Excursions: Historic Fashion, The Inside Story
The inventor of the loincloth may have been the first homo sapien to get TMI. Undergarments have been shaping the truth ever since.
Bodies never change, but since fashion silhouettes do with great frequency, it falls to underwear to make things right—to cinch the bits that bulge and puff the ones that look deflated. Kjirsten Gustavson, director of education at Clermont, has been pondering this topic ever since she did her thesis on “Corsetry and Adolescence in the 19th Century,” while studying for an MA in History Museum Studies at SUNY Cooperstown. Now she will give a series of three Sunday afternoon lectures, accompanied by illustrative slides and elaborately-reproduced costumes (many of which she makes herself), dubbed, “UnderWhere?” Curiously, the lectures will be conducted in Clermont’s kitchen.
On January 31, Gustavson begins her talks, not with the loincloth, but with the under garments of the 1740s (above left)— just about the time that Clermont, the estate established in 1728 by Robert Livingston, Jr. on 13,000 acres he’d inherited from his father, would have been fit for the sort of ladies who concerned themselves with such things. We’ll find out the difference between corsets and stays, pass around the bum roll, and learn the alarming truth about 18th-century bathing.
“There wasn’t a strong feeling that it was necessary to immerse the entire body in water,” Gustavson says. “It wasn’t considered the only way to get clean. Clean undergarments were thought to be far more important in removing the filth from your body than actually using water. The purpose of the undergarment was to absorb whatever filth a woman may have dispersed, and to keep it off of her outer clothing.”
Then on February 28, we return to the Clermont kitchen to learn about the fashion of the Empire era (right and above right), a period made familiar by countless Jane Austin films, when women’s fashion radically changed.
“Earlier in the 18th century, fashion was limited to the elites,” Gustavson says. “Then major changes in textile production allowed a broader range of women to participate. The Empire era (also called the Federal or Regency period, depending on what country you were in) was more democratic.” It also must have been liberating to be freed from the constraints of corsetry, although Gustavson maintains that, “French women were more willing to give up their corsets than American or English women. Giving up those products is hard for many women. If you’ve been wearing them all your life, you can feel unclothed without them. Besides, they enforce good posture, which was another way of announcing your elite status.”
The final talk, on March 28, concerns the underwear of the late Victorian era, ending in 1880, which was renowned for its elaborate body-shapers—corsets, bustles, bust improvers. By this time, mass-produced undergarments had become widely available. “Thanks to the industrial revolution, women’s underwear became more fanciful and decorative.”
Clermont State Historic Site
One Clermont Avenue
Germantown, NY; 518.537.4240
January 31, February 28 & March 28; 2 p.m.
Admission: $5/adults, free/children 12 and under; reservations recommended