What came first, the desire to show off a tiny waist or the corset that squeezed internal organs out of the way? A dynamic new exhibition exploring how women’s fashion has shaped American society, and vice versa, gives a Mobius-strip answer. How is that for a silhouette?
The gallery walls of the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum are uncharacteristically colorful these days. They have Inside Out: Women’s Fashion from Foundation to Silhouette to thank. Running through Jan. 5, the fall exhibition serves more than 140 items including padded-shoulder tops, corsets designed for post-surgery recovery, fitness bras, and hand-knit pussyhats. Easily absorbed in under an hour, the show playfully breaks down the evolution of the intimate relationship between American women and their undergarments into small bites. Furniture and intriguing artifacts reinforce the staging.
Organized and curated by the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, Inside Out took more than a decade from concept to fruition and faced a sizable amount of reluctance over “the unmentionables” subject matter.
“There is this kind of dichotomy. We live in a very progressive permissible age. You can turn on the TV and see underwear ads, all kinds of things. On the other hand, we still have this silly idea about underwear,” said Howard Taylor, director of the San Angelo Museum.
“It’s the closest thing to our bodies. It tells so much about our culture, our time, and the individual.”
Flagler Museum is the only Florida venue to welcome the traveling exhibition, which orients viewers through eight chapters of American history from the 1790s to the present and questions the extent to which changing skirt lengths and necklines are the result of perceived roles of women in America.
Didactic panels take off from the Federalist and Victorian times and land on the MTV and contemporary eras. The wall color changes with each period’s introduction and each time capsule suggests this is an ongoing negotiation between freedom and confinement, confidence and insecurity, individuality and belonging.
The inclusion of strange devices such as the “braided-wire bust improvers” (ca. 1890) and “Pomeroy surgical corset” make the first room look like a torture chamber; an effect the Virginia Reel Medley audio track attempts to soften. Specialty corsets like this one make a connection between beauty and health. They were designed for lumbar support, nursing, pregnancy and post-partum healing. This one proclaimed to hold in place a “moveable kidney, prolapsed stomach and other abdominal weaknesses.”
Another corset dating back to 1865 showcases the array of materials involved in enforcing the hourglass figure. Whalebone, we learn, was the raw ingredient of choice for corset boning for decades until whales fell in short supply. The boning in this corset, which features steel and cotton, is actually made of reeds.
If it looks like some of the dresses in this room are left undone, that’s to reveal the substantial layering and intricate mechanisms supporting unrealistic outward appearances. They have been dragged out from under delicate fabrics and left exposed, for all to see.
The second gallery delivers whispers of change. Clockwise, it takes us from the roaring ’20s to the 1940s when women first entered the workforce and served as WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots). On display is an official flying uniform – worn by Doris K. Duren Muise – consisting of slacks, a white shirt, black tie and a fitted waist-length jacket with an adjustable waist band and bellows breast pockets. Women were the first pilots to don what became known as “Ike” jacket, a roomier style designed by General Dwight Eisenhower during World War II for better functionality.
The inclusion of curious objects such as a “Ban the bra” protest button help lighten the mood. We are told the owner of this button took it with him to the Vietnam War. Both survived the war.
Meanwhile, a hint of androgyny is found in the unlikeliest of places: a silk black dinner dress featuring an Art Deco design and stunning beading. This decorative design breaks down the body into geometric planes and would have normally sent our eyeballs in different directions. Instead, they settle on the metallic necktie-like piece at the center.
Dressed up in vibrant hues and daring color-blocking technique, the last room is decisively closer to our time. It pairs up the revolutionary energy of counterculture and feminism that characterized the 1960s with the defiant unapologetic confidence of modern days. The orange walls declaring FDA approval of the pill graduate to a pale rose announcing what we know firsthand: “what goes around, comes around.”
Underwear is something to flaunt, not conceal, this room says. Since joining other pieces of clothing in the light of day, it’s clear that more creative energy was poured into it. Evidence of its enhanced decorative value is the “glow-in-the-dark rave bra” on view. Highly popular in the rave scene of the 1990s, loud pieces like this one made the wearer feel right at home amid laser light shows and turned her into a beacon in a dark room.
An accessory that broadcasts sexual independence doesn’t necessarily grant spectators access. A futuristic corset-style belt featuring padlocks and keys designed by Dolce & Gabbana in 2007 embodies this seeming contradiction. The belt, which appears on a figure-hugging animal print dress by the same fashion house, sets boundaries and flirts with seduction. The woman gets to hold the keys, literally. They are attached to the belt via a chain, giving its owner control over her body.
To those who believe the current decade is devoid of flair and has no specific style other than conscious consumerism and self-absolution fashion, be sure to stop by the sleeveless dress featuring a red-poppy print. It is an identical sample of the dress worn by Michelle Obama to the August 2013 ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Despite its flattering quality and striking bead clusters, this black-and-red floral number by Tracy Reese is better known for fueling the controversy over the former first lady’s bare arms. Unperturbed by public criticism, the fashion-forward former FLOTUS went on to wear similarly bold designs that accentuated her toned guns.
Going back to the initial chicken-or-egg question, Taylor admits he doesn’t really know the answer. External pressures and social movements no doubt play a part, he explains, but then there’s the primal need for courtship.
“The peacocks with the fancy feathers are actually male, you know that? They do that to attract the opposite sex,” he said. “In our world, women are the peacock. They have always, in almost every culture, done things and worn things to conform to male expectations about feminine beauty.”
Inside Out: Women’s Fashion from Foundation to Silhouette runs through Jan. 5 at the Flagler Museum on Palm Beach. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 Sundays. Closed Mondays and holidays. Admission: $18. Call 655-2833 or visit flaglermuseum.us.