‘Victorian Secrets’: Changing shapes for changing times

New exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum explores hidden garments in history.

The museum displayed a range of changing women's undergarment fashions throughout the 1800s. — Photo by Siobhan Beasley

This month the Martha’s Vineyard Museum is baring all, and putting women’s underwear on full display. Underwear from the 19th century, that is. In an exhibit titled “Victorian Secrets: Hidden Garments of the 19th Century,” a selection of undergarments worn 200 years ago show just how much intimate apparel has evolved. At that time, women’s undergarments were so constricting that they literally changed the shape of women’s bodies, often minimizing the waist and maximizing the bust. While many of us still long for a similar silhouette, we’ve come to adapt more comfortable practices.

The Spanx of the 19th century were anything but comfortable, and from modern-day perspective appear anything but practical as well.

The exhibit, inspired by the discovery of the garments in museum archives, seemed fitting for a Valentine’s Day weekend opening. “Victorian Secrets” sits in a gallery room on the other side of the museum’s “SeaChange: MV in the 1960s” exhibit, and includes several display cases and wall plaques, along with six dress forms showcasing the changing trends in women’s undergarments throughout the 1800s.

Oh, how far we’ve come.

Until the turn of the 19th century, petticoats were the thing, worn customarily both as underwear and as fashion pieces in their own right, when displayed via an opening in women’s skirts. At that time corsets were worn to flatten the chest, a look that would drastically change a hundred years later.

Styles loosened early in the 19th century, when petticoats and stiff corsets were replaced with looser chemises or shifts, creating a simple silhouette inspired by a revival of interest in classical art and culture.

Soon dramatic petticoats returned, and in several layers, sometimes as many as a dozen, to create fuller skirts in efforts to achieve the desired bell shape of the time.

By the mid-19th century it wasn’t uncommon for women to wear a cage crinoline, or hoop skirt, in lieu of heavier petticoats to achieve the same bell shape.

In the 1870s crinolines were replaced with bustles that gave women an exaggerated behind. The skirt changed from the shape of a bell to a flat front and voluminous back, while a corset on top created a cinched waist and larger bust.

Thankfully, by the early 20th century the small-waisted, full-hipped look was progressing toward a healthier silhouette. The rigid materials of corsets, including whalebone, were replaced with more cotton and elastic.

I can’t help but appreciate how easy we women have it today. “Victorian Secrets” does a great job showcasing the changing times and how fashion in women’s undergarments reflect that. Hopefully history doesn’t repeat itself.

“Victorian Secrets: Hidden Garments of the 19th Century” will be open through May 25 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.