Underneath It All at the Missouri History Museum
“Let me see your titties” is basically the only lyric sung in Big Boi’s latest single, “She said OK.” While Big Boi’s songs are riddled with references to boobs and butts, his music is only one of the cultural influences that speak to how women’s bodies are viewed by segments of society. Though we often look to movies, music, television, advertisements and other cultural mediums for insight into gender dynamics, it is also relevant to look at what has been holding up these boobs and butts for so long. Whether it is Victoria’s Secret’s Miraculous “increase by two cup sizes” Bra or the nineteenth-century “increase by two cup sizes but cut off circulation to your body” corset, undergarments and their evolution over time often reflect the changing roles of women in society. The Underneath It All exhibit now showing at the Missouri History Museum aims to do just this. Although the exhibit does not show any female skin, probably much to Big Boi’s dismay, it does showcase women’s undergarments from as early as the 1700s to the present day.
The exhibit itself was both compelling and also a bit surprising. Although the exhibition was well curated and offered up both striking and fascinating garments, the Museum missed the mark a bit in its overarching argument. Instead of noting a dramatic difference between the undergarments, I found the core idea behind almost all of the pieces quite similar. I found myself wondering, aren’t Spanx just the updated corset?
The structure of the exhibit was a bit confusing and it was unclear if the viewer should enter to the right or to the left. I chose to go left and, as a result, ended up going backwards in time. Although a bit disappointing, Underneath It All helpfully displayed undergarments in conjunction with outfits that women would wear at the time, further demonstrating the progression of the “ideal” body type for women throughout the centuries. Here are some of the highlights:
1. The exhibit opens (or, it did for me) with modern-day underwear and a Victoria’s Secret advertisement from 2012. Featured styles include the push-up bra, lacy g-strings, nipple covers and body-slimming items such as Spanx and spandex underwear. This first section demonstrates that today, women are meant to have flat stomachs, skinny legs and voluptuous breasts.
2. Next, the nineties and eighties, the time of the powerful working woman, are featured. With looser-fitting undergarments that offer movement along with shoulder pads, it is apparent that comfort and strength were preferred over tiny waists. However, femininity is not forgotten as seen in the lace detailing of the underwear.
3. In the sixties, paper underwear was invented as a marketing gimmick. Surprisingly, the fad actually lasted for a few years until people became aware of the environmental effects of such a product.
4. The sixties and seventies were a time of sexual revolution, when women began to express their sexuality more freely. The Emilio Pucci outfit shows not only a shorter hemline but also a vibrant print, representing a more playful way of looking at undergarments.
5. The thirties and forties offered up a new age of freedom for women with the elasticized corset. Although, by today’s standards, wearing any type of corset would be restricting, the elastic actually offered up a great deal of movement for women compared to the laced corset of previous decades.
6. In the early 1900s, the ideal body of a woman was the hourglass shape. During this time, the smaller the waist, the better. The “S Bend” corset of 1904 was fastened in the front to accentuate the woman’s small midsection and shapely hips.
7. In the 1700s, the woman’s natural shape was completely exaggerated with extremely large petticoats whose hooped lining showed just how small the waist was by putting it next to the woman’s seemingly expansive hips. During this time period, the petticoats grew so big that it was impossible for two women to walk through a doorway at the same time.