, the chemise was changed every day, giving some semblance of freshness to the clothing.”

When clothing manufacturing shifted from the home to the factory in the 19th century, she added, it had a dramatic impact on the wearing of undergarments.

“In 1800, shifts and stays were either made at home or by specialized artisans in the community,” Stewart said. “By 1900, corsets and union suits were manufactured in mills.”

Underwear companies in Bennington included H.E. Bradford, EZ Mills, Cooper Manufacturing Company, George Rockwood & Co. and others. Unlike other New England mill towns that made woven cloth, many of Bennington’s mills specialized in knit underwear. Fueling the trend was Charles Cooper’s machine works on East Main Street, which manufactured the knitting machines and needles used in the town’s factories.

“Factories produce things that make clothing more affordable,” Stewart said. “Not everyone could afford the handmade corsets, and in the early 1800s women of a lower class couldn’t afford them. After the industrial revolution, more women were wearing corsets, and it blurred the lines of class distinctions.

“The rise in the middle class meant more women were aspiring to live an upper-class lifestyle and would wear corsets in public -- even if, at home, they were doing hard work. Wearing a corset was a way they could present … to the public an image that they might not be living up to at home. It was a way of trying to convince society they reached a certain level of gentility."

“Revealed: A Century of Women’s Underwear” remains on view through May 15 at the Bennington Museum, at 75 Main St. in Bennington. For more information, go to www.benningtonmuseum.org or call (802) 447-1571.





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