Meredith Holt, Published February 07 2013
VIDEO: ‘Happy Hour’ exposes evolution of women’s undergarments
Chances are, no more than five minutes.
You step into your underwear, put on a bra, and throw on pants and a top.
Pre-1900, women didn’t have it so easy.
On average, it took 30 to 40 minutes to get dressed in about 20 pounds of clothing, says Amy Degerstrom, executive director of the Becker County Historical Society here.
Tonight, while dads take their daughters to the Sweetheart Dance at the Historic Holmes Theatre next door, the Becker County Museum kicks off the new monthly series “Hidden History Happy Hour.”
“Everybody has time for happy hour, right? It will be a way to combine a social atmosphere with learning some history that you wouldn’t talk about in ‘polite society,’ ” Degerstrom says.
Guests can eat, drink and browse the museum. Around 7:30, she’ll give a presentation on how women’s underthings changed along with fashion, culture and society from the late 1800s through the 1950s.
All the pieces featured tonight came from Becker County residents. They include wool stockings, union suits, petticoats, side-button skivvies and “open-center” bloomers.
The open-center (OK, crotchless) bloomers were made for practicality. Women typically wore a chemise, a corset, a petticoat, a hoop skirt, an over-petticoat and finally, a dress.
“There’s no way you could pull down bloomers,” Degerstrom says.
Ann Braaten, curator of the Emily P. Reynolds Historic Costume Collection at North Dakota State University, recalls reading about the airy undies in novels and historical documents.
“How incredibly embarrassing that must have been, if women took a real tumble, because it exposed them in a way that nobody wants to be shown,” she says.
Long before the days of Spanx, women forced themselves into ridiculously tiny corsets with the goal of a 16- to 20-inch waist.
Everyone wore them, Degerstrom says, including factory workers, servants and farm wives, though they’d typically reserve them for Sundays.
She says girls started wearing “stays,” or training corsets, at as young as 3 years old. They switched to the really tight, boned corsets around ages 8-10, right before hitting puberty.
“In order to get that hourglass shape, your body literally had to grow that way,” she says.
Degerstrom says the strict “rules” of corsetry were likely loosened a little sooner in Detroit Lakes than in places like New York City, where women were more fashion-conscious.
The extreme look didn’t come without a price.
Because corsets were worn continuously from such a young age, women’s organs were pushed up or down, their ribs didn’t grow properly and their lungs didn’t develop fully.
“They literally couldn’t take a deep breath because they didn’t have the lung capacity,” Degerstrom says.
Women could barely eat or drink while wearing them, they fainted regularly, and miscarriages and stillbirths were common.
“They didn’t have the capacity for delivery because they didn’t have muscles in the center of their bodies,” she says.
Some became so dependent on their corsets they couldn’t go without them.
“Women were considered to be the ‘fairer’ or weaker sex, in part because they had diminished lung capacity and all these other issues,” says Braaten, an assistant professor in NDSU’s Department of Apparel, Design and Hospitality Management.
Degerstrom says it wasn’t until 1890-1900 that doctors started to realize that women’s undergarments were contributing to their health problems.
“Male doctors wouldn’t actually examine women. They would talk to them and hear what they were feeling, but the actual idea of a physical exam wasn’t really common,” she says.
Women caught a break starting in the 1910s and ’20s. The style du jour was a more relaxed, boxier shape that draped from the shoulders (think flapper dress).
“You could get away with having less-restrictive undergarments,” Degerstrom says.
Various versions of the bra as we know it came and went before the Roaring ’20s.
“That’s when bras become more widely accepted, starting in the ’20s. In the ’30s, that’s when you began to see them become part of everyday fashion,” Braaten says.
Around the same time, “power stretch” was introduced, revolutionizing design.
“The idea was that the garment itself would stretch enough, it would have enough ‘give’ or ease, that it would fit over the hips but then be tight at the waist and hold everything in,” she says.
During the postwar baby boom, lingerie became less practical and more for show.
Braaten says the styles shifted after women were largely pushed out of the workforce in the 1950s to free up their jobs for returning soldiers.
“Society responded by creating very feminine fashions. Then we went back to that cinched-in waist and prominent bustline,” she says.
Throughout history, women’s bodies have been treated as moldable – made of flesh that can be shaped to fit the style of the time.
“We have a very ‘plastic’ way of looking at the body,” Braaten says. “It changes with fashion.”
If you go
• What: “Hidden History Happy Hour” on “What’s Under That Dress? The Ins and Outs of Women’s Undergarments”
• When: 7 to 9 tonight
• Where: Becker County Museum, 714 Summit Ave., Detroit Lakes, Minn.
• Info: Tickets cost $10 in advance or $12 at the door. Price includes a drink and refreshments. Cash bar. Call (218) 847-2938 to reserve tickets.
• Online: Becker County Historical Society: www.beckercountyhistory.org
Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590