FIT’s Fun, Flirty Historic Lingerie Show

Unusual combination: Sleeves on a silk corset with whalebone stays, circa 1770

Unusual combination: Sleeves on a silk corset with whalebone stays, circa 1770

After sifting through hundreds of corsets, petticoats, slips, nightgowns, knickers, baby dolls, and stockings, the FIT curators have selected 70 key pieces from the archives that lay out trajectory of ladies’ underthings in Exposed: A History of Lingerie, on display through November 15.

The upstairs gallery – usually reserved for gems from FIT’s spectacular collection – takes you on a journey through four centuries of shape-shifting garments that really contributed to the silhouettes of yesteryear. Remarkably, many look totally “today”. The first room pairs underwear and outerwear to make the point.

Hard corsetry items follow next – bustles and corsets from the 17th and 18th centuries, including two that are reckoned to be some of the first examples (at least, in FIT’s collection) of “underwear as outerwear” – a delicate, lavish petticoat and a spectacular 17th century whalebone corset. The telltale signs: If you weren’t showing them off, why would you own a corset with sleeves or a petticoat with such fine hand-embroidered detail?

1969 Pucci Lycra-Spandex body stocking for Formfit Rogers

1969 Lycra-Spandex body stocking by Pucci for Formfit Rogers

Predating flappers by more than a century, you can gaze upon the unstructured “natural corset” that 1815 fashionistas wore under their white Grecian-style muslins. One hundred years later, underwear history repeats itself with the 1920s silk underwear designed to be worn under the “corsetless” styles of the Roaring Twenties.

Then it’s on to many more 1920s intimate-fashion innovations – hostess gowns, boudoir mules, French cami-knickers sold at Saks, and the ultimate in period bohemian luxury, the Fortuny tea gown.

Retail history is noted in the 1930s section. Alongside the languid lounging pajamas, negligees, and lingerie-inspired evening gowns, you’ll learn that in 1935, Bergdorf Goodman became the first Manhattan retailer to open up a specialty store within the store specifically devoted to lingerie.

1949 overwire and a 1951 nylon net and silk taffeta petticoat from Dior.

1949 overwire and a 1951 nylon net and silk taffeta petticoat from Dior.

In the 1940s section of the show, special honor is given to Dior’s structured nylon petticoats that gave the New Look’s iconic silhouette its shape, the role of the overwire bra, and the sensation caused by the 1940 debut of nylon stockings – a fashion must-have that quickly became impossible to acquire during WWII.

Historic intimate gems keep appearing through the exhibition, culminating in more recent innovations, such as the Gaultier’s girdle dress, Rudi Gernriech’s no-bra bra, and the revolutionary Wonderbra, as well as up-to-the-minute styles by La Perla, Agent Provocateur, and Victoria’s Secret.

Want to know more? FIT again gives us a stellar on-line exhibition site organized by decade. On each decade, click on “more images” to see nearly the entire exhibition. FIT’s exhibition blog contains the backstory on a dozen or more pieces from the collection.

Even if you’re able to get to Seventh Avenue this week, why not take a walk-through with Coleen Hill, the curator who created this beautiful, thoughtful, and delight-packed show?

3 thoughts on “FIT’s Fun, Flirty Historic Lingerie Show

    • And I forgot to say that I thought of you and the initial episode of “Manhattan” when I got to the part about the nylon stockings — how rare they all were just after they created such sensation. More pent-up demand (in that period) than the iPhone 6!!

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