A new mini-exhibit at the Clarke Historical Museum in Eureka takes a look at Victorian-era underwear.
“Underpinnings” – set up in the museum’s Victorian room – showcases a variety of historical undergarments that might have been worn by women of the time.
“This exhibition was (originally) created for Valentine’s Day. We were inspired by the holidays to release period lingerie,” said Clarke intern Emily Price, who designed the exhibit using clothing from the late Victorian era (1895 to 1901). from the museum’s collection, with registrar Alex Cox.
“Currently on display are two corset covers, one set of jumpsuits, a waist cincher, two bust supports (similar to a bra), a pair of slit drawers and a jersey long johns top,” Price said.
“There were many layers to the Victorian underpinnings,” she noted, “but each layer had a purpose. Corsets could not be worn directly against the skin as they scuffed and could not really be washed. …Also, the corset could sometimes be visible through the bodice, so a corset cover was needed to hide that. As a result, you end up with three base layers on average: shirt and briefs, corset, corset cover. It sounds like a lot, but each layer was made of lightweight, breathable fabric. All layers provided protection. Victorian clothing could be adjusted to be ventilated in the summer and insulating in the winter.
The undergarments of old – which could also include parts such as hip pads, petticoats and stockings – also protected the outer garments from wear and tear.
“Many fancier dresses and corsets were never intended to be washed. The materials used would be damaged by the washing process. Wearing layers between the skin, corset and dress prevented non-washable items from get dirty,” Price said.
Although there are some differences between the underwear of today and the underwear of yesteryear, some things remain the same.
“Victorians liked to buy items by post, just as we do today. Any underwear a woman might need could be purchased through catalogs and advertisements. Sears catalogs, Ladies Home Journal and others all sold women’s underwear. It is likely that the two corset covers on display, which resemble tank tops, were mail-order pieces. They have identical construction but different embroidery styles,” Price said. “In the early days of settlement in Humboldt County, mail-order items were popular. They would have been shipped from San Francisco.
Price added: “Underwear was a way for women to express their femininity with fancy embroidery and intricate lace, but it was also utilitarian. Just like today, Victorian women liked to wear pretty, delicate underwear, but didn’t really expect them to last for generations.
For more information on the Clarke Historical Museum, located at 240 E St. in Eureka, visit http://www.clarkemuseum.org or call 707-443-1947.