Friday, 5 June 2015

EXHIBITING UNMENTIONABLES: LET'S LOOK AT LINGERIE

SEW WHAT?

BY: ANYA BAKER

A few weeks ago, Musings's own Historic Kitchen writer, Leah Moncada, requested I do a post on lingerie. It's your lucky day, Leah, because I have been scheming about underthings for a year, and finally found a way to spin it from a museum perspective.

I was going to title this post "TOO HOT FOR MUSINGS: LINGERIE AT LAST," to emphasize the strange feeling of voyeurism and scandal that exhibiting lingerie seems to encourage and capitalize on, and maybe ensnare a couple new readers who were not expecting an academic blog post.

But then, I felt a little prudish all of a sudden. I was struck with doubt: is this a serious enough subject? Should I really be writing about underwear on my faculty's blog? Is this going to haunt what shows up when people Google me, and tarnish my academic credibility?

So I toned down the title a little. In doing so, I caved to the exact kind of anxieties that surround the exhibition of lingerie.

I want to start with a discovery that redefined what we know about the underpants of the past: medieval "breast bags".

Photograph of a dummy form with a torn bra on it.
Longline breast-bags, 14th century. Image credit and copyright: Beatrix Nutz.
Scholars assumed, due to only vague references from medieval texts, that women wore a chemise and maybe some kind of breast band, similar to the kind worn in antiquity by Greek and Roman women. When a waste-vault full of textiles and leather shoes was found during a renovation of Lengberg Castle in Austria in 2008, scholars were shocked by the finding of four 14th-century undergarments. All the vague textual references made a lot more sense: the "indecent" breast bags everyone was talking about were bras! They even have delicate lace adorning them, like the lingerie of today. According to Beatrix Nutz's HistoryExtra article on the breast bags, the medieval world was scandalized by women who enhanced their chests with supportive undergarments--women definitely wore them, as evidenced by the specimens preserved in the waste-vault, but society was much more accepting of the minimizing qualities of a breast band.

Medieval women were obviously not exhibiting their undergarments to the neighbourhood, but even the suggestion that they were wearing any was enough to cause a stir.

Imagine taking one of the medieval opponents of breast bags to an exhibit like the Museum at FIT's 2014 show "Exposed: A History of Lingerie".

This show revels in the scandal and allure that the suggestion of lingerie evokes. They were even brave enough to put a really overt pun in their title. If the exhibition of the supportive effects of a bra were enough to offend some medieval writers, what would they say to all this:

Colour photograph of a black lace bustier.
Lady Marlene bustier, 1988. Image credit: Museum at FIT.
I'm actually guessing they would be hugely confused by the whole exhibition process. The exhibit, after all, is really pushing the "scandalous content ahead!" angle; it's almost enough to make you suspicious that you're being oversold on something that isn't as sinfully alluring as you were led to believe. It's like being told in school "don't tell anyone, but we're going to have FUN this class, kids!" and then being made to listen to math raps; the educational and academic intents of the exhibition become obvious only after you've been drawn in by the promise of breaking some rules.

It reminds me of some exhibit design I've been doing lately. I am interning at a small museum in a hospital this summer, and in preparing a display of medical instruments, my supervisor made sure to mount them in a shadow box before putting them in the display case. Her rationale was that they looked threatening and ready for use if just laid out on the shelf or worse, on a little mounting tray. In the shadow box, they were controlled and decontextualized. The shadow box literally reframes the collection as something else: a display object, appropriate and safe for public viewing.

Without a body inside of it, or stuck on a disembodied torso, is lingerie really that scandalous? If it's not in use, things like design and the engineering of all the boning and seams starts to stand out when you line up a bunch of lingerie in chronological order. It kind of de-mistifies the whole concept.

Too hot for exhibition? Or shameless razzle-dazzle to keep prosaic garments taboo enough to make money off their display? Have I made you blush?

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post Anya! I have recently been fascinated in how lingerie can give us an insight into the attitudes both *towards* women and *of* women throughout the social landscapes of history. As for the interesting points you raise at the end, I will have to think more on this. My first thought is that creating a 'razzle-dazzle', and pushing a notion of taboo onto women's (under)garments, only reinforces many of the negative connotations towards women's bodies (in any state of dress) that a museum exhibit on lingerie has the potential to instead break down, or present in a much more body-positive tone. Acknowledging and exposing attitudes to women's lingerie in the Middle Ages is interesting. But imposing those scandalous perspectives through interpretive material and messaging is not necessarily appropriate in an exhibit when in today's society we are still trying to break free from those attitudes. I would be interested to hear more perspectives. You have raised a great topic here, thank you for an intriguing post!

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