Living & Entertainment

From corsets to bullet bras, how fashions have reflected women’s place in society

The museum’s iconic trend setter for the 1920s is jazz singer Adelaide Hall, relaxing here in her beaded gown and dance shoes, 1929.
The museum’s iconic trend setter for the 1920s is jazz singer Adelaide Hall, relaxing here in her beaded gown and dance shoes, 1929. Courtesy of the White River Valley Museum

Over the decades, women have worn corsets that whittled their waists and relocated their ribs. They’ve worn bras that pushed their breasts up or out or even down, and bustles that emphasized their posteriors.

These diverse and sometimes painful efforts are the subject of “Suffer for Beauty” at Auburn’s White River Valley Museum. The exhibit takes a close look at both women’s undergarments and women’s history.

“It’s a fun and interesting way to think about women’s history and gender role history,” said Michelle Marshman, a history professor at Green River College and the exhibit’s co-curator.

The exhibit, which opened in January, is drawing a lot of interest, said museum director Patricia Cosgrove, the other co-curator.

“Women want to see this,” she said. “They want to talk about it. They want to bring their daughters and their grandmothers.

“People go from sort of laughing at how pointy a bullet bra is or how we tied bustles on our back ends to make our derrieres more pronounced to pondering why we did those things,” she added. “My mom went from working at Boeing during World War II to losing her job when the men came back from the war, and then she had to wear the New Look, which required a tiny waist, a pointy bosom, a full skirt, high heels and a string of pearls.”

The exhibit covers (and uncovers) the styles of each decade from the 1890s to the 1970s, with each era represented by a vintage outfit and the undergarments needed to achieve the look, an image of a trendsetter, and photos of Northwest women following the fashions.

In the 1900s, women wore extreme corsets that pushed breasts forward and hips back, creating an S-curve so pronounced that it threw the wearer off balance, making the era’s canes and parasols necessary as well as stylish.

The bust wasn’t raised, however: Because a matronly figure was fashionable, the corset’s shape created a low, wide, rounded bustline known as a “mono-bosom.” (That particular trend hasn’t yet had a revival, though Marshman, for one, thinks it’s about time.)

In the 1970s, the story was very different. “We have this sort of granny dress with a simple empire waist with elastic and all of the undergarments that you could wear with that,” Cosgrove said, “but they all say ‘optional’ except for the underpants.”

It wasn’t just women’s bodies that changed shape over the years, Marshman pointed out: It was their roles, too.

The exaggerated hourglass silhouettes of the corseted era, when women were seen primarily as mothers, gave way to the more androgynous flapper looks of the 1920s, when women challenged the idea that their place was in the home. By the 1950s, traditional gender roles returned with a vengeance, as did the pronounced breasts and small waists of Christian Dior’s New Look.

“Folks are really surprised to get a sense of the connection between gender roles and the clothing that we wear,” Marshman said. “The clothing that we wear reflects our gender, but it also reflects our race and ethnicity and social class.”

This is the museum’s third time mounting an exhibit focused on fashion and foundation garments. The items on display in the current incarnation, most taken from the museum’s own collection, are different from those shown in the exhibits in 1994 and 2009, and the curators have worked hard to find photos that include women of a variety of races, cultures and classes.

People’s responses to the exhibit have changed, too, Cosgrove said — including her own.

“With the #metoo movement, there’s a more straight-talking quality,” she said. “The subject was regarded as way more laughable or titillating in 1994.

“I’ve had the opportunity to be interviewed by lots of people on this subject over the years, and among them were young men,” she said. “The younger the men, the less titillating the subject appeared to be. Society is changing.”

This time around, the curators have added a small exhibit examining ways in which men have suffered for fashion, including collar stays, ties and action figures showing men with disproportionately muscular upper bodies.

“I had to think on it,” Cosgrove said. “My favorite part is a quote from my sweetheart. When he comes home from work in loose jeans and walking shoes, he heads in the bedroom and says, ‘I have to get into something more comfortable.’ ”

Suffer for Beauty

The White River Valley Museum takes a look at the corsets, bras and bustles that shaped women’s bodies and women’s history.

When: Through June 17. The museum is open noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays and 6-8 p.m. the first Thursday of each month.

Where: White River Valley Museum, 918 H St. SE, Auburn

Admission: $5 general admission, $2 for children and seniors. Admission is free on the first Thursday and third Sunday of each month.

More information: 253-288-7433,

Related events

  • “This Victorian Life,” a meeting with Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman of Port Townsend, who’ve fully embraced a 19th-century lifestyle. 2 p.m. Saturday. Free with museum admission. Advance registration is full; if there are empty seats, they’ll be given to the earliest arrivals.
  • Girls Overnight for ages 7-12. 7 p.m. March 23 to 8 a.m. March 24. $35; advance registration required.
  • Curator-led tour. 7 p.m. April 5. Free.
  • “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” a living history performance. 7 p.m. April 25, with exhibit tours beginning at 6 p.m. $20; advance registration required.
  • “A Taste of Women’s History,” lecture and tasting of recipes from the 1908 Washington State Women’s Cookbook. 1 p.m. May 12. $15; advance registration required.