Firm foundation for historical underwear

Clark County expert tells how women’s underwear shaped societal roles

By Mary Ann Albright, Columbian Staff Reporter



From the organ-crushing, bust-enhancing corsets of the mid- to late 1700s to the butt-boosting bustles of the late 1800s to the curve-flattening girdles of the 1920s and ’30s, ladies’ undergarments have evolved over centuries as ideals of beauty — and notions about the role of women in and outside of the home — changed.

“Primarily what women’s underwear was meant to do was change women’s shapes to be appealing to whatever area of the woman’s body was preferred by men at that time,” said Yacolt historic costumer and re-enactor Rebecca Morrison-Peck.

If you go

What: “The Politics of Women’s Underwear: 1790-1950,” a lecture by historic costumer Rebecca Morrison-Peck. Her talk is being held in conjunction with the “Road to Equality: The Struggle for Women’s Rights in the Northwest” exhibit that runs through December 2011.

When: 11:30 a.m. Aug. 28.

Where: Clark County Historical Museum, 1511 Main St., Vancouver.

Cost: Free with paid museum admission. Admission is $4; $3 for seniors and college students with identification; $2 for children 6-18; and free for children 5 and younger. Anyone who has been laid off due to the recession will receive free admission to the museum through Aug. 28. The free admission offer is tied to the “Putting People to Work” exhibit. In addition, all active-duty military personnel and their families will receive free admission through Sept. 6.

Information: 360-993-5679, or click here.

Often the support garments used to achieve those shapes were so restrictive that they limited women’s mobility and even jeopardized their health.

“Women were confined by their clothes for many years,” Morrison-Peck said. “They were kept in a position where they couldn’t do much for themselves. That, sadly, evolved into the idea that women were decorative only. They don’t have anything to offer.”

Morrison-Peck, 58, has been studying and reproducing historic clothing for about 40 years. She’s especially interested in women’s undergarments, as they lay the foundation for historically accurate re-enactments and reproductions.

“In order to wear the clothes, you have to have the same undergarment supports that they wore,” she said. “If you have a Civil War dress and you don’t have a hoop skirt under it, it’s not going to look the way it was intended.”

Morrison-Peck gives educational presentations on the topic of historic clothing to schools, women’s groups and museums. On Aug. 28, she’ll give a lecture at the Clark County Historical Museum delving into the politics of women’s underwear from 1790 to 1950.

Morrison-Peck’s talk is tied to the museum’s ongoing exhibit, “Road to Equality: The Struggle for Women’s Rights in the Northwest.”

The link between underwear and women’s rights isn’t obvious to everyone, but it’s important to explore, said Susan Tissot, executive director of the museum.

“People, when they hear the title of the lecture, have been chuckling to themselves, thinking it’s kind of funny, and it is, but it’s also serious,” Tissot said. “There are political issues related to the design of women’s clothing, especially undergarments.”

Morrison-Peck has three bright pink suitcases filled with vintage and reproduction undergarments from the late 1700s to the mid-1900s that she brings with her when giving lectures.

She begins her talks with a reproduction corset she made in the style of those worn at the end of the 18th century. Corsets at that time aimed to narrow the waist and boost the breasts.

Hers is made with plastic-covered steel boning, but the originals would have used whale bone or cane. The rigid boning is spaced just a quarter of an inch apart.

“When you put this on and lace it up as tight as it needs to be, it’s like having a steel cage around you,” Morrison-Peck said.

A long, rigid piece called a busk that ran the length of the front of the corset made it even more difficult to breathe, much less bend and move. Men and children also wore corsets, but theirs were much less restrictive.

One step forward, two steps back

The early 1800s saw the rise of the Regency corset, a lighter and more comfortable undergarment made with cotton cording instead of rigid boning. This allowed women more freedom of mobility, but those gains were short-lived.

In 1837, Queen Victoria took the throne in the United Kingdom, ushering in a reign of strict morals. With Victorian morality came the return of restrictive corsets. Corsets in the late 1800s were even longer than their late-1700s counterparts. They extended past the waist to the hips and thighs, making even sitting difficult.

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Morrison-Peck has worn Victorian-style corsets twice and said she barely lived to tell the tale.

“It nearly killed me,” she said. “No wonder (women) were fainting all the time. They couldn’t get a full breath.”

Women also were hamstrung by the cage crinolines, or hoop skirts, in vogue in the mid-1800s. They were not only uncomfortable but also dangerous, as they caught fire easily and were prone to getting trapped in machinery.

“Women were literally dying for fashion,” Morrison-Peck said.

Around 1870, hoop skirts transitioned into bustles, designed to augment the rear as opposed to the hips. The preferred size of bustles varied over the next few decades. By 1880, they were large enough to support a tea tray. In the 1890s, they shrank significantly.

Always evolving, fashion trends shifted again around the turn of the 20th century. Corsets, for example, became shorter and lighter. They had straps and ended just under the bust. By the 1920s and ’30s, these corsets had morphed into the early bra.

The first bras were light and had no padding because women at the time wanted to achieve a flat, boyish figure. Girdles were used to constrain women’s hips during the flapper era.

Boyish figures weren’t in vogue for long, though. By 1950, women were wearing conical bras and stiffened petticoats to emphasize their busts and hips.

Morrison-Peck’s lecture doesn’t extend beyond the 1950s, but she can’t help but think about the state of women’s clothing and underwear today. Although women are no longer endangered or limited by their apparel, many still do dress for men, she said.

Today, many women wear items skimpier than vintage underwear as outwear, “but it’s still based on men’s reactions,” Morrison-Peck said. “It’s to say, ‘We’re liberated, we’re free, we can wear as much or as little as we want, and you have to deal with it.’”

Mary Ann Albright:, 360-735-4507.