NEW YORK -- From a 1770 corset to a 2014 bra-and-panty set in lacy stretch silk, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology has put the focus on lingerie and ladies foundation garments in a new exhibition.
In about 70 pieces, "Exposed: A History of Lingerie" touches on the mechanics, marketing and cultural touchstones -- hello Wonderbra! -- that not only shape and adorn but also helped define culture around the globe.
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The exhibition, which spans the 1760s to present day, opened June 3 and runs through Nov. 15. A companion book will be released by Yale University Press this summer.
The corset's rise and fall
The corset's profile was first upped in the late Renaissance and remained popular in many forms through the early 20th century.
"It was a pretty essential element of fashionable dress for about 400 years," said assistant curator Colleen Hill, who organized the exhibit.
The corset, which originated within aristocratic court culture and gradually spread throughout society, was all about a slender waist, she said. By the mid-18th century, the desired silhouette was an inverted cone, lifting the breasts with the help of stays crafted out of silk, whalebone or wood.
Decorative center busks were carved, painted and adorned with text or years. They were key in thrusting a woman's posture upright to make the most of the shape the corset was intended to achieve, Hill said.
By the early 19th century, the corset still included a center busk but lacked all-around stays for a more softly structured fit that still encased the body and kept a woman's posture erect.
"It was important for women to have this correct posture," Hill said. "It was essential for fitting into your clothes, for decorum and for modesty."
At the dawn of the 20th century, some corset makers continued to promote their wares as "healthy style," but the designs remained "extremely restricting," she said. Certain designs made a woman appear rigidly straight in front while resulting in a severely arched back.
By 1920, the corset had essentially become a girdle.
The peignoir and loungewear
One late 19th-century article discovered by Hill said American women wore loungewear with a corset underneath while doing morning household chores or preparing for their day.
The corset under a peignoir "is something French women did not do," she said. "I thought that was very interesting because some of these garments were meant to essentially be a reprieve from these really constricting foundation garments like the corset."
By the early 20th century, Hill said, loungewear served more functions. The tea gown developed from the peignoir or dressing gown and was worn during 5 o'clock tea.
"It was something that a woman could wear within her home but you would greet your guests at home for tea in this garment, so you still wanted something really fashionable, as luxurious as you could afford, but it was something that could be worn without a corset. We don't see tea gowns today."
Seduction and eroticism
The British company Agent Provocateur, founded in 1994 by Joseph Corre, the son of Vivienne Westwood, and his now ex-wife, Serena Rees, represents a turning point in lingerie's modern history, Hill said. They opened their first boutique in 1996.
"They were selling lingerie that was highly eroticized, things that were high end and beautifully made, so they're classy yet they're taking a cue from things like the old Frederick's of Hollywood catalogs that are just really overtly erotic," she said.
The evocative nature combined with high-end craftsmanship offered by Agent Provocateur led to a greater acceptance of eroticized undergarments and lingerie, Hill said. The company now operates boutiques around the world.
Pre-Wonderbra, women looking for some help in the bust department relied on "gay deceivers," an early 20th-century euphemism for falsies that could be placed inside bras, Hill said.
"Even some corsets from the 19th century have these kind of falsies built into them, so the idea of augmenting your natural breast size in some way is very old and probably impossible to trace all the way back," she said.
Enter the Wonderbra, with its plunge, padding and pushup via underwire. According to some reports, the name was first trademarked in the U.S. in 1955 but came out of Canada in 1939 as developed by Moses Nadler, founder of a corset company. It wasn't until the early 1990s that the Wonderbra really took off, Hill said.
Sales were driven by a 1994 ad campaign that featured smiling model Eva Herzigova looking down at her breasts in a Wonderbra with the tagline: "Hello Boys." The popularity of the ad, including billboards, sent sales skyrocketing. At one point demand exceeded supplies, Hill said.
"There's an urban legend that when people saw these billboards on the street they would literally cause traffic accidents," she said.