THE CORSET'S RISE AND FALL
The corset's profile was first upped in the late Renaissance and remained popular in many forms through the early 20th century.
"It was a pretty essential element of fashionable dress for about 400 years," said assistant curator Colleen Hill, who organized the exhibit.
The corset, which originated within aristocratic court culture and gradually spread throughout society, was all about a slender waist, she said. By the mid-18th century, the desired silhouette was an inverted cone, lifting the breasts with the help of stays crafted out of silk, whalebone or wood.
Decorative center busks were carved, painted and adorned with text or years. They were key in thrusting a woman's posture upright to make the most of the shape the corset was intended to achieve, Hill said.
By the early 19th century, the corset still included a center busk but lacked all-around stays for a more softly structured fit that still encased the body and kept a woman's posture erect.
"It was important for women to have this correct posture," Hill said. "It was essential for fitting into your clothes, for decorum and for modesty."
At the dawn of the 20th century, some corset makers continued to promote their wares as "healthy style," but the designs remained "extremely restricting," she said. Certain designs made a woman appear rigidly straight in front while resulting in a severely arched back.
By 1920, the corset had essentially become a girdle.
THE PEIGNOIR AND LOUNGEWEAR
One late 19th-century article discovered by Hill said American women wore loungewear with a corset underneath while doing morning household chores or preparing for their day.
The corset under a peignoir "is something French women did not do," she said. "I thought that was very interesting because some of these garments were meant to essentially be a reprieve from these really constricting foundation garments like the corset."
By the early 20th century, Hill said, loungewear served more functions. The tea gown developed from the peignoir or dressing gown and was worn during 5 o'clock tea.