Exhibit reveals 62-year-old underwear

By Lisa Schulz

Mannequins stand tall and confident in antique lingerie, luring Michigan Avenue passers-by to sneak a peek through dressing room blinds to ogle a skin-deep selection of historic apparel offered by the Fashion Studies Collection.

“Undressed: Women’s Unmentionables of the 1950s and ’60s” will be on display until March 1 in the first floor lobby of the 618 S. Michigan Ave. Building. Girdles, slips, bras, skirts, corsets, dresses and outerwear portray the transition of female fashion post-World War II and explains the progression into modern society.

“When you study fashion history or just broad history, sometimes people think it has to be deadly, like you have to memorize treaty dates only,” said Frank Lipo, executive director at the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest. “But any era of history has fun, has real-life people and real stories behind it.”

Undergarments used to shape figures in the 1950s, mimicking the fashion of the 19th century. They were “vilified as unhealthy and oppressive,” according to the exhibit’s displayed background description.

Contributions to the exhibit included clothing donated by Columbia faculty, staff, the public and residents of Oak Park and River Forest. The Fashion Studies Collection provided the majority of the display from its 6,000-piece collection containing clothing from historical eras, designer brands and international creations, said Kendra Hay, special event coordinator of the Fashion Studies Department.

Men’s clothing is more challenging from a logistical standpoint because the collection only has female forms, Hay said.

“That’s not to say that we won’t do that,” she said. “It’s just something we’d have to give a lot more thought to doing. But yes, we do have quite a bit of menswear and military wear that is actually pretty fantastic.”

The revolution in women’s fashion is accurately portrayed in this particular time period, said Jasmine McCoy, sophomore fashion studies major. With the exhibit’s presentation through blinds, only a glimpse of the fashion is offered rather than full exposure, creating an inclination to see more, she said.

“It’s a large variety of different styles of the 1950s and ’60s,” McCoy said. “A little more color would be nice, but I don’t think during that time they wore that

much color.”

These outfits can be found at the Fashion Columbia Study Collection, which is kept in low storage temperature with 45 percent humidity to avoid mold and deterioration, Hay said.

Though clothing is carefully maintained, it’s “not going to last for all eternity, but it’s not meant to,” she said.

Fading of the fabric shouldn’t occur during the course of four-and-a-half weeks in the winter sun, Hay said. Photos of the collection were taken to compare any color changes. The display windows contain high-quality UV ray protection, and exposure to sunlight can be controlled with adjustable blinds, that double as decoration, she said.

“The undergarments sort of naturally presented themselves,” Hay said. “I think it’s that—and you may have observed it—the slight hesitation followed by a little bit of curiosity that draws people a little close to the window to really peer up those blinds and take a peek to see exactly what it is.”

In addition to clothing, the collection includes more than 3,000 periodicals, photos and historical documents on fashion, Hay said.

The opportunity to examine and explore the collection is offered hands-on to the public for free, she said.

Displaying designer clothing of the time period from the collection might draw more attention to the exhibit, said Teen Vini, senior fashion studies major.

Even though there’s a poster explaining historical context of each garment, the story doesn’t translate into its display, she said. More fashion history is to come March 1, when paper dresses inspired by designs of 1881 will take the place of the unmentionables, Hay said.

“If you’re just going to lock everything away and no one can ever see it unless they’re wearing gloves and it’s in the dark, then how are you really going to share this with the world?” Lipo said. “How are you ever going to learn from anything?”