Whalebone to Steel: The Shape of Fashion

September 18 - December 18, 2015

A corset, half whalebone, half steel

Past exhibitions have focused on lovely gowns and surface details, but Whalebone to Steel: The Shape of Fashion, the latest effort by guest curator Astrida Schaeffer, lifts skirts and unbuttons bodices to reveal the true ‘Victoria’s secrets’ — the corsets, hoops, bustles and more, that shaped and supported the changing silhouettes of women’s clothes from the 18th to the early 20th centuries.

Some of the foundation garments displayed are designed to reshape the body, while some added to the body to change the profile. Early corsets and their precursors, called “stays,” were stiffened with reeds, cords, or whalebone (actually baleen) as a means of supporting the torso and bust. As technology advanced in the mid-19th century steel boning became the norm and the hourglass figure emerged as a result of steel’s shaping qualities.

According to Schaeffer:

Contrary to urban legend, that didn’t mean fainting ladies and rib removal; the exhibition makes the case that much of what we think we know about what it was like to live in a corset is a myth. In fact women lived quite active lives while corseted and could even be fairly athletic.

Where corsetry physically altered the body, hoops and bustles affected women’s shapes by building out artificially from it with cages of steel and other materials. The exhibition showcases a range of these items, as well as contemporary attitudes towards women's’ fashionably ballooning forms.

The core of the items on view comes from the Irma Bowen Textile Collection at UNH, which holds some 700 textile pieces donated to the university by Bowen. These pieces were originally gathered as teaching tools for the home economics dressmaking classes she taught at UNH from the 1920s to the 1940s.

In addition, generous loans from collections at the Brick Store Museum, John Paul Jones House, Museums of Old York, Strawbery Banke Museum, and the Wentworth Lear Historic Houses help fill out the story of how women’s clothes were shaped by their underthings.

The exhibition is sponsored by the University Museum and funded in part by the E.Ruth Buxton Stephenson Memorial Fund.

pink antique corsetgreen linen staysopen view of stays