September 18 - December 18, 2015
See the Irma G. Bowen Historic Clothing Collection in our Digital Collections.
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.