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Museum at FIT explores women's lingerie

Underwear. Nightgown. Evening dress. Morning robe. Bustier. Corset. Bra. Camiknickers. Lingerie. The name for underthings has changed over the centuries, but lingerie has always given women a certain confidence. In many ways, what a woman wears beneath her clothes is what defines her. The Museum at FIT is currently hosting an exhibition on exactly this topic and how the fashions have changed from the 18th century to the present. Titled Exposed: A History of Lingerie, the exhibition will be on view all summer and fall, until November 15 in the museum’s first floor gallery.

Museum at FIT: Exposed-slide0
Jennifer Eberhart
Museum at FIT: Exposed
Museum at FIT: Exposed
Jennifer Eberhart

Today we have a wide array of intimate apparel to choose from – from lacy padded bras and simple cotton undies to the more exotic leather bustiers, satin teddies, and sheer babydolls. But what did women wear two hundred years ago? A century ago? Fashion and history lovers alike will enjoy the wide selection of apparel on display in the FIT gallery, where a polka-dotted corset and bustle from 1880 is displayed across from an Agent Provocateur leopard print ensemble.

Notes the MFIT website, “As the final barrier to the nude body, lingerie is simultaneously modest and erotic—and it remains a subject of enduring fascination. The design of lingerie enhances its allure: it strategically reveals, conceals, and highlights the wearer’s form.”

As you enter the museum, you are introduced to the free show with a display of five brand new creations by FIT students: one lingerie set includes a sheer black floor-grazing skirt; another a bra, underwear and corset combo that has a decided butterfly theme with navy and white beaded fringe; a third piece combines a lacy nude bra and panty with gray lining and a skin-tight zippered skirt that looks like it would be difficult to walk in. Are these modern creations the lingerie of the future?

Inside the gallery, the exhibition itself, organized by Colleen Hill, begins with a sky blue whalebone and silk corset from 1770. Women, especially in the 16th-19th centuries, wore corsets to give their bodies a distinct hourglass shape, cinching in the waist to accentuate the breasts and hips.

Another fun (and slightly outrageous-looking) early lingerie style on view is the bustle. The one on view in the gallery here is French, from 1880, and decorated with polka dots on cotton. The bustle itself is made of steel and attached to the back of the dress in order to accentuate the woman’s posterior.

A little farther down the gallery and about forty years later, we leave behind rigid underthings completely and are blown away by the 1925 Delphos gown. Made in Italy by fashion designer Fortuny and created from pleated red silk with glass beads, this loose-fitting tea gown gives the wearer the look of a Greek goddess in sculpture.

By the 1930s, the bra and underwear that we know today had become common wear – although covering decidedly more skin then than now. Two distinct cups in the bra had become customary and drawers (the early version of panties) became more fitted to fit with the “slim yet shapely” fashion of the time. A silk charmeuse bra and rayon knit briefs on view provide good examples.

In the following decades we learn of how the materials used in lingerie influenced that of sleepwear. The brightly-colored and frilly Vanity Fair “baby doll” nightgown of pink and coral nylon tricot from 1960 is hard to miss in the gallery, and the Valerie Porr printed silk lounging pajamas is equally alluring – although the print itself (of a nude woman in front of her dressing mirror) is likely not something we’d wear today.

The sexy underthings that shops like Victoria’s Secret and La Perla like to advertise today became in vogue about two decades ago. On view are a black Lady Marlene jersey, lace and satin bustier from 1988 (hints of the 19th-century corset are certainly found here) and a 2008 light pink Cadolle Kyo silk nightgown with bow, which looks like its baby doll predecessor from Vanity Fair. A blue embroidered tulle, silk and satin La Perla bra and panties set from 2014 ends the show and we can see how wide-ranging the styles of underwear were over the centuries, but just how much those early styles influenced later ones.

Exposed is a well-organized exhibition, with labels that clearly state the origin and use of each item on display. Every item is culled from the collection of the Museum at FIT. In addition to the clothing items on display, you’ll also find stockings, a pair of fuzzy heeled slippers, a Jean Paul Gaultier backpack, and advertisements for undergarments. A video at the opening of the show gives viewers an idea of just how widespread the fashion of lingerie is, and the accompanying catalog is impressive in its imagery and definitions. Reading almost like a dictionary of lingerie, the catalog is a great coffee-table book for any admirer of fashion. A dedicated website is also a great way to explore the show, especially if you can't make it in person. By the end of the show, you’ll know more about lingerie than you ever thought you could!

The Museum at FIT is located on Seventh Avenue at 27th Street and is open Tuesday through Saturday, even open late most nights. The exhibition is free. Stop by this summer!