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Unmentionables Get Mentioned at Underwear Exhibit

April 11, 1991

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ A century of brassieres and bustiers, crinolines and camisoles, union suits and Jockey shorts has been uncovered so everyone can get a good look.

″Mention the Unmentionables: 100 Years of Underwear,″ at the University of Minnesota’s Goldstein Gallery through June 27, traces how what we wear underneath has reflected status and freedom, particularly for women.

″Underwear has been overlooked, but when you take it out from underneath, you see the values of society are reflected,″ said Sharon Sidenbender, a student curator.

The exhibit exposes the naughtiness of Frederick’s of Hollywood and the sensuality of Victoria’s Secret. It offers a peek at Jockey’s line for men. It’s laced with humor and history through ads and cartoons alongside underwear-clad mannequins.

From the World War II era, there’s a stars-and-stripes bra and girdle prototype designed in 1941 but never mass-produced.

A longline strapless bra of black nylon and lace over fuchsia satin becomes more interesting when you learn the merry widow undergarment was marketed by Warner’s when the movie ″Merry Widow″ starring Lana Turner came out in 1952.

Turner hated the garment. ″I’m telling you, the merry widow was designed by a man. A woman would never do that to another woman,″ Turner she said in 1989.

″Most bras today are still designed by men,″ said Kathryn Johnson, the show’s consulting guest curator and former director of design and development for Vassarette Inc., a major lingerie manufacturer.

The show traces the evolution of underthings from a 1890s fine cotton chemise covered by a corset to a 1990s floral print camisole bra and tap pants.

As women gained increasing equality between 1890 and 1915, open-crotch drawers bedecked with ribbons, lace and ruffles came into vogue.

″It must have been what made a woman feel feminine,″ said gallery director Marla Berns.

The first brassiere to show a clear separation between the breasts, made of two handkerchiefs and baby ribbon, came in 1913. But it wasn’t until 1927 that the modern bra with actual cup support was patented by Maidenform. Women had to wait until 1935 for bras to be produced in a variety of cup sizes.

The exhibit chronicles the advent of silk underwear in the 1920s, the invention of panties for the sports-oriented woman of the 1930s, the longline strapless bra of the 1950s and the lightweight panty girdle of the 1960s.

It shows how women were freed from girdles in the late ’60s with the advent of pantyhose. And how in the ’80s, women’s underwear gained acceptability as outerwear as Madonna and Cher cavorted on stage in their unmentionables.

Men’s underwear hasn’t changed much in the past century, except for some new colors, patterns and fibers.

″That men’s styles have remained relatively constant reflects the dynamics of their social roles and identities over time,″ according to the exhibit commentary.

The dramatic changes in women’s underwear have mirrored their changing role in society, exhibit organizers said.

But perhaps, they said, not that much has changed after all.

″One of the points we’re making is women may not be wearing undergarments that push them around anymore, but there’s a pressure to keep their bodies in such good shape that they don’t need to be pushed around,″ said Berns.

″There’s an argument that this is an equal self-constraint.″

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