Saturday, January 2, 2010

Underneath it All

"What did they wear... under there?" asks the visitor. The question is tentative and curious, but a little nervous that they are diving into some personal territory. In the process of offering more costumed interpretation at Clermont, I've gotten this question a lot.

It's because much of historic women's clothing requires a complex array of undearwear so dramatically unlike anything worn today. To create the shapes we've become familiar with in historic images or modern movies with historic settings, the shape of a woman's body must be compressed in some places, and enlarged or enhanced in others. Fashion's recent re-discovery of corsets has increased public familiarity with this concept of simple body modification.

So last Independence Day, while Margaret Beekman Livingston was inside the mansion talking about the English army burning her house in 1777, I was outside talking about Revolutionary-era underwear. The one-hour lecture was a hit, and the little knot of spectators grew from five or six to two dozen as the program proceeded. I even spotted a few people jogging across the yard to get over in time to see it!
My favorite moment had to be passing around my 18th century stays (also known as a corset) and watching people bounce them in their hands to test the weight and try to flex and bend them to feel the steel inside.
The success was gratifying, and in response we've put together a three-part lecture series this winter about underwear through the ages: specifically 1770, 1800, and 1880. (Never fear for modern decency standards; historic underwear offers enough coverage that it will conceal a complete compliment of modern summer clothing).

Undergarments throughout history were linked to concepts of hygiene, beauty, and femininity, making them an great way to understand some of the inner workings and very personal histories of American women. The lectures will use a combination of reproduction clothing, period illustrations, and, in the final lecture, a few selections from Clermont's own collections for an educational session on the many layers of historic costuming.
So if you have ever found yourself wondering how a bustle worked or what a steel corset actually looked and felt like, these three winter lectures might be just the Sunday afternoon activity for you.

A detail of the trim on a pair of split knickers in Clermont's collections from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century

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