One of my favorite galleries in New York City is the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Drawing from the museum's own extensive collections, their exhibitions always offer thoughtful and fascinating perspectives on fashion, and their latest show, Exposed: A History of Lingerie is no exception. From stays to bustles, 20s camiknicker to 80s thongs - the secrets of Western women's most private attire and underwear drawer are all on display.
This small (it measures only 33"-22"-32") red silk corset, created by the Warner Brothers Company of Bridgeport, CT, in 1889, intrigued me because it was advertised by its creators as a "healthy" style. Here's an excerpt from the exhibition label:
"Although this vibrant corset is especially alluring, it was likely marketed as a 'healthy' style. Its curvaceous silhouette was achieved using coraline, a plant-basted material marketed as a more flexible alternative to whalebone or steel."
Intrigued, I did a bit of research. A Warner Brothers company sales piece does in fact tout the healthy benefits of their corsets, especially in comparison to that great villain, whalebone:
"Coraline...is more pliable and yielding to the movements of the body. The object of stiffness in a corset is not to convert the form into a rigid statue, to paralyze the action of the heart and lungs, to destroy a woman's comfort and to ruin her health...All the benefit a corset can give is to afford just that degree of rigidity to the waist and chest which shall give graceful curves to the contour of the body, and enable the dress to fit smoothly...[with] the ease, comfort, elasticity and grace of action which come from wearing a Coraline Corset...[in place of] her former instrument of torture."
Hmm, that sounds suspiciously similar to the modern sales pitch for Spanx.
But wait - there's more! A lady could purchase this corset comforted by the fact that De Ver Warner & Lucien C. Warner were "regularly educated physicians" who had seen first-hand the "effects of badly fitting corsets upon the health of women." The brothers had made it their personal mission "to extend the blessing of properly fitting corsets to the entire community," even "giving up a large and lucrative practice" to do so.
The altruism of these good doctors knew no bounds. Not only was their factory a model building in which to work, with "all the rooms heated by steam, and abundantly supplied with light and air," but the majority of their workers were women. And such women, too:
"They are mostly New England girls, and very many of them know how to teach school as well as to stitch a corset. We find it is only by employing intelligent help that we can secure the superior quality of work which we demand."
Really, how could you not buy one of their corsets?
If you'd like to read more, the entire sales piece is online here. If you'd like to read how the Warner Brothers Corset Company eventually evolved into the giant textile and clothing corporation known as The Warnaco Group, here's a link to a short history of the company.
Better still, visit the Museum at FIT yourself. Exposed runs through November 15, 2014. If you can't get to New York, highlights of the exhibition are online here. Even better will be a lavish companion book to the exhibition by Colleen Hill, with an introduction by Valerie Steele, to be published by Yale University Press in September. See here for more information about the book, which is already on my wish-list.
Above: Warner Bros. Corset, red silk satin & coraline, 1889. Photograph courtesy of Museum at FIT.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.