Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A 19thc Maternity Robe & Corset On Display at the Museum at FIT

Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Susan reporting,

As I've written here before, one of my favorite small museums in NYC is the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). Their fashion exhibitions are drawn from their own extensive collection, and always offer a thoughtful take on the history - past and present - of clothing.

Their current exhibition is The Body: Fashion and Physique, and once again the curators challenge visitors to consider conventions and assumptions related to fashion. This time, it's how fashion distorts, contains, or reveals the human body. Examples include the exaggerated silhouette of an 1880s bustle, the balloon-shaped sleeves and full skirts to make the waist smaller by comparison in an 1830s dress, the sculptural 1950s ballgowns of Charles James, the babydoll shifts worn by a waifish Twiggy in the 1960s, or the enormous shoulder pads of the 1980s that mimicked the ideal gym-body of the time (and yes, a recording of a perky Olivia Newton commanded us to "get physical...physical!" in that gallery.) In many cases, the garment was shown side by side with the undergarments - whether stays, corsets, or girdles - required to achieve the "proper" shape.

Some of the more interesting garments addressed adjusting fashion to conform to the wearer's bodies rather than the other way around. For women in wheelchairs, designers are creating clothes that are tailored to a sitting figure, as well as shirts and jackets with special Velcro closures along the seams to make dressing easier.

But most striking to me were these two garments, above, both 19th century maternity wear. The brightly colored robe on the left, c1860, is loose-fitting, cheerful, and comfortable, and there are plenty of modern mothers-to-be who'd wear this now. Yet as the placard noted, the robe was for a 19thc woman's "confinement": "Aptly named, confinement was a 19th-century custom dictating that expectant mothers should remain inside their homes when they could no longer conceal their pregnant bellies, which were inappropriate for public display."

There's nothing cheerful about the second garment, which is almost a visual representation of "confinement." It's a maternity corset, c1900. From the placard: "Rather than having one line of lacing up the back, [this corset] has five lines, making it adjustable at the sides. Maternity corsets were intended to help women camouflage their changing bodies, but they were also considered necessary to give support to the wearer's back and belly."

Such corsets were targeted by 19thc dress reformers, who accused the undergarments of causing miscarriages as well as undersized and deformed babies. But as fashion historian Valerie Steele (who is also the director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT) points out in her book The Corset: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 2001), it's often difficult to separate attacks on corsets from attacks on the mother who wore them. Any imperfect child was the fault of the mother. If she'd worn a corset while pregnant, she was faulted for her vanity and selfishness, and her unwomanly lack of maternal concern - charges that were especially potent in the era of the Suffragists.

"Attacks on the corset were often linked to ideological campaigns in favor of motherhood, reflecting fears that if women broke away from their domestic sphere, the entire social order would be threatened. The German literature on dress reform is especially notable for its antifeminist bias....In France, an extremely low birthrate led to widespread fears about depopulation, but motherhood was also extolled in Britain and America."

Yet as the museum's placard noted, there were also benefits to such corsets. For 19thc women who had endured closely-spaced, multiple pregnancies and suffered from complications like a prolapsed uterus, adjustable maternity corsets like this one could actually have done more good than harm, offering support for both the abdomen and the back. Nor have maternity corsets vanished in the 21st century, either: while boning and lacing have been replaced by Spandex, modern maternity shapewear offers many of the same advantages as the old-fashioned corsets - and receives many of the same criticisms, too. Never easy answers where fashion is concerned....

The Body: Fashion and Physique continues at the Museum at FIT through May 5, 2018.

Maternity robe, 1860s, printed wool, USA.
Maternity corset, Ferris Bros., c1900, USA.
Both collection of the Museum at FIT. Photograph ©2018 Susan Holloway Scott.


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